“Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret, laws are interpreted by the President and his advisers behind closed doors and no target is off-limits, including US citizens.”—Jeremy Scahill
As he makes the rounds on late night talk shows promoting his newest book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill often receives the same question from interviewers: “How are you still alive?”
Presumably, the hosts of these programs—ranging from Jay Leno to Tavis Smiley to Bill Maher—are not only highlighting the dangers Scahill faces in reporting on wars abroad, but also the shadow networks of power at home that might prefer the journalist be deceased. They are obviously half-joking, and the quip is intended to serve as a lighthearted icebreaker in anticipation of discussion around the heavy themes and disturbing subject matter of Dirty Wars. Lighthearted or not, the fact that they are only half-joking in ruminating on the author’s mortality speaks volumes about the true nature of the “war on terror” fought both in the US and abroad, and the dangers faced by modern journalists with an interest in exposing power.
Dirty Wars is not exactly a revelation: as national security correspondent at The Nation, Scahill has been writing about secret US counter-terror operations, President Obama’s extrajudicial assassination campaign, the rise of US-backed mercenary armies, and the drone war for over a decade. Other journalists, most notably The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, have been equally persistent and vocal on the same issues. Still, Dirty Wars feels like a revelation—never before has America’s recent dirty laundry been collected and put on display so comprehensively. Although occasionally overwrought with minutiae at 680 pages, it may be the most damning indictment of the US “war on terror” yet published.
Scahill’s tome is mostly composed of vignettes, profiles and summaries of US counter-terrorism operations in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and West Asia, featuring a wide range of interviews and essays concerning the victims—and “victors”—of the modern war on terror. Relying on an expansive network of mostly anonymous sources in close proximity to the current administration, Scahill exposes President Obama’s expansion of war powers and increasing reliance on drone technology, private contractors, and mercenary armies to conduct anti-terror combat operations abroad. Since taking office in 2009, Obama has greatly reduced the number of US “boots on the ground”, while concurrently increasing the number of missile and drone attacks, arguing in favor of “smarter” wars with less US casualties. The author argues persuasively that American military power is becoming increasingly mechanized, privatized, and dehumanized, with grave consequences at home and abroad.
Naturally, the shadow of 9/11 looms large over Dirty Wars. However, what some readers may find surprising is that this is very much a book about Barack Obama, rather than his predecessors in office. Although George W. Bush and Dick Cheney put in place many of the counter-terrorism strategies and quasi-legal procedures associated with the modern “war on terror”, Obama has overseen their expansion, and given them new scope and legitimacy. In retrospect, it was fitting that Bush II declared the Iraq “Mission Accomplished” aboard an aircraft carrier, while Obama’s ultimate victory over bin Laden was announced in relative peace on the White House lawn: Obama prefers to conduct discrete, covert wars largely confined to the shadows, as opposed to Bush, the Cowboy-cum-Commander in Chief. Obama has never looked comfortable with pomp and ceremony, and his expansive national security apparatus has reaped all the benefits.
Considering the gravity of the charges made by Scahill in Dirty Wars, it is disconcerting that liberal critics have been so few in number when it comes to the President’s policies on national security. Several years of Republican intransigence in the House and Senate seems to have solidified unwavering support of Obama among Democrats, while the similarly-draconian security policies of Bush II faced far greater scrutiny. One can’t help but come to the conclusion that were President Romney or McCain overseeing the targeted killing of US citizens instead of President Obama, criticism from Democrats would be deafening by comparison.
With its quick cuts between scenes and engaging narrative structure, it’s fitting that Dirty Wars almost reads like a film, as a documentary of the same name is due for wide release later this month. Dirty Wars the film, in which Scahill appears as both presenter and producer, has won acclaim at Sundance and other festivals the world over, and has already become one of the most-talked-about documentaries of the year.
With the recent exposure of the National Security Administration’s gross expansion under Obama, Dirty Wars is particularly timely—if there was ever a moment to arouse liberal indignation, and direct the attention of Americans to the true nature of the wars fought in their name, it is now. In his relentless promotion of his newest book and film, it’s apparent that Scahill is attempting to cast as much light as possible on Obama’s covert wars at home and abroad. It remains to be seen whether or not “sunlight is the greatest disinfectant”, as the author quipped in a recent TV appearance.
Books that accompany documentary films often feel hackneyed and underwhelming by comparison. I have not yet seen Dirty Wars the film, but if it is half as engaging, illuminating, and unsettling as the book that bears its name, American cinema-goers are in for quite a ride this summer.