In much of the reporting on Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, a great deal has been made of the involvement of the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit run by billionaire capitalist Yevgeny Prigozhin. Indeed, the scale of mercenary involvement in Russia’s Ukraine war has been so great that it has “completely erased the boundary between mercenary groups, regular troops, and ‘volunteers’”, according to the Russian opposition website Meduza. 

Less discussed is the scale of mercenary involvement in Western militaries, most significantly that of the United States. Russia has Wagner, but the US has Amentum, L3Harris and Constellis—formerly known as Blackwater.

The blurring of the lines between private armies and the rest of the war machine has been a feature of the post-Cold War years. With vast reserves of material suddenly available, former military personnel and weapons went to the highest bidder, as documented by P. W. Singer in his 2002 book Corporate Warriors. The result has been the fastest growth in private military companies since the days of the British East India Company. 

As the United States launched its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the involvement and role of private military companies expanded. Rather than US soldiers guarding military bases, it was mercenaries from Blackwater or the UK firm AEGIS. US mercenaries organised much of the logistics of the occupations—from catering to telecommunications to bodyguards for the collaborationist president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. 

At the height of the occupation of Afghanistan, US “security contractors” made up over 60 percent of the occupying forces, according to 2009 Congressional Research Service estimates. 

Just as the Wagner group has committed war crimes in Ukraine and everywhere else it has operated, US mercenaries have abused and slaughtered civilians with impunity. The most infamous cases came during the US occupation of Iraq. 

On 7 February 2007, as reported in the Washington Post, a Blackwater sniper deployed on the roof of the Iraqi Justice Ministry building gunned down three Iraqi security guards working for the Iraqi Media Network, a state-owned television channel. While Blackwater claimed that the shootings were in self-defence, workers at the TV station disputed this; Iraqi police called it an “act of terrorism.” 

Among the three dead men was a father responsible for seventeen children, including those of his brother, who had died during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. When the Iraqi Media Network director contacted the US military about the incident, he reportedly was told that the military “had no information”. 

Blackwater’s reputation was cemented by the Nisour Square massacre, which took place in Baghdad seven months later. At a Blackwater roadblock, mercenaries opened fire on a slow-moving vehicle using machine guns and grenade launchers. Seventeen civilians were killed, including many bystanders. The scale of the atrocity was such that the US military revoked Blackwater’s licence to operate in the country and eventually brought charges against some of those involved—though Donald Trump pardoned those convicted as one of his last acts as president in 2020. 

US mercenaries were also implicated in the heinous scenes of torture and sexual abuse carried out at the Abu Ghraib prison, in which suspected enemy combatants were stripped, smeared in shit, raped, hooded and electrocuted. While US soldiers were held accountable to some degree, none of the mercenaries who took part in one-third of “documented incidents” were, according to Singer in his 2005 book Outsourcing War

Jean Richter, when investigating Blackwater for the US State Department, was told by Daniel Carroll, the company’s Iraq project manager, “that he could kill me at that very moment, and no one could or would do anything about it”, according to a report in the New York Times

Far from holding Blackwater or other mercenaries accountable, the US military has consistently sought to cover up their crimes. Paul Bremer, the head of the US occupation of Iraq from March 2003 until June 2004, provided mercenaries immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Bremer had been under the protection of Blackwater mercenaries during his tenure. 

The billionaire owners of Western military companies are just as unscrupulous as Yevgeny Prigozhin. The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, inherited his wealth from his father, a factory owner. While Blackwater mercenaries were killing and dying in Iraq and elsewhere, Prince paid himself an annual salary of over US$1 million, according to his congressional testimony in 2007. Prince has since sold his services to the United Arab Emirates and the Chinese government.

Wagner is not the first mercenary outfit we’ve seen in the wars of the twenty-first century, and it will not be the last.