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America Is Filling Empty Battlefields

A new book tells the secret history of twenty-first century American war.

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 1:18 PM EDT

Preparing the Battlefield

A couple of years back, TomDispatch correspondent Ann Jones told me something I've never forgotten. Having spent time with US troops in Afghanistan, she described their patrols in the countryside this way: yes, there were dangers, mainly IEDs (roadside bombs) and the odd potshot taken at them, but on the whole the areas they patrolled every day were eerily "empty." In some sense, it almost seemed as if no one was there, as if they were fighting a ghost war on—her term—an empty battlefield.

As it happens, her observation has a planetary analogue that lies at the heart of Scahill's remarkable book. As you may remember, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it took no time at all for Bush administration officials to think big. Notoriously, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began urging aides to build a case against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein only five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Within weeks administration figures were already talking with confidence about the need to "drain the swamp" of terrorists and enemies on a global scale. They were reportedly planning to target 60 to 80 countries, almost a third to close to one-half of the nations on this planet. In other words, when they quickly declared a Global War on Terror, they weren't kidding. They meant it quite literally and, as Scahill reports, they promptly went to work building up the kinds of forces—secret and at their command alone—that could fight anywhere on the sly.

As these forces were dispatched globally to collect intelligence, train foreign forces (also often "special" and secret), and especially hunt and kill terrorists, a new tradecraft term came into play, a phrase as crucial to Scahill's book as "blowback" was to Johnson's. They were, it was claimed, going out to "prepare the battlefield" (or alternately, "the battlespace" or "the environment"). That process of preparation couldn't have been more breathtakingly hubristic. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld summed up the situation this way: "Today, the entire world is the ‘battlespace.'"

Here's the strange thing, though: when those secret forces went out to do their dirty work, that global battlefield was, using Jones's term, remarkably, eerily empty. There was hardly anyone there. Perhaps hundreds or at most a few thousand jihadis scattered mainly in the backlands of the planet. If "preparing the battlefield" turned out to be the crucial term of the era, it wasn't exactly a descriptively accurate one. More on the mark might have been: "creating the battlefield" or "filling the empty battlefield."

The pattern that Scahill traces brilliantly might have boiled down to a version of the tag line for the movie Field of Dreams: if you prepare it, they will come. The result was not so much a war on, as a war of, and for, terror. Washington would, at one and the same time, produce a killing machine and a terror-generating machine. Dirty Wars catches the way its top officials became convinced that the planet's last superpower, with "the finest fighting force the world has ever known" (as American presidents now never grow tired of repeating), could simply kill its way to victory globally.

As Scahill also shows, they were often remarkably successful at eliminating the figures on their "kill list" of targeted enemies from Osama bin Laden on down: Bin Laden himself in Pakistan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, Aden Hashi Ayro in Somalia, Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, as well as various "lieutenants" of top al-Qaeda figures and allied groups. And yet, as those on the kill lists died, thanks to the CIA's drones and JSOC's raiders, so did others. Often enough, they were innocent civilians—and in quantity. People who shouldn't have ever had their doors kicked in, their sons arrested or their pregnant wives shot down, and who bitterly resented what they experienced. And so before Washington knew it, the kill list was growing larger, not smaller, and its wars were becoming more, not less, intense and spreading to other lands. The battlefield, copiously prepared, was filling with enemies.

A Perpetual Motion Machine for the Destabilization of the Planet

As Washington launched its post-9/11 adventures, the neoconservative allies of the Bush administration, believing the wind in their sails, eyed the vast area from North Africa to the Central Asian border of China (aka "the Greater Middle East") that they liked to call the "arc of instability." The job of the US, they imagined, was to bring stability to that "arc" by using America's overwhelming military power to create a Pax Americana in the region. They were, in other words, fundamentalists and the US military was their born-again religion. They believed that its techno-power would trump every other form of power on the planet, hands down.

In the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq and in light of the ongoing disastrous war in Afghanistan, if you look at the Greater Middle East today—from Pakistan to Syria, Afghanistan to Mali—you'll know what instability is really all about. Twelve years later, much of the region has been destabilized to one degree or another, which might pass as the definition for Washington of short-term success and long-term failure.

In reality, they should have known better from the start. After all, behind the global war launched by the Bush administration and carried on by Obama was a twenty-first-century replay of a brutal flop of a strategy in Washington's failed war in Vietnam. The phrase that went with it back then was "the crossover point," the supposedly crucial moment in what was bluntly thought of as a "war of attrition."

The idea was simple enough. The staggering firepower available to Washington would be brought to bear on the Vietnamese enemy with the obvious, expectable result: sooner or later, a moment would be reached in which the US would be killing more of that enemy than could be replaced by recruitment in South Vietnam or the infiltration of reinforcements from the North. At that moment, Washington would "crossover" into victory. We know just where that led—to the infamous body count (which the Bush administration tried desperately to avoid in Iraq and Afghanistan), to slaughter on a staggering scale, and to defeat when the prodigious number of enemies killed somehow never resulted in the US crossing over.

And here's the ironic thing. Like his father who, as the first Gulf War ended in 1991, spoke ecstatically of having "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," George W. Bush and his top officials had an overwhelming allergy to the memory of Vietnam. Yet they still managed to launch a global war of attrition against a range of groups they defined as "terrorists." They were clearly planning to kill them, one by one if possible, or in "signature" groups if necessary, until some crossover point was reached, until the enemy was losing more members than could be replaced and victory came into sight. As in Vietnam, of course, that crossover point never arrived and it's increasingly clear that it never will. Scahill's reporting couldn't be more incisive on the subject.

Dirty Wars is really the secret history of how Washington launched a series of undeclared wars in the backlands of the planet and killed its way to something that ever more closely resembled an actual global war, creating a world of enemies out of next to nothing. Think of it as a bizarre form of unconscious wish fulfillment and the results—they came!—as a field of nightmares.

What was created in the process now seems more like a perpetual motion machine for the destabilization of the planet. Just follow the spread of drone bases and of JSOC's raiders, and you can actually watch the backlands of the globe destabilizing before your eyes, or read Scahill's book and get a superb blow-by-blow account of just how it happened. The process is now well underway in Africa where destabilization seems to be heading south from Libya via Mali.

Reread Blowback 13 years later and it's hard to believe that anyone was so ahead of his times, given the human predilection for being unable to foresee much of anything. Perhaps the saddest thing that can be said about Dirty Wars is that, the way things look, 13 years from now Scahill's book, too, may seem as fresh as last night's news. He has laid out a style of off-the-books war-making that seems destined to be perpetuated, no matter what administration is in power.

Much remains unknown when it comes to our recent non-war wars. Thirteen years from now we may know far more about what JSOC, the CIA, and others were really doing in these years. None of that, however, is likely to change the pattern Scahill has set down for us.

So let's not hesitate to say it: mission accomplished! The world may not have been a battlefield then. But they prepared the global battlespace so well that it's heading in that direction now.

Almost unnoticed, imperial wars also have a way of coming home. Take the reaction to the Boston marathon bombings. The response was certainly the largest, most militarized manhunt in American history. In its own way, it was also an example of the empty battlefield. An 87-square mile metropolitan area was almost totally locked down. At least 9,000 heavily up-armored local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, hundreds of National Guard troops, SWAT teams, armored vehicles, helicopters, and who knows what else hit the streets of greater Boston's neighborhoods in a search for two dangerous, deluded young men, one of whom ended up bloodied inside a boat in a backyard just outside the zone the police had cordoned off to search in Watertown. It was a spectacle that would have been unimaginable in pre-9/11 America.

The expense must have been staggering (especially if you add in business losses from the city's shutdown). In the end, of course, one of the suspects was killed and the other captured—and celebrations of that short-term success began immediately on the streets of Boston and in the media. But here, too, killing your way to success is unlikely to prove a winning strategy. After all, we're already in Scahill's blowback world in which, no matter the number of deaths, there is unlikely to be a crossover point.

After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston bombing suspect, was captured, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted a new phrase into the American lexicon. While calling for the 19-year-old to be held as an "enemy noncombatant" (à la Guantanamo), he wrote, "The homeland is the battlefield." That should send chills down the spine of any reader of Dirty Wars.

Above all else, there's this: while the world burned and melted, Washington set itself one crucial global mission: to send its secret forces out onto that global battlefield to hunt random jihadis. It may be the worst case of imperial risk assessment since Nero fiddled and Rome burned.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This essay focused on Jeremy Scahill's new book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Nation Books). In June, a film of the same title directed by Rick Rowley and based on the book will hit the theaters. I've seen it in preview. Its focus differs from the book's. Scahill is its narrator. It's deeply personal and is powerfully humanizing of those whose doors we've kicked in during this last grim decade-plus. It could be the documentary of the year.]

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