The news: Four American security contractors working for the infamous Blackwater private military company were finally convicted for their role in the Sept. 16, 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
During the incident, Blackwater personnel killed 14, including young children, and wounded 17 in what prosecutors alleged was a false panic triggered by fears of an approaching car-bomb. Lawyers representing the guards described the attack as an act of self-defense.
CNN reports that each of the four contractors involved were found guilty of multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and firearms offenses. The Blackwater sniper that fired the first shot, 35-year-old Texan Paul Slough, was found guilty of first-degree murder. Prosecutors said that even as the team stopped firing, Slough continued shooting at unarmed Iraqi civilians. All will likely receive long sentences.
The background: In Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater was contracted to provide operational support, security and other services for the U.S. military, which lacked the personnel to perform all of those jobs itself. In 2007, there were up to 180,000 contractors working in Iraq alone, compared to 170,000 U.S. troops; journalist Jeremy Scahill called Blackwater the world's most powerful mercenary army.
Blackwater itself might not be fretting: It renamed itself Xe Services in 2009 and then began operating under the name Academi since 2011. But whatever it's calling itself now, the PMC's track record in Iraq has been riddled with controversy and allegations of serious violations of human rights.
During both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater staff were accused of everything from tax-dodging, fraud and carrying illegal firearms to assassinations, arms-smuggling and massive incompetence. In 2010, Wired's Nathan Hodge compared the company's armed guards to South Park's Eric Cartman and noted employees of its subsidiary Paravant were accused of "indulging in extracurricular activities like joyriding with automatic weapons and treating an Afghan National Police arsenal like their own personal weapons stash." Whistleblowers said Blackwater staff were also engaged in the underground sex trade.
Before you dismiss this as the work of a few bad apples, the New York Times reports that two weeks before the Nisoure Square shooting, Blackwater's top official in Iraq threatened to straight-up murder a state department investigator while he was reviewing the company's internal practices and lack of accountability. That, coupled with the massacre, apparently opened the military's eyes to just how out of control the firm's contractors had become, though the government continued to rely on Blackwater out of sheer necessity.
Why you should care: It's excellent news that the men responsible for deliberately killing and maiming innocent Iraqis in 2007 have been held accountable for their crimes, but the company still operates with little oversight around the world. Foreign Policy's Kate Brannen reported in July that Academi and its subsidiaries have incredibly lucrative contracts providing security across the globe, while Erik Prince, billionaire former head of Blackwater, began an ill-fated venture to fight Somali pirates. The Modern Mercenary author Sean McFate told Brannen that "there are new actors, smaller companies, emerging every day" across the globe, with some "going native, as warlords and others refashion[ing[ themselves as for-rent security."
Preventing this privatization of war isn't just a strategic necessity, but also an ethical one. Stephen Colbert's stinging rebuke of Bill O'Reilly's plan to send mercenaries to fight the Islamic State rings true: "You know the mercenaries will be good guys because only the best people kill whoever you want for cash ... unlike those suckers who do it for love of country."