Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Dirty Wars

[Jeremy Scahill. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. New York: Nation Books, 2013.]

Though the word "Canada" appears only a handful of times in the book and is not even in the index, this is a book about Canada's wars in the last dozen years. It is a book that lays out the how-things-work-ness of at least some of the covert and clandestine aspects of the US-lead so-called Global War on Terror. It shows how our side -- the side that the Canadian government enthusiastically embraces and that the vast majority of the Canadian people either support or oppose only passively -- engages in routine torture and assassination and killing of civilians and lying. This is the war that "our boys" are part of. This is what we allow the Harper government to reinforce whenever we accept without challenge their sleazy propagandizing about fallen heroes and past glories. This is capitalist liberal democracy in action.

Reading this long, heavy book frequently made me heartsick and sad.

Dirty Wars was written by Jeremy Scahill, a well-known independent journalist based in the US who has been a correspondent for Democracy Now! and who writes regularly for The Nation, both prominent alternative news outlets in that country. It's fairly well written and I think the complaints that I have are predictable given its form as a journalistic book. He seems to be quite rigorous in his sourcing, but because so many sources in a book like this are off-the-record it isn't always easy to tell, and even for on-the-record sourcing he (or course) does it in a journalistic way rather than a scholarly way, which means following up on a given source is not always as easy as it could be. There's also a kind of journalistic mode for infusing a story with excitement and urgency that he occasionally does that never goes as far as wrongful sensationalizing, but that I still don't generally enjoy. As well, given the length of the book, certain kinds of information get repeated just to make sure the reader knows what they need to know for a given passage, and when you don't need that information to be repeated it can be distracting and annoying. But most of that is quite minor, and it is a well-written and well-put together book.

Moreover, it is an important book. I've encountered over the years bits and pieces of the pre-9/11 history of US activities of this sort, and anyone who follows both alternative and mainstream reporting on the Global War on Terror in the last dozen years will have encountered a jumble, nay an avalanche, of the post-9/11 elements. What this book does, though, is put them into a larger narrative that makes what are often arcane details about military units, terrorist cells, diplomatic dust-ups, and so on much more comprehensible. I particularly appreciated the way it showed that US state practices around things like torture, imprisonment without due process, and assassination are not ahistorical constants but actually have a trajectory. It's not that these things are new -- the CIA has a long history of doing them. But it is an important piece of the puzzle that is often omitted that the defeat of the US by the Vietnamese people and the New Left uprisings at home actually did put institutional constraints on CIA skullduggery. These constraints didn't prevent it from happening but they were nonetheless substantive victories, and meant there was less and it was harder for them to do it. It also meant that the resurgence of such things that began in the 1990s but really took off after 9/11 centred, particularly initially, around military units rather than the CIA, because the military has much looser reporting requirements to Congress and therefore they could do these things without anyone in the legislative branch being aware of them. And I think it also matters that although the US state has done things like this since at least the Second World War, what's new is the fact that it is now standard and open policy for there to be a never-ending list of assassination targets. In fact, it seems there are at least three different lists held by different agencies of the US government. And both the CIA and certain elite special forces units in the military have a majority of their activities towards targeted killing of individuals, and not just in active war zones but, as the subtitle of the book implies, anywhere in the world.

Though it is not mentioned in the book, it is my understanding that Canada does have one unit, perhaps two, of special forces troops whose activities are (at least sometimes) integrated into the US-lead Western war machine. The US has a complicated hierarchy of special ops forces, not all of whom are directly involved in targeted assassination and the like, and it is not clear to me where the Canadian unit or units might fit into that. I'd be eager to find that out.

The book is organized chronologically, more or less, and it combines chapters that focus on a particular country or theatre of action with chapters that follow individuals. In particular, throughout the book Scahill constantly returns to the story of Anwar al Awlaki, a US-born man of Yemeni descent who was among the first US citizens to be openly and deliberately targeted in the assassination program. His is a compelling story to put at the centre, because there is good evidence that his reengagement with Islam as a youth and his transition from being a noted moderate voice in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to being a preacher who openly supported Al Qaeda in the couple of years before he was killed (and whom the US claims was an operational leader of the group, though it is not at all clear from publically available information that he was anything more than a vocal and charismatic fellow traveller) was very clearly connected in his own published writings and in the recollection of family members interviewed by Scahill to his anger and despair at US invasion and occupation of Muslim nations and its consistent horrific violence against Muslim people. This ties in with the broader assertion made (and well-supported) throughout the book that attempting to address the potential for violence against the US primarily by killing people, whether the CIA support for warlords in Somalia or the targeted covert killing program or other things, may eliminate individuals but it inflames situations in ways that end up mobilizing more people to take up arms against the US and its allies.

Though it was rhetorically effective, I think the emphasis placed on al Awlaki isn't without problems. Clearly part of Scahill's motivation for focusing on him is because he was a US citizen, and the open embrace of assassination of US citizens by the US government outside of explicit war zones is a new thing and a thing that may be able to mobilize concern among US citizens across the political spectrum. At the same time, it reaffirms the idea that is common in the US political culture -- there's a corresponding version in Canada that is put together a bit differently, I think -- that somehow violence against US citizens is worse than violence against anybody else. I think we need to be working really hard to point out that killing a Pasthun peasant in a rural area of Pakistan with a drone is just as horrific as killing a US citizen with a drone.

One of the few times that Canada is mentioned in the book is in the context of a US special ops mission in Afghanistan that seems to have been a somewhat more egregious version of something that happens there all the time. Somehow, the special forces got incorrect information. In the middle of a celebration for the birth of a new baby, they burst into a compound inhabited by a family that was supportive of the US-backed Afghan government and involved in the police force, killed several men and a couple of pregnant women, did what they could to hide the evidence of what they had done, and then issued repeated and ever-changing lies about the situation to cover it up. The actual facts, or at least many of them, were unearthed by local and international journalists and UN investigators, and some were later conceded by the US military after significant pressure. The connection to Canada is that one version of the lies about the US massacre of civilians was delivered by a Canadian general. This is what we are part of. This is what our government supports and what we (me included) do not do enough to oppose.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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