JEREMY SCAHILL SPENT years working out his notions of social justice in homeless shelters and conflict zones and among peace activists. In 2007, Scahill’s award-winning investigative reporting made waves when he published Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a comprehensive exposé on the secret role of private military contractors in the United States’ “war on terror,” which prompted several congressional inquiries. Scahill’s newest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, digs into the obscure underbelly of U.S. covert wars.
“In one of my trips to Yemen, I traveled in the south of the country where most of the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have happened,” Scahill said during a recent visit to Sojourners’ Washington, D.C. office. “I was interviewing a number of tribal leaders. This guy from Shabwa province said to me, ‘[Americans] consider al Qaeda [to be] terrorism. We consider your drones [to be] terrorism.’ I heard that over and over in a variety of countries. ... Many people, in Yemen or in Somalia, would not be predisposed to think of al Qaeda as anything positive. Al Qaeda is a reviled organization in Yemen. ... But there are tribal leaders who are saying, ‘You know, you pushed us into a corner where our people are now sympathetic with al Qaeda.’ After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”
In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill’s book title, Dirty Wars (and film of the same name), is partly “a macabre tip-of-the-hat to the dirty wars in Central America, fueled by the United States ... targeting people who are insurgents and claiming they were communists. The new version of this is targeting people who are fighting us and claiming they’re al Qaeda.”
It was Reagan and Bush’s wildest dream, said Scahill, “to be able to justify a sort of unending war. And it’s being legitimized under a popular Democratic president who is a constitutional lawyer by trade.”
Within months of assuming office, President Obama personally oversaw the escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan. Obama, Scahill believes, has bought into the idea that targeted assassinations, drone strikes, and covert operations are the smartest way to fight these wars.
“[Congressional] oversight is messy,” said Scahill. “Democracy is messy. Drones presented an opportunity to minimize the risk and maximize the secrecy.”
As a result, Pentagon officials and private contractors, not our elected representatives, determine when we are at war. More chillingly, death by drone strike is ordered not by sentence of guilt by jury or even authenticated secret intelligence, but often on the basis of patterns of behavior and association. These “signature strikes”—drone attacks begun under Bush and expanded under Obama that target unknown people based on behavior patterns—fly in the face of international law.
Within five years, Scahill pointed out, the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war on Iraq for a terrorist attack it didn’t commit—decried by Christians of all stripes—has transformed into pre-emptive assassinations for crimes not yet committed.
HOW DID OBAMA, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning constitutional law expert, who courageously campaigned against the war in Iraq, end up here? Scahill said you can see Obama’s evolution on national security and counterterrorism from 2004 when he spoke at the Democratic convention to 2008 when he received his first “all-access” national security briefing by then-CIA director Michael Hayden. “After that, Obama’s positions started to become very, very refined. He starts to talk more about taking the fight to al Qaeda. His rhetoric became more belligerent.”
“Anyone who [wins the presidency] has already been seduced by the power of the office,” Scahill said. “They already have a fundamental acceptance that the United States is the dominant power in the world and needs to stay that way. [The administration] is trying to say, ‘Trust us. We’re keeping the country safe in a much more effective, smart, cheap way than our predecessors.’ And many, many liberals have bought into that.”
Indeed, the covert nature of war perpetrated by the U.S. goes far beyond secret operations carried out by shadow operatives. The information gaps between the public, the federal government, and the field of battle are so great that the entire war industry is shrouded in mystery—impossible to justify, impossible to prosecute, and ambiguous in efficacy. The result, Scahill suggested, is a tacit complicity to “unending war” led by a Democratic president who now “serves as prosecutor, judge, jury, and ultimately executioner” not only of militants or suspected militants, but even of American citizens. “I believe we crossed a line there that would be very hard to back up from,” said Scahill.
In October 2011, a U.S. drone strike killed a 16-year-old American boy named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki from Denver. He was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a moderate-turned-militant Muslim imam and presumed terrorist. Scahill grew close with the al-Awlaki family over the course of his research. He was struck by a comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who said that Abdulrahman, a teenager with no evidence of terrorist sentiments, “deserved to die.” Former White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs asserted that “he should have had a more responsible father.”
“But what [CIA Director John Brennan] said haunts me,” recalled Scahill. “He said, ‘Look, we’d just killed three American citizens in a two-week period. Two of them weren’t even targets. That doesn’t look good. It was embarrassing.’ So, the most current answer we have as to why the president won’t explain to [us] why this 16-year-old boy was killed ... is because it was too embarrassing.”
AS WE ADOPT drones as favored tools of war, Scahill’s stories reveal what is at stake. Underlying the violence, devastation, and loss of innocent life in the increasingly dirty “war on terrorism” is the inherent danger of human disconnect. In short, drones accelerate our appetite for easy violence while anesthetizing our capacity for guilt.
In many ways, Americans today wage war with no direct risk to our livelihood or those of our loved ones. When our weapons require no effort or loss on our part, the grave decision to enter combat—and the troubling consequences this wreaks on other families around the globe—are far easier swept out of mind.
For “pilots,” drones are violence disembodied, war pixilated. Conducting a strike from an office computer screen is not so different than launching an attack in a video game. Yet what we conduct through a computer in the U.S. rips through the real flesh and real bone of our neighbors in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
“You don’t have pilots risking their lives flying over a territory,” Scahill said. “You have men and women sitting in trailers at Creech Air Force Base in the southwest ... bombing countries on the other side of the world. Driving off that base, they see a sign that says ‘Buckle Up! This is the most dangerous part of your day.’ ... You’re fighting war all day by remote control, and the most serious risk facing you that day is that you get into a car accident without a seat belt on.”
The American people effectively have been disconnected from American power and the weapons that protect it. This has deeply troubling implications for freedom and democracy. “My belief is that a society is defined on how it treats the least of its people, the poorest of its people, and the most reprehensible of its citizens,” Scahill said, “not how it treats the powerful.”
Despite the evil that Scahill confronts in his research and reporting, he hasn’t lost hope, nor has he lost a reverence for the humanity of all involved—from CIA analyst to president to tribal leader to drone-strike victim.
“I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t have hope,” Scahill said. “I think that’s true of all the people I know that spend some part of their lives either fighting for justice or trying to tell the stories of people who live on the other side of the barrel of the gun. There’s no way you can do these things, that you can work in a world that has so many dark corners, unless you believe that change is possible.”
Yet Scahill, perhaps more than most, recognizes that having belief does not mean having answers. Scahill concluded his book and began his interview with the same aching question: “How does a war like this ever end?”
The painful truth is that we don’t know.
Watch the interview here.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.