Last Wednesday afternoon, amid news that Blackwater USA security contractors had killed 11 Iraqi civilians and wounded 12 others in a Baghdad firefight, members of the antiwar group Code Pink gathered outside the Washington office of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group that represents a who's who of the private military industry. There to greet them when they arrived was Doug Brooks, the IPOA's founder and president, who'd been tipped off to the protest earlier that day by an anonymous caller. "He was on the street with an assistant with an armful of IPOA magazines," said Code Pink's Gael Murphy, who heads the group's Washington office. "He had a smile on his face the entire time as though it were some kind of industry expo day, and he kept [smiling], even as we were asking him about some pretty dreadful matters." Brooks spent about an hour fielding questions and even escorted some of the protesters upstairs to see his office. I asked Murphy if Brooks had managed to change any minds. "No," she said. "We were not fooled just because [Blackwater] has a network to cover themthat they're somehow more legitimate than they were the day of the killings."
Doug Brooks tells a different story. The day after the protest I met him at a bar near his office. He wore a dark suit and wire-frame glasses. "I think we developed some fans," he said, still smiling. "One guy, for example, said, 'I don't like the concept, but I guess if we're going to have companies doing this stuff, we need this kind of organization doing the oversight.'" Brooks seemed energized by the experience, which, despite its being a protest, he treated as an opportunity to convert the opposition. "Their questions were really good," he continued. "We gave them paperwork. We gave them journals. A couple of them even took away IPOA pins." He pulled one from his bag and placed it in my hand. It bore the image of a sleeping lion, the IPOA's logo. "Just got a new batch in," he said.
The son of a history professor, Brooks grew up in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. "God's country," he says. Although he's lived in Washington for much of the past decade, he retains a disarming Midwestern charm, a quality he deploys to great advantage as the friendly, public face of a secretive, multibillion dollar business.
His organization currently represents 42 companiesamong them, Blackwater, DynCorp, and MPRIthat belong to what Brooks describes as the "peace and stability industry." The IPOA's mission, according to its website, is "to promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the Peace and Stability Industry; to engage in a constructive dialogue with policy-makers about the growing and positive contribution of these firms to the enhancement of international peace, development, and human security; and to inform the concerned public about the activities and role of the industry."
The latter had consumed most of Brooks' time over the past week as he gave close to 40 interviews in three days to reporters seeking comment on Blackwater's Baghdad shoot-out. Wasn't he uncomfortable being the private military industry's unofficial spokesman when one of its most prominent players stood accused of murdering civilians? "No, not at all," Brooks said. "What it's given us the chance to do is get out the point of what IPOA is about, to paint a larger picture, put it in context. Yes, we do have contractors working around the world, doing stuff that's dangerous. Sometimes they're armed, and sometimes innocent people get killed."
Brooks first became intrigued by private military contractors as a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, where he indulged his childhood interest in military history by studying Vietnam and Southeast Asian security. Realizing he was "writing papers that could have been written 20 years earlier," he soon tired of the subject. It was then that he began reading newspaper articles about Executive Outcomes, a private mercenary company operating in Africa. He changed his academic focus and, shortly thereafter, managed to win a fellowship to the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he began churning out papers extolling the promise of "private military companies"a controversial term he has since abandonedand their potential use in international peacekeeping operations.
Executive Outcomes is widely considered to be the forebearer of the modern private military industry. Founded in 1989 by former members of the Apartheid-era South African Defense Force, the company, working on contract for various embattled African governments, fought bush wars throughout the continent for much of the next decade, most notably in Angola and Sierra Leone, where they orchestrated the defeat of anti-government forces allegedly in exchange for diamond and oil concessions. Despite its success on the battlefield, the Pretoria-based company was forced to shut down in 1999 with the passage of an anti-mercenary law by the South African government. The negative stereotype it left behindthat of white soldiers-for-hire attacking impoverished black rebels in order to plunder the host country's natural resourcesis one the industry has been trying to escape ever since.
Brooks doesn't shy away from Executive Outcomes' controversial legacy. While he says that Executive Outcomes-style offensive operations no longer have a place in the industry"none of the companies do it"he credits the company with saving thousands of lives in Sierra Leone and even points to it as a model for the future of international peacekeeping. In 2000, while conducting field research for his doctorate, Brooks traveled to Sierra Leone, where he stayed in the capital city of Freetown with a South African helicopter pilot and former Executive Outcomes operator named Neall Ellis. "He was hired by the Sierra Leonean military to fly their Mi-24 helicopter gunship," Brooks told me. "For months, he was the only thing between the RUF"a rebel faction"and Freetown. Neall had the most amazing intelligence network in the world, so he knew where the RUF were. So he'd go out there and shoot them up wherever they were advancing on Freetown. Well, one day, one of his engines went out. It took months to get a replacement, to get the right part. Meantime, the RUF marched right through the peacekeeper lines. January 6, 1999, they marched into Freetown. Ten thousand people killed. One guy, one helicopter."