Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, by Jeremy Scahill
An investigation into extrajudicial killings by US special forces could be the defining account of a slide into high-tech, legally leveraged savagery
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield
In 1974, following the Birmingham pub bombings, SAS troops in Co Armagh used a guided missile to destroy a car carrying suspected members of an IRA active service unit. No warning was given. The British struck again when the men were being buried, directing a volley of high-explosive missiles into the funeral procession. Up to 45 mourners were killed.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Or at least, not in Ireland. But in June 2009 US special forces did exactly that in northern Pakistan. Such atrocities have become so commonplace in the “global war on terror” that we no longer notice them.
What would Ireland be like today if the British had used the US playbook? What would Britain be like? Not only illegal assaults, Bloody Sunday, shoot to kill, collusion with loyalist death squads and brutal interrogations, not only internment without trial, but a full-on free-fire campaign of officially sanctioned torture, disappearances, assassination, cross-Border raids and aerial bombardment, directed against anyone who it was thought might even potentially become a “terrorist” and anyone else who was standing nearby?
As Jeremy Scahill puts it in the final line of Dirty Wars, his towering new investigation into the secret anatomy of the so-called war on terror, “how does a war like this ever end?”
Scahill, whose previous book was Blackwater, an award-winning probe into the murky world of private US military contractors, has written what could prove to be the defining account of the 21st century’s slide into high-tech, legally leveraged savagery.
At the heart of his narrative are the muscle-bound warriors, spooks and torturers of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSoc), a secretive organisation originally founded to co-ordinate the special-forces units operated by the US military. That role changed in the wake of the September 11th attacks, when Vice-President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pulled off what amounted to a secret coup in Washington. To bypass legal oversight by Congress, the joint chiefs of staff, the State Department and the CIA, Cheney and his neoconservative cronies handed the lead role in their new war to JSoc.
The “Big, Bad, Weightlifting Guys” from Fort Bragg were hugely reinforced by new recruits, weapons and money, and even given their own private intelligence service to find targets for them. (The CIA, with its political and developmental analysts, was too hippy to be in the loop.)
Instead of supporting the more conventional counterinsurgency operations of the “vanilla” US military and its allies, the bicep-fixated special forces had only one aim. Under the direct control of Cheney and Rumsfeld, they were to kill as many “bad guys” as possible, wherever they could find them, employing commando raids, cruise missiles, air strikes and drone attacks, with little regard for evidence or the welfare of the general population.
“They had their own idea how to do things, which is much like the way the Israelis do things,” recalls Col Patrick Lang. “You know, the famous ‘Cheney 1 per cent thing’ – if there’s any doubt, you kill ’em.”
In his own special-forces career, Col Lang helped to track and kill Che Guevara, then ran US assassination programmes in Vietnam, and later served as a “military attache” in the Middle East. Yet, like many of the old-school soldiers, diplomats and spies cited by Scahill, Lang sees a pragmatic case for restraint: “Is [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] a threat to the United States? Yeah. They could bring down an airliner, kill a couple of hundred people. But are they an existential threat to the United States? Of course not . . . We’ve gone crazy over this. We had this kind of hysterical reaction to danger.”
Yet far from declining with the demise of the Cheney regime (tellingly, Bush seldom comes up in this book), the extrajudicial killings accelerated after Obama’s election. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has placed a special emphasis on drone warfare, a technology that makes warfare cheap, easy and, for those with access to “Kill TV” in JSoc’s “Death Star” facilities at Bagram or Balad (or in the White House and Pentagon), presumably fun.
“It’s the politically advantageous thing to do – low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” says Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
This seems optimistic. Damage to the US, and the world in general, is already starkly evident.
A daring scout of both the corridors of power and the dusty, perilous war zones, Scahill demonstrates how Somalia, Yemen and rural parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan have become hotbeds for al-Qaeda and its vicious anti-western ideology, where before such things hardly existed.
In the process, al-Qaeda and the multibillion-dollar US covert-security establishment (and industry) have come to resemble each other closely, having both renounced all means of advancing their cause other than killing. Human rights and human life have been cheapened across the planet, including in the US itself.
“Don’t think for a moment that we can do these kinds of things without it having a direct effect here at home,” says the former Democrat congressman Dennis Kucinich. “The erosion of integrity, the erosion of democratic values, the erosion of a benevolent intent all augurs a nation in which the basic rights of our own people can no longer be secured. They are up for the auction of the assassin.”
Or the home-grown killers of Boston or Woolwich, alienated and radicalised by the nightly TV news.
Ed O’Loughlin is a former newspaper correspondent in Africa and the Middle East. His new novella, All You Can Eat, a zombie-pulp satire on the Irish economic and political crisis, has just been published on Kindle.