Book review: Dirty Wars. The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

“The role of journalism is to go where the silences are”, US progressive journalist Amy Goodman once said.

A big book in every sense, Dirty Wars is the perfect example of this maxim, shining much needed light on the dark underbelly of post-9/11 US foreign policy and its many victims. The National Security Correspondent for Nation magazine in the US, Jeremy Scahill is one of the most knowledgeable observers of the so-called war on terror, having travelled to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen for research.

The story hinges on 9/11, with neo-conservatives like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld using the terrorist attacks as a pretext for a massive expansion of US covert wars. Black ops, secret prisons, snatch squads, drones and assassination have been deployed on an unprecedented scale. “All you need to know is that there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11”, noted the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief Cofer Black. “After 9/11 the gloves came off.”

A key focus for Scahill is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – a secret elite force that was allowed to “run wild, like a mustang” after Obama came in to office, according to one inside source. Scahill’s clear-sighted analysis of America’s first Black president is one of the book’s strengths. Unlike many journalists and intellectuals he was not blinded by the quality of Obama’s oratory. Instead he argues Obama has “ultimately legitimized and expanded” many of the policies of the Bush Administration. For the policymakers in the US Government – both Democratic and Republican – the world is a battlefield, with US Special Forces now operating in 75 countries according the New York Times. On my count, Obama has now struck seven countries with drones – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines. With facts such as these it’s hard not to escape the conclusion that Obama is, as muckraker Matt Tabbi once put it, an “imperial administrator.”

Although both wars are largely ignored by the mainstream media, Scahill takes a particular interest in the US attacks and interference in Yemen and Somalia. Regarding the US drone war on Yemen, in 2010 President Saleh assured General David Petreaus “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”. The inevitable civilian casualties followed, with one witness to a strike explaining “you could not tell if this meat belongs to animals or human beings.” Unsurprisingly, this remote warfare is very unpopular, with a Yemini activist recently writing in the New York Times that “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants.” US actions in Somalia, including outsourcing extrajudicial killings to warlords, have been equally counterproductive, with a 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Report noting that Al-Qaeda’s “foothold in Somalia has probably been facilitated by the involvement of Western powers”.

Threading its way through this litany of death and destruction and binding the book’s  55 chapters together is a rolling account of the US killing of two US citizens – Anwar Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman. With no charges brought against Awlaki and President Obama serving as judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner Scahill argues these assassinations “represented a watershed moment in modern US history.”

At 642 pages, Dirty Wars is a daunting read. Luckily Scahill is a skilled writer, with a journalist’s eye for telling detail and some disturbing stories to tell. With much of the media muzzled by calls to patriotism and the worship of established power, Scahill has been doing his job – holding the powerful to account. The extensive footnotes and grand historical sweep mean this tour de force will act as a brilliant reference book for years to come. This is journalism at its finest – essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the deadly effects of US foreign policy since 2001.

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £15.99.

Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press.


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