"We have fallen into a self-defeating spiral of reaction and counter-terror. Our policies, meant to extirpate our enemies, have strengthened and perpetuated them."~~-Mark Danner
Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War
Simon & Shuster, 2016 ($26.00)
Danner -- an award winning journalist, professor and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has covered war and revolutions on three continents -- begins his book "Spiral" with the aftermath of a 2003 ambush of U.S. troops outside of Fallujah, Iraq. The insurgents had set off a roadside bomb, killing a paratrooper and wounding several others. "The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M-16s and M-4s began pouring lead into everything they could see," including a passing truck, he writes. "By week's end scores of family and close friends of those killed would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame."
The incident encapsulates the fundamental contradiction at the heart of George W. Bush's -- and with variations, that of Barack Obama's -- "war on terror": the means used to fight it is the most effective recruiting device that organizations like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Shabab, and the Islamic State have. Targeted assassinations by drones, the use of torture, extra-legal renditions, and the invasions of several Muslim countries has been an unmitigated disaster, destabilizing several states, killing hundreds of thousands of people and generating millions of refugees.
Danner's contention is hardly breaking news, nor is he the first journalist to point out that responding to the tactic of terrorism with military forces generates yet more enemies and instability. But Spiral argues that what was once unusual has now become standard operating procedure, and the Obama administration bears some of the blame for this by its refusal to prosecute violations of international law.
Torture is a case in point. In the aftermath of the 2001 attack on New York and Washington, the Bush administration introduced so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques that were, in fact, torture under both U.S. and international law. Danner demonstrates that the White House, and a small cluster of advisers around Vice-President Dick Cheney, knew they could be prosecuted under existing laws and carefully erected a "golden shield" of policy memos that would protect them from prosecution for war crimes.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama announced that he had "prohibited torture." But, as Danner points out, "torture violates international and domestic law and the notion that our president has the power to prohibit it follows insidiously from the pretense that his predecessor had the power to order it. Before the war on terror, official torture was illegal and an anathema; today it is a policy choice."
And president-elect Donald Trump has already announced that he intends to bring it back.
There is no doubt that enhanced interrogation was torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross found the techniques "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." How anyone could conclude anything else is hard to fathom. Besides the water boarding -- for which several WWII Japanese soldiers were executed for using on allied prisoners -- interrogators used sleep depravation, extreme confinement and "walling." Abu Zubaydah, who was water boarded 83 times, describes having a towel wrapped around his neck that his questioners used "to swing me around and smash repeatedly against the wall of the [interrogation] room."