For academics, the end of marking the year’s essays and exams brings a brief sigh of joy, followed by a moment in which it is possible to sit down and read a book or two, uninterrupted. Luckily for me, this moment coincided with Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars landing on my desk. What is interesting in part is that both essentially belong to the same genre (‘War on Terror journalism’ of the ilk of David Sanger or Stephen Grey) but they are remarkably different books in some respects. The first is size: Scahill’s book weighs in at over five hundred pages, excluding footnotes, Mazzetti’s at a respectable 300-odd. That being said, Scahill’s book appears to have almost 50% extra words per page due to the leading of the text. In short, it’s a beast. The second key difference is the particular focus – Mazzetti’s work has a lot more Bob Woodward-esque material on the Washington movers-and-shakers (as well as some of the colourful characters that popped up along the way) while Scahill’s book is relentlessly focused on the effects America’s ‘third war’ has on the ground. But there are similarities, both are studies of bureaucracies that appear to be dangerously out of control (Scahill takes particular umbrage with JSOC, Mazzetti is more focused on the CIA). More importantly, I think both end up making points that they didn’t mean to: Mazzetti’s account of American policy formation in the War on Terror reads less like the precise way of warfare alluded to in the title, and more like a headbutting contest between Washington bigwigs and bureaucracies; Scahill’s account of JSOC-unleashed is meant to scare us but at times points out quite how limited the power of the United States actually is.
The real ‘joy’ of Scahill’s book for me were the chapters on Somalia. Here, Scahill points out, America shot itself in the foot. It is, in all honesty, an unrelenting history of screw-ups that de-stabilised the country, ended up with al-Shabaab almost taking over, and America getting its hands dirty via supporting warlords, and then Ethiopia, and then the recognised government. Oh, and with JSOC and the CIA killing people in the mix, too. Of the many dimensions of Scahill’s book, in my opinion, it is the strongest. One is, I think, meant to read these chapters while umm-ing and ah-ing about the foul deeds of the US government. I read them while thinking back to the Project for a New American Century’s vision of American power in it’s 2000 report. The divergence between the American state that can fight two major theatre wars simultaneously in PNAC’s vision, and the one that cocked up in Somalia is quite considerable. Again, returning to Mazzetti’s book, this lean, mean, empire-sustaining machine is quite absent. The surgical way of warfare gives way to bureaucratic infighting and shouting matches between a bunch of dudes in suits. And that’s just the Americans. In many senses, war is almost entirely absent from sections of this book, its place taken by slanging matches in DC. Furthermore, I think Mazzetti makes the point quite well that the outsourcing and franchising of violence (be it to Blackwater, or men in Mogadishu) is an implicit component of this way of fighting – America can’t fight this type of war without resorting to those type of people. Though Scahill never actually defines what a dirty war is in his book (pro-tip, check out our dept’s own on the matter) Mazzetti’s focus on the internal convulsions in the CIA demonstrate that at least the CIA understands it is fighting one. One could say “but that’s what the CIA does” but I think Mazzetti makes a pretty good point towards the end of his book that the opportunity costs of doing so (missing the Arab spring, for instance) are quite considerable.
One substantial disagreement I have with Scahill’s general narrative is his treatment of the death of Abdulrahman Awlaki. Scahill’s narrative is encapsulated in the chapter title in which his death is detailed: “Paying for the sins of the father”. Scahill does his level best to construct a narrative in which the US government targets and kills a 16 year old US citizen. This, of course, is the denouement to the more famous killing of his father, Anwar. I understand exactly why Scahill wants to make this connection: if the world is a battlefield, then the government will kill its own citizens anywhere. It is quite a scary thought for American citizens. Prima facie, the problem with this narrative and Abdulrahman is that the evidence for this is drawn from very tenuous material. Scahill’s book is constructed of copious quotes, and the suspicions of a bereaved family isn’t exactly balance. Also, trying to nail Peter King on ‘false accusations’ for incorrect statements made while obviously trying to avoid talking to a reporter is grasping at straws. It is a point where Scahill steers perilously close to conspiracy theory where another, quite often stated, explanation exists: Abdulrahman was killed in a strike that targeted Ibrahim al Banna, a senior AQAP figure. Scahill veers away from this explanation, because it doesn’t fit with the “Government assassinating Americans without due process, etc” narrative that he builds throughout the book. I think he’s wrong to do so, if only because engaging with the prospect that the American government accidentally killed one of its own citizens while trying to kill a terrorist is far more worrying for the average American. After all, most Americans don’t ‘fit the profile’ of a terrorist, however widely it is drawn by the American government. But quite a few Americans do go abroad from time to time (I have, I’ll admit, met a Texan who grew up 2 hours from the border and had never left the state). In the type of war that Mazzetti and Scahill are describing, how would an American citizen know where to stand in a border-less war, in order to prevent getting blown to pieces by their own government? Most people would be sane enough not to go near a traditional battlefield, and they’d have all sorts of warnings that they were approaching one, but in the conflict Scahill is outlining, if Abdulrahman was in fact an innocent young man, attempting to find his dad (on the basis of Scahill’s evidence, it’s hard to disagree), what warning could he have had that he was in imminent danger? Okay, stay away from Yemen, perhaps. But if the US government seriously considers targeted killings as a way of taking out terrorists in ‘lawless’ spaces (aka places that either don’t come under state authority, or do to the extent that politics constrains the use of ground forces), then a considerable amount of the Earth’s surface is affected. The prospect of being mis-identified for targeted killing is a reasonable fear for a section of the American population. The prospect of being killed for standing near someone that you had no idea your own government had defined a terrorist now applies to all American citizens, everywhere the US the government reserves the right to use force. Maybe it’s a good time to be a Texan, or cancel any future vacations.