Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield is on Publisher’s Weekly‘s Best Non-Fiction of 2013 list, which is how I heard about it (I also heard it; I listened to the audiobook read by Tom Weiner). Dirty Wars reports on the covert military actions against terrorism begun under the Bush administration and continued and expanded under Obama’s. Scahill’s reporting draws on a wide range of sources: (mostly) former CIA and military special operations personnel; members of both US administrations; politicians, military leaders, warlords and ordinary people from Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. He looks at the big picture of drone strikes and covert operations as well as particular examples, including the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Woven throughout the book is the story of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born US citizen of Yemeni descent, who became an increasingly radical Muslim cleric (Scahill is not convinced that he was an active member of Al Qaeda, as the US government claims) and was eventually targeted and killed by a US drone strike.

The New York Times and Washington Post both have brief reviews of the accompanying documentary, and The Guardian‘s includes an interview with Scahill. But I couldn’t find any major (in my mind) news outlet that reviewed the book. Why did I go looking? Well, I’m capable of forming my own opinions about this book, but I wanted to know what people with more expertise and knowledge of the subject–journalists, scholars, etc.–might think about it, in part because I think this is the kind of book where your response to it is likely to depend a lot on your politics.

The reviews on Goodreads are mostly very positive, for instance; the low-star ones tend to talk about Scahill’s bias. I think he’s mostly being read by people who agree with him.  This was the most thoughtful critical review I found, but I hope it’s not insulting to say that a recent university graduate interning for a think tank isn’t the kind of expert I was looking for. (Like Scahill, reviewers have a bias; the Brookings Institution is generally described as “centrist.”)

I found Dirty Wars pretty thoughtful and convincing (and enraging, and depressing). It definitely has a point of view, but it’s not a polemical rant. I did wish that Scahill had looked more at the legal justifications for these covert operations, but that’s not really his expertise. The range of perspectives and voices he represents, many of them voices we rarely hear in media reports, is the real strength of the book.

Since I’m not an expert, in lieu of an in-depth assessment of the book, here are some things Dirty Wars made me reflect on. This is obviously more political, or a different kind of political, than most of my posts here:

1. I knew the broad outlines of the story Scahill reports on, though many details were new. The biggest revelation for me was that the phrase “The world is a battlefield” is not (just) hyperbolic political rhetoric but part of a legal justification for covert operations. If the world is our battlefield, the argument goes, we are justified in carrying out military operations anywhere, including in the territory of other nations with whom we are not officially at war. Also, the whole idea of targeting people based on “patterns of life” (e.g. it was a group of military-aged males) rather than clear evidence of a threat is chilling. Although it’s of a piece with racial profiling at home.

2. More trivially, I don’t think I can ever again uncritically enjoy genre fiction that romanticizes special operatives. Navy SEAL romance heroes, military and spy thriller heroes, etc. I don’t mean to suggest that individual members of these forces cannot be courageous, skilled, ethical people. But I believe their skills are being used in some highly unethical ways. I don’t want to read romanticized versions of their work. I really appreciated that Scahill gave a detailed, gripping account of the mission that killed bin Laden without making it breathlessly dramatic and cinematic. Certainly not romanticized, unlike the initial government statements about the mission (which contained serious falsehoods).

3. I care about governance; involvement in governance of a public institution was part of my work for the last several years. I wonder whether, at the national level–and I don’t just mean in the US–governance has been completely overtaken by politics. I’m not sure that I believe anyone is thinking about what is right or even pragmatic anymore, rather than about personal and partisan ambition, a concern for what will make re-election possible. I hate to be so cynical, but I am.

I remember reading somewhere recently that there are a lot of really good municipal governments in North America, people who are reaching across party lines to improve their cities, doing creative and sometimes risky things. But a lot of these people have no desire to “move up” to state/provincial or national roles, because the politics there are so partisan and the lack of privacy so total (among other things). This can’t be good for us.

4. One of the most striking moments in Scahill’s book, for me, was a source (here’s the downside of audio; I think it was a former CIA official but I’m not sure and can’t check) who asked what kind of threat terrorism posed to the US. Sure, he said, they could bring down an airliner and kill a few hundred people, but they don’t pose an “existential threat” to the nation. But people aren’t used to thinking of their lives as unsafe, so there is “hysteria” around terrorism. This is a really provocative thing to say, of course: what level of risk is “acceptable”? How do we say that saving a few hundred lives isn’t worth doing, that the cost–in dollars, or in loss of non-American lives, or in worsening international relations–is too high?

But then, Americans accept gun laws that result in the deaths of many hundreds of people every year. Why is that risk more acceptable to us than the risk of terrorism? And how do we balance the potential/theoretical saved American lives against the hundreds of non-American lives, innocent civilian lives, that have been lost in covert operations (let alone in the full-scale wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). The US, both the public and the government that represents us, likes operations that don’t put our personnel at risk, but has little or no concern for the lives of brown non-Americans. I mean, I know that’s not a new idea. But it’s important to be forcibly reminded of the costs of our actions for others, and we seldom are.

5. Second-class citizenship. This one is dear to my heart, since I live in a country where I am a non-citizen, I’m married to a Canadian citizen who was born elsewhere, and our children have dual citizenship. Families like ours are increasingly common, and raise the question of what citizenship means in a globalizing society.

Anwar al-Awlaki was a US citizen, born and partly educated in the US, and his government targeted him for assassination without due process of law (there was a process that they’d argue was legal, but it’s not what we’d usually call due process). Would the same thing happen to a white American who spent much of his adult life abroad and went to Yemen to preach jihad? Maybe so. But we might also contrast Awlaki’s fate with that of John Walker Lindh, who was an active enemy combatant. I suspect that many people, including people in his own government, thought of Awlaki as “less American” than other citizens or “not really American.”

While Australia repatriated its (white) citizen held at Guantanamo Bay, Canada was reluctant to repatriate Omar Khadr, who was born here to parents who immigrated from Egypt and Palestine. Khadr, who was 15 when he was arrested, spent 10 years in Guantanamo before finally being repatriated to finish his sentence in Canada. Many Canadians, including some in government, suggested the Khadr family be stripped of their Canadian citizenship. (It’s not clear to me whether all members of the family had another citizenship; some might have been rendered stateless by such an action, which is, in any case, not legally possible). Some citizens, it seems, are more equal than others. Pretty sure that’s not how democracy is supposed to work.

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9 Responses to Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill

  1. Sunita says:

    For someone who isn’t an expert on the subject, you really nailed it. In this post you have encapsulated what has gone on in US government and politics in the last 12 years when it comes to issues of security, international politics, democratic accountability, and constitutional rights. I could write a blog post of a comment, but I’ll try to be succinct. I will undoubtedly fail. I haven’t read Scahill’s book yet, but none of what is in it as you have presented it (in general terms) is unfamiliar to me given my interests and expertise. I’ll comment on the points in turn.

    1. Yes. That’s the rationale behind “Global War on Terror,” whose acronym inspired giggles when it was launched (GWOT is funny). It’s not just a slogan, though. First the Bush and then the Obama administrations have stipulated the war on terror as global, which allows them to order incursions wherever threats are perceived to occur. They don’t have to share those justifications with most of Congress, let alone the US citizenry. The “military” casualties (as opposed to civilian deaths) are justified by the “patterns of life” designation. If we don’t use that designation, the number of civilian deaths is much higher.

    2. I don’t read SEAL etc. romances in part for this reason. The individuals are honorable and courageous. The missions they are given are based on the logic outlined by the GWOT, or by whatever the operating military ideology is where and when they are serving (it changes). Romanticizing the individuals is understandable, especially considering how many people are putting their lives and futures at risk in this effort. And we know bitterly and well from Vietnam that punishing the foot soldier rather than the decision-making elite is hugely unjust. But I’d prefer not to have those books proliferate. They feel like propaganda even though I know they’re not written as such.

    3. I think there are people who care very much about what is right. But what is right, and those who put that criterion first, are drowned out by the permanent campaign that has taken over national politics in the elected branches. This is true across parties and institutions. I live in a city with endemic corruption, but I like to think there are better local governments elsewhere.

    4. At this point it’s hard to separate the sense of threat (real or perceived) from the sunk costs and path-dependent perspective on what we are doing. It’s worth remembering that the US is almost alone among the Western elite nations (Canada is another, I think) in that it has almost never been attacked on its own soil. We have fought in major wars, but always from a distance. So in that way 9/11 was unique in its impact (even though it wasn’t the first WTC attack by al Qaeda).

    5. For me the issue is really the abrogation of citizen rights. We’ve been chipping away at non-citizen rights for at least 20 years, well before 9/11 anyway. But citizen right have always been sacrosanct. The GWOT has destroyed that. And, of course, what we know now is that it’s not just the rights of citizen terrorists that have been jeopardized, or non-white citizens. Our own Carolyn Jewel reminds us of that with the Jewel v. NSA case.

    I found a Steve Coll review of this and Mark Mazzetti’s book in The New Yorker, but it focused more on the latter. And there is an Economist video interview with Scahill about the book. But that’s it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks so much for this informed comment. Re. #5, the broader loss of citizen rights is not something the book deals with directly, given its subject, but obviously it’s a huge deal. I feel it’s something I don’t pay enough attention to, but I’m certainly aware of the privacy issues. BC has comparatively strict privacy laws, and at work we cannot use any software which would mean storing information on US servers because of that–we’re all pretty conscious of it. (This is interesting for me, because my colleagues often comment on this in an anti-American way, and on the one hand I strongly oppose the ways the NSA is routinely violating our privacy and gathering data, but on the other, I’m American. The anti-American sentiment in Canada post 9/11 is one reason I still haven’t pursued citizenship. Even though I agreed with the political positions and I wouldn’t have to renounce my American citizenship, I felt somehow disloyal thinking about becoming a Canadian. It’s weird. Plus I have problems with the wording of the oath.)

    • I hear you both about SEAL romances. One of the things I so appreciated in Stuart’s Black Ice was that the organization Bastien worked for turned out to be less than noble and not even all that well-intentioned, and that Bastien realized he had killed innocent people for them as “collateral damage.”

      I was so sorry when Stuart changed that in the later books in the series, even though i did enjoy them, because with that first book it was almost like Stuart was riffing on the ra-ra aspect of most special ops romances and saying “Not so fast!”

      • Sunita says:

        I realize my comment made it sound as if I didn’t like military romance or though military romance was propaganda-ish, and that’s not what I meant. Not anything you said, Janine, just thinking about what I wrote.

        I like reading about women and men who are in service, or who are veterans. It’s the romanticized alpha-SEAL that I find troublesome.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Not Janine, but I knew what you meant. It’s the idealization/romanticization that’s difficult for me. Where every mission is noble–or the ignoble parts are overlooked. I have loved books, romance and otherwise, with military/veteran characters.

      • I knew what you meant too, Sunita. I remember us talking about how much you liked Eileen Dreyer / Kathleen Korbel’s A Solider’s Heart.

  2. sonomalass says:

    This depresses the shit out of me. I just hate that my government is so knee-jerk, so reactionary, so selfish and jingoistic in this arena. We are the bullies of the world, under the guise of being the peacekeepers — did I mention hypocritical? That bugs me too. Basically the idea that white US American lives count SO MUCH MORE than any others is just wrong to me.

    And, as Sunita points out, we are sacrificing more than just those other lives. We’re sacrificing basic civil rights all over the place, letting fear dominate our political processes — or rather (cynical, me) letting the military industrial complex use fear to get what they want. As my beloved, non-US American, partner is fond of saying, “Looks like the terrorists have already won.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It was often painful to read. I’d be doing chores with earbuds in and swearing under my breath–sometimes startling my poor husband who wondered what was wrong.

  3. But I couldn’t find any major (in my mind) news outlet that reviewed the book.

    That’s a shame. FWIW, I did see Schaill interviewed on both Charlie Rose and Real Time with Bill Maher. He has also appeared on MSNBC more than once. Videos of these appearances and interviews can be found online.

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