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.