While reading Jeremy Scahill’s new book Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield, I described it to a friend as a “direct sequel” to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ll gladly double-down on that assertion–and not only because it’s a spiritual successor to that book, but also because it too deserves a Pulitzer.
Where Wright led us through the story of the rise of radical Islam to its climax on September 11, Scahill takes us through the following decade. As Wright told the story of both the FBI team following bin Laden and the man himself, Scahill follows JSOC, the CIA, various privateers and warlords, and their fight against the likes of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Shabab, the Taliban, and others.
The book tells the story of the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, and the quiet deployment of special and covert ops forces in countries around the world, and away from the places where official wars have been declared. These so-called small wars are taking place off the books and out of most headlines in places like Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and Pakistan. The new military doctrine that “The world is a battlefield” has allowed both the Bush and the Obama administration to bend the letter of the law to mean that war can be waged anywhere, any time, as long as it is in the interest of the United States of America.
Dirty Wars finds its humanity, and it’s most personal story, in the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born cleric who transformed from a pro-US defender of democracy and non-violence in the wake of 9/11 to a radicalized firebrand who preached on jihad and praised the deaths of Americans. Awlaki’s story echoes the themes of the rest of the book: the best anti-terrorism efforts of the United States inexorably inflame radical Islam rather than suppress it, and rather than learn from these failures, our country simply walks further down a darkened path from which return is unlikely.
The book is incredibly well reported, it touches on nearly every major story of the post-9/11 national security beat. The breadth and depth of the interviews that support its stories make it clear that Scahill is not alone in his concern about the path American militarism has taken. Current and former officials, analysts, fighters, tribesman, warlords, and victims’ families come together to tell a story of unchecked power, imprecise violence, and global war.
Dirty Wars‘ darkest chapters are easily its 34th and 35th. The former is comprised largely of a letter from American-educated Nasser A. Al-Aulaqi to President Barack Obama, pleading with the President to reconsider his apparent desire to kill–without charge or trial–Nasser’s son Anwar. The latter tells in gruesome detail the story of a botched raid on a homestead in Gardez, Afghanistan, where JSOC forces descended on the household of anti-Taliban Afghani police officer killing several members of the family–some of them women–and then callously attempting to cover up the mistake.
Scahill’s book is easily one of the most important of the year, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the book’s companion film, also titled Dirty Wars. I recommend it highly and almost without qualification. It will leave you with pressing questions that you’ll be immediately wanting to ask of your politicians:
When can, or can’t, the President decide to kill an American abroad?
Why is the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye still in prison?
and perhaps most upsettingly,
Why was Anwar al-Awlaki’s American-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, an innocent boy, killed by a drone strike while eating with his cousins?
Dirty Wars: The War Is A Battlefield will make you want the answers.