Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, has a new book that should be required reading for Congress members, journalists, war supporters, war opponents, Americans, non-Americans — really, pretty much everybody. The new book is called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Of course, Scahill is not suggesting that the world should be a battlefield. He’s reporting on how the Bush and Obama White Houses have defined and treated it as such.
The phrase “dirty wars” is a little less clear in meaning. Scahill is a reporter whose chronological narrative is gripping and revealing but virtually commentary-free. Any observations on the facts related tend to come in the form of quotations from experts and those involved. So, there isn’t anywhere in the book that explicitly explains what a dirty war is.
The focus of the book is on operations that were once more secretive than they are today: kidnapping, rendition, secret-imprisonment, torture, and assassination. “This is a story,” reads the first sentence of the book, “about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy.” It’s a story about special, elite, and mercenary forces operating under even less Congressional or public oversight than the rest of the U.S. military, a story about the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, and not about the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad or the activities of tens of thousands of soldiers occupying Iraq or Afghanistan.
The type of war recounted is variously identified in the book as dirty, dark, black, dark-side, small, covert, black-ops, asymmetric, secret, twilight, and — in quotation marks — “smart.” At one point, Scahill describes the White House, along with General Stanley McChrystal, as beginning to “apply its emerging global kill list doctrine inside Afghanistan, buried within the larger, public war involving conventional U.S. forces.” But part of Scahill’s story is how, in recent years, something that had been considered special, secretive, and relatively unimportant has come to occupy the focus of the U.S. military. In the process, it has lost some of its stigma as well as its secretiveness. Scahill refers to some operations as “not so covert.” It’s hard to hide a drone war that is killing people by the thousands. Secret death squad night raids that are bragged about in front of the White House Press Corps are not so secret.
I don’t think, in the end, that Scahill is suggesting that other wars, or other parts of wars, are clean. In fact, he characterizes the Obama administration’s growing use of dirty war tactics as “the fantasy of a clean war.” The term “clean” has been used in Washington, D.C., to distinguish killing from imprisonment-and-torture. Scahill’s book should make clear to every reader that there is nothing clean about a war fought by death squad, drone, and missile strike — any more than any other war. They’re all dirty, filthy, nasty enterprises, about which we’re usually fed a pile of official sanitizing and beautifying lies.
Weighing in at over 500 pages, Dirty Wars is an extensive account, in large part, of how the White House came to begin killing U.S. citizens with drones. You can, however, read this book in less time than it takes to watch a 12-hour filibuster on the subject, as recently presented by Senator Rand Paul, and you’ll learn a great deal more in the process.
Scahill combines publicly available information with his own original reporting (much of which he has written and spoken about before) to create the best history we have of how the practice I call murder-by-president evolved from tiny origins in the Clinton White House to weekly Terror Tuesday meetings for Obama. Without the need for any commentary from the author, a number of themes emerge, I think, through the telling of events and the repetition of the same sorts of horrors and blunders:
· The U.S. government vastly overestimates its power and conceives of its power as physical force;
· The use of such force (in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) tends to make matters worse and create situations that, by the same analysis, require much more force, which thankfully isn’t always used;
· Revenge and machismo sometimes motivate actions publicly depicted as geopolitical strategy and humanitarianism;
· The U.S. government lies frequently, and sometimes begins to believe its own lies;
· The U.S. corporate media takes very little offense at being lied to;
· Nothing you think the CIA might try to do could be dumber than some of the things it actually tries;
· And, uses of power that are permitted will be engaged in increasingly if unchecked.
The book is arranged chronologically, and some stories are returned to again and again. One of these, probably the best, is the story of the Awlaki family, of Anwar Awlaki and his father and his son. (Re. CIA dumbness, don’t miss the bit where the CIA supports polygamy by recruiting a new wife for Anwar.)
Anwar Awlaki, as far as we know, began to turn against the United States following the U.S. harassment of Muslims that began on September 12, 2001, at which time Awlaki was living in Virginia; and he grew in his opposition to the United States as our government harassed him and threatened to murder him. Awlaki, as far as we know, never took any action against the United States beyond publicly encouraging others to do so. In other words, Awlaki did the same thing CNN does quite often: he promoted the waging of war. Now, I think that such actions should be illegal, and that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights they are. I’d like to see Awlaki and various members of the U.S. media and various U.S. government officials prosecuted for war propaganda. But my position is rare if not unique. It is far more common to maintain that the First Amendment protects such speech.
Awlaki wasn’t charged with or tried for any crime. Instead, he was killed by a drone, along with another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, who was with him — a death that one U.S. Congress member called “a bonus” and “a twofer.” Awlaki’s teenage son and several other teenage members of his family were killed two weeks later by another U.S. drone strike.
These deaths were a handful among the mountain of corpses produced by U.S. dirty wars. And Dirty Wars provides us with the heartbreaking and “humanizing” stories of some of the non-U.S. victims. I put “humanizing” in quotes because I always wonder whether anyone really truly doubts that foreigners living far away are human until a photo or film or narrative “puts a human face on them.” Here are stories of innocent families, children, women, and men killed by a Global War on the Globe that advertises itself as eliminating terrorism.
The Boston marathon bombs created a bit of a public debate this week over how to define “terrorism.” Many were unsure whether it was terrorism, not knowing whether the bombers were foreign or domestic. Others believed the bombers’ motives needed to be known before the “terrorism” label could be applied. The latter is a reasonable position, but one that renders the term less useful, while ignoring many of its common uses. If we define “terrorism,” as seems most useful, as acts of violence that terrorize people, it is hard to see much of what’s recounted in Scahill’s book as anything other than terrorism.
While we’re defining terms, it’s worth noting that “assassination” is usually defined as the murder of a prominent public figure. A “signature strike,” which Scahill describes as a type of “pre-crime” punishment, in which President Obama or his subordinate orders the killing of someone whose name is unknown but whose behavior suggests that he or she might be likely to engage in active resistance to a U.S. occupation or might be likely to attack people in the United States someday — that is by definition not an assassination. It is a different type of murder, but still of course a murder.
When the New York Times reported on President Obama’s kill list on May 29, 2012, it quoted Obama’s National Security Advisor and cited interviews with three-dozen former and current advisors to Obama in the White House. The U.S. voting public reelected Obama five months later, and it appears entirely possible that the president wanted the public to know that he murders people (trusting that many who wouldn’t approve would avoid knowing), and that as a political strategist — if in no other way whatsoever — Obama was right.
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.