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.)