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Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

February 16, 2014


The subtitle of this book expresses a central belief in post-9/11 era: that we are engaged in an amorphous, asymmetrical, borderless war. When the U.S. declared “war on terror,” we entered into a conflict that has given us the impetus to engage in a wide range of nefarious activities. In the name of national defense, the U.S. has crossed physical and philosophical boundaries, encroached on the sovereignty of other nations, violated international law and human rights and, in cases, acted in direct opposition to stated American values. While the primary architects of these policies—Bush 43, Cheney and Rumsfeld—seized unprecedented wartime power for the executive branch, the Obama administration has actually expanded that power.

Drawing on interviews with mercenaries, CIA agents, U.S. army colonels, former CIA officers, Somali warlords, and a Yemeni sheik, Scahill paints a picture of the morally murky, often un-reported world of post-9/11 U.S. military policy. He starts with the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing, ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, which sucked resources away from conflicts against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Somalia. He then details U.S. “dirty war” tactics in combatting terrorist organizations. The three most controversial are:

  1. Our seizure, extradition, imprisonment and “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture) of terror suspects, including at CIA black site prisons.
  2. Our unmanned drone strikes on terror suspects.
  3. Our targeted assassination policy, including of American citizens.

Nobody would argue against the need for new tactics. And the set above certainly have their advantages: putting fewer American soldiers in harm’s way at the top of the list. But what are the hidden costs of our new policies?

Public debate around these issues tends to play out with one side arguing on moral (sometimes legal) grounds that these policies are wrong, while the other side argues that they are necessary if the U.S. hopes to defeat this new, ruthless enemy. What Scahill brings is not just a repetition of the moral arguments, but new evidence that our tactics are often self-defeating and counter-productive. Not only are we compromising the values that we claim to have as Americans, but we’re actually creating more enemies by radicalizing massive populations in the Muslim world.

The damage done by the Abu Ghraib photos is evident, but may not be fully known for generations. Likewise, every time a drone strike is less precise than promised, entire villages, if not countries, are taught to hate the United States. Civilians in countries we hope to stabilize begin to view us as an occupying force at best, enemy at worst. And we provide ample reason for them to view us as such: According to a recent report, the U.S. and UK launched over 1,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan last year. And civilian deaths tripled there (a low estimate, since any military-age male is presumed to be an “enemy combatant” and thus not counted).

Which leads us to the most egregious abuse of military and executive power: the “signature strike.” A signature strike is a presidentially-approved hit on a target who doesn’t need to be identified, just needs to exhibit suspicious behavior. Suspicious behavior may be defined as a gathering of military-age men (20-40). Or, as one senior State Department official characterized it, to the CIA “three guys doing jumping jacks” constitutes a terrorist training camp. It seems like obvious hyperbole. But in March of 2011, the U.S. carried out a signature strike on a suspicious gathering of men at a bus depot in northern Pakistan. Four drone-launched hellfire missiles killed an estimated 42 people. The men, it turned out, were not terrorists. They were tribal elders, the most respected leaders of numerous nearby communities, gathering to resolve a local conflict. In one shot, the U.S. destroyed the leadership of the whole area, thus removing the one source of stability in an already unstable country. This is to say nothing of the hatred it stirred in the local population. How many sons and grandsons were radicalized by that one attack and will, as a result, build bombs to attack the U.S. or turn their guns on U.S. soldiers abroad in the decades to come? This would be the equivalent of, say, Spain destroying a house in a suburban U.S. neighborhood because a group of men were gathering for a poker game there. It only seems so different because we don’t live under circling drones and the constant threat of fire from above.

Again, although the moral and legal arguments against these tactics might set your blood to boil, the practical aspect is as convincing. These “smart war” tactics are proving incredibly dumb and short-sighted. They are losing us the war by creating more enemies. It’s not a choice of “lose your soul to win the war.” It has become “lose your soul and lose the war.” And this is not a biased, left-wing, anti-war view. Read the reviews on Amazon to see how broad the favorable (and saddened) opinion is to what Scahill has brought to light here. Most Americans may prefer to relegate news of civilian casualties, of prisoner abuse and of illegal drone strikes to the news blips they typically are. But the tragedy is that history may prove beyond argument, even to the most fervent supporters of a “whatever it takes” approach to the war on terror, that the most damaging aspect of the 9/11 attacks was the U.S. reaction they provoked. Because the “war on terror/world is a battlefield” mindset has distorted our lens on the world and led us down a dark and logically twisted path where, in an attempt to protect the American values we claim to hold so dear, we actually sacrifice them.

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