Amid the news about the unspooling disaster in Afghanistan, one name keeps surfacing in my Twitter feed along with the names of the U.S. presidents who had perpetuated our “forever war” since 2001: Blackwater. It’s curious, because the company once known as Blackwater hasn’t officially had that name since 2009. And yet the brand soldiers on, all these years later, a zombie name for a sinister, shape-shifting entity.
What gives “Blackwater” its power to survive two formal name changes and a merger, and to cement itself in our collective consciousness?
It was called Blackwater from its beginnings in 1996 as a private security and military company co-founded by ex-Navy SEALs. One of the co-founders was Erik Prince, heir to an auto-parts fortune and brother of future Trump Administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Another was Al Clark, who spotted a 7,000-acre parcel of land on North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp — a perfect metaphor of a name itself — and noticed that, as he told the Virginian-Pilot in 2006, “All the water on the property was black. It was colored by the peat.” Blackwater Lodge and Training Center was born on December 26, 1996; the company filed its first U.S. trademark application, for “firearms and tactical training center provide instruction in the safe use of firearms and tactical techniques for SWAT and military organizations,” in April 1999. Many other trademark filings would follow, for consulting services, bulletproof vests, flashlights, handcuff cases, hunting and military knives, and multi-player computer games, among other goods and services.
The fortunes of Blackwater USA — later Blackwater Worldwide — began to soar after the 2000 Al Qaeda bombing of the American destroyer Cole, in Yemen. The Navy realized its sailors needed more training, and Blackwater was ready to provide it. After the Al Qaeda-backed attacks of September 11, 2001, the company shifted its focus to on-the-ground security services. Between 2002 and 2005, its revenues grew 600 percent. By then…