Monday, April 19, 2010

THE WAR ON TERROR - Reports from the front lines

The terror attacks on September 11, 2001 sent shockwaves around the world

You have to hand it to the USA, when it comes to marketing, they are the world leaders. The War on Terror. Great campaign title isn't it? I wish I could claim to have come up with that one, but it was some anonymous speechwriter in the Bush administration who dreamed it up. I hope he got a good bonus that year.

The War on Terror has been tripping along for quite some time now. The attacks on the Twin Towers took place, as we all know, on September 11, 2001. Almost ten years ago. Like many, I consider the event to be the defining act of this decade, much like Woodstock and the moon landing defined the 60s and Disco and the Vietnam War defined the 70s. It changed the world in no uncertain terms and set off an extraordinary chain of events that continues to unfold to this day.

I was lucky enough to be in the Middle East when the first strikes were made against Iraq. Shock and Awe they called it - another great bit of marketing. It was a hair-raising moment as we sat and watched the green images on our TV set. We could see people in Baghdad strolling around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were being targeted by god knows how many smart (and not so smart) missiles.

Since that day (March 31 if memory serves) I have tried to follow the whole story by grabbing whatever material I can find that shines a light on these events. We are lucky in that there are many fine war correspondents who are willing to risk their lives to bring back eye-witness accounts of these events that take place on the other side of the globe. There are also many great investigative journalists who spending hundreds of hours poring over documents, interviewing little known bureaucrats and attending congressional reviews to compile books that tell us what was really going on behind the scenes.

Beyond the daily news reports that tend to paint a chaotic and confusing picture of events, these accounts are invaluable if we are to obtain an understanding of what these events mean to the world in the greater scheme of things. They also have the invaluable benefit of hindsight.

These are some of the pivotal publications that I can recommend unreservedly if you want to obtain a better understanding of the War on Terror. I will add to the list as I myself absorb more literature in time to come. At bottom is a list of further reading that I haven't gotten around to (time and funds are always limited) but is also highly recommended.

The Looming Tower, Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

An indispensable account of how AQ got to the pivotal point of flying planes into the World Trade Center. This account contains some astonishing revelations about the loosely organized collection of extremists who planned and executed a devastating attack on one of the most symbolically powerful institutions in the western world. Wright traces the origins on AQ and includes a great deal of biographical information on its leader, Osama Bin Laden, that provides revealing insights into his motivations for forming AQ and his hatred for the Great Satan and all things western.

The other fascinating character that emerged from the ashes was FBI Agent John O'Neill who's obsessive pursuit of Al Qaeda was unfortunately waylaid by his superiors who took exception to his unconventional working methods and messy personal life. One can speculate whether O'Neill may have succeeded in preventing the disaster if he had been allowed to remain as chief of the New York bureau but that would have been a real miracle. The simple truth of the matter is that the plan was simply too audacious and incredible for anyone to have guessed at it in time to stop it from unfolding. Not to mention the now well-documented rivalry between the CIA and FBI which prevented vital intelligence from reaching the necessary ears and allowed the terrorists to slip through the cracks. The book was justly rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

Al Qaeda - The True Story of Radical Islam by Jason Burke

Where Wright's book reads like a novel (not that there's anything wrong with that), Burke's investigation into the origins and development of AQ takes a more traditional approach. His aim is to provide unique inside views of the organisation's history and operations in the desolate and primitive regions of the world where they ply their trade and in the process dispel some of the myths that have arisen around the AQ since its meteoric rise to fame. He unpacks their modus operandi and goes into some detail about their origins and how their infamous hydra-headed structure came about. In the process it becomes clear that combating this organisation is an extraordinarily difficult task. Cut off one head and another grows in its place - only under a different name and in a different location. Burke's book is even more valuable because he didn't come by the information sitting behind a desk but traveled into the belly of the beast and went in search of his subjects in the back alleys and mountain passes of Sudan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 - 2005
by Thomas E. Ricks

A devastating and brilliantly summed up account of the piss-poor planning that went into the Iraq war by a senior war correspondent at the Wall Street Journal and more recently the Washington Post. Hicks doesn't mince words (as the title would indicate) and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the neocons in Bush's administration - Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney - who accurately foresaw a glorious and resounding defeat for the Hussein administration but failed dismally to plan for the post-war scenario and then stood by and watched helplessly as insurgents turned Iraq into an ongoing disaster area in the months and years following the invasion. The real tragedy behind the whole mess is that the USA went from being welcome liberators to despised occupiers in a matter of weeks and created a massive strategic disaster that set back their efforts to combat Islamic extremism by decades. Instead of being hailed as heroes, they became an object of hatred for millions of Iraqis who prior to the invasion probably had no feeling one way or another towards the USA. Hicks provides a totally convincing account of why the Iraqis have good reason to feel the way they do.

COBRA II - The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon & Bernard Trainor

COBRA II is a work of serious and intimidating gravitas but once you get into it, the pages turn rapidly. The authors are heavyweights who know what they are talking about and together they deliver massive amounts of incriminating detail and mind-boggling revelations on how the Bush administration threw up a smokescreen of unmitigated BS in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. The whole weapons of mass destruction myth is dismantled here and the book also shows how the press were complicit in creating the atmosphere of mass hysteria that led to the invasion. The authors don't only dwell among the upper echelons of command to obtain their material but get down in the trenches with the invading forces, providing a gripping account of the initial invasion and the problems they encountered due to the US forces' insistence on using heavy artillery and armour at all costs, despite the unique conditions presented by the geography of Iraq.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

The Iraq War created the strange phenomenon of the embedded journalist, a reporter who was placed with a particular battalion and lived with them as they embarked on the exhilarating and terrifying journey into the war zones. This resulted in up-to-the-minute reporting for the news channels and websites of the large newspapers who could afford such luxuries but also gave reporters unprecedented access to the grunts who fought these wars. Incredibly young, highly efficient killers and often tremendously naive, these soldiers had immense firepower at their disposal but they were less well-equipped to deal with the insanity and tragedy of the scenes that confronted them every day. Wright traveled with First Recon, an elite group of fighters who's job it is to venture behind enemy lines and report back on hostile activity and movement. In all their infinite wisdom the US Army instead reassigns this battalion to spearhead the invasion of Iraq, and they find themselves on point, racing ahead to encounter scenes of a distinctly surreal nature. Wright paints an unforgettable portrait of the unit's colourful characters and shows that for all the grand schemes hatched by the generals and politicians, more often that not, it is the grunt behind the wheel of the humvee and the trigger of the .50 cal who determines the outcome of the battle.

The Forever War - Dexter Filkins

New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins has crafted a book of strange and surreal beauty in The Forever War. Far removed from a typical account of war in foreign places, it has a remote and serene quality to it that belies the horror it reports on. Like a sober and serious-minded version of Hunter S Thompson, Filkins inserts himself into almost every scene and in a lucid and deceptively simple style creates a series of vignettes that are greater than the sum of their parts, adding up to provide an overwhelming sense of the intractable nature of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. A truly haunting work that will go down in history along with Michael Herr's Dispatches and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down as one of the great works of war reportage.

Further reading:

House to House by David Bellavia - an eyewitness story of the battle for Fallujah by the soldiers who fought it. Highly praised account of that incredibly tough and costly campaign
No True Glory by Bing West - another well regarded account of the Fallujah dust-up
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel - Another well-respected work of war reportage that follows the much debated troop surge that was meant to turn the tide in Iraq
Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. A boy's own tale of Special Forces in Afghanistan
Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. An eye-witness account of life in the surreal and infamous US base of operations in the heart of Baghdad.

[Images courtesy of Barnes&Noble]