The task of exposing the stark truth has always belonged to the independent journalist. With his new book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill renews this tradition by bringing the last decade of clandestine war making by the American government into the clearest possible focus.
I use the words “clearest possible” because where governments are concerned, the ugliest and most important truths are always buried by those who are responsible for them. The availability of unprecedented communication technology in the age of Internet has driven officials to unprecedented lengths to keep secret the unnecessary killing of thousands of innocents and alleged militants abroad, a handful of whom are U.S. citizens. Failure to keep the public confused about these matters would risk a popular backlash and the possible loss of political power. As a result, the populace (and the publishing industry’s many desk editors) is dependent on reporters who are compelled by conscience to risk their lives and reputations to show the rest of us what the world’s executioners would rather keep hidden.
It is because of investigative journalists like Scahill that we have unauthorized, behind-the-scenes details of American war in the 21st century. We saw evidence of this in 2007 with Scahill’s first book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. With Dirty Wars the fact is confirmed. In the trailer (available below) of an upcoming documentary based on the book, Scahill recounts his realization that the official front lines in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq were only part of the story. “There was another war, hidden in the shadows,” he says.
Both the film and the book offer accounts of America’s covert wars in places to which many Americans never give a thought: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The soldiers in these battles, drawn from the ranks of the U.S. military, mercenary forces such as Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and foreign troops, “operate globally and inside the United States with orders from the White House to do whatever is necessary to hunt down, capture, or kill individuals designated by the president as enemies.” There is no weapon or tactic that is unavailable to them. They “engage in targeted killings, snatch and grab individuals, and direct drone, AC-130, and cruise missile strikes” today with a legitimacy that only a smiling Democratic president can confer.
Besides the particulars it offers, the greatest value of Scahill’s book may lie in its confirmation that the war on terror isn’t about ending terrorism; its true purpose is to maintain and expand it. There is no question that American military intervention has created far more jihadis ready to give their lives for the chance to strike back at the evil empire than ever existed before the attacks of 9/11. As previous Truthdigger of the Week Tom Engelhardt wrote in a TomDispatch review of Scahill’s book, immediately after those attacks, the Bush administration dispatched its soldiers and agents “to collect intelligence, train foreign forces … and especially hunt and kill terrorists.” They were, Engelhardt cites, “going out to ‘prepare the battlefield.’” The strange thing though, he continues, is that the battlefield was “remarkably, eerily empty.”
It wouldn’t be for long. The roar of engines and gunfire soon provoked Afghans and Iraqis who were opposed to the occupation of their country to assume a defensive position. The situation worsened as, with increasing frequency, the Obama administration filled the sky over the Middle East with drones. Now people who live there do so in constant fear of being killed without warning from an invisible enemy up above. These policies ensured the previously empty battlefield would soon become flush with opponents. “[A]t one and the same time,” Engelhardt wrote, Washington produced “a killing machine and a terror-generating machine.”
In 2010, Scahill testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the United States’ shadow wars across the Middle East and the Arab world. “The current U.S. strategy,” he told the assembled legislators, “can be summed up as follows: We are trying to kill our way to peace. And the killing fields are growing in number.” A substantial portion of the American public has bought the demonstrably absurd line that their government can kill its way to a resolution of its problems with the rest of the world. As Engelhardt reminds us, this wasn’t true with Vietnam and it isn’t true today. This misunderstanding on the part of the public is a result of official and media efforts to conceal the fact that the government has played a leading role in creating the current landscape of hostility.
During his time as a national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, Scahill has broken a number of major stories on the American government’s military activities. In “Dirty Wars,” we get the most simultaneously detailed and readable account of such horrors as the government’s assassination by drone of the 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of a radical Muslim cleric slain in the same manner two weeks before. Because of dedicated reporters like Scahill, Americans who are disturbed by the killing their government carries out across the world have access to the information necessary to understand it. For courageously providing that vital service, we honor Jeremy Scahill as our Truthdigger of the Week.