Forever Wars

Editors’ Note: Reposted from The New York Times, August 10, 2021. Occasionally, a book reviewer will provide the kind of insight that inspires interest to acquire the book. At the same time, some reviews, in and of themselves, contain ideas worthy of sharing. This is one occasion placing Afghanistan in context.

Opinion: What you need to know about the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan | Columnists | tulsaworld.comREIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman

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Spencer Ackerman’s barnburner of a new book, “Reign of Terror,” reminded me of that moment in 2015 (remember then?) when Donald J. Trump descended his golden escalator to announce his long-shot candidacy for the highest office. Instead of starting with the usual heartwarming clichés about the country’s better angels, Trump came out swinging, declaring that the United States was in trouble: “When was the last time the U.S. won at anything?”

It certainly hadn’t been winning any of the wars it had been fighting for more than a decade. Ackerman contends that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. The evidence for this blunt-force thesis is presented in “Reign of Terror” with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman’s deep stores of knowledge as a national security journalist to full effect. The result is a narrative of the last 20 years that is upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued.

Ackerman, who has been a correspondent for outlets like Wired and The Guardian, shows how Trump clearly understood something about the post-9/11 era that the professional political class did not. Waging endless war — on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on terror — yielded nothing so definitive as peace or victory, and instead simply fueled a “grotesque subtext” to which Trump proved to be remarkably attuned. He may have changed his positions on this or that conflict willy-nilly, but Trump, Ackerman writes, never wavered on one key point — “the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations.”

[Trump] fueled a “grotesque subtext” [and] . . . never wavered on one key point — “the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations.”

“Reign of Terror” begins with a prologue titled “The Worst Terrorist Attack in American History” — a phrase that for years had referred not to the 9/11 attacks but to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In the immediate aftermath, Muslims were blamed. Newspaper columnists started railing against foreigners and immigrants. The actual culprit, Timothy McVeigh, had been an avowed white supremacist, though you wouldn’t have necessarily known it from the media reports at the time, which kept emphasizing McVeigh’s “survivalism.”

“The Worst Terrorist Attack in American History” — [was] a phrase that for years had referred not to the 9/11 attacks but to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In the immediate aftermath, Muslims were blamed. Newspaper columnists started railing against foreigners and immigrants. The actual culprit, Timothy McVeigh, had been an avowed white supremacist, though you wouldn’t have necessarily known it from the media reports at the time, which kept emphasizing McVeigh’s “survivalism.”

McVeigh was sentenced to death after being tried in an open court, before a jury of his peers. Ackerman invites us to contrast this respect for due process with how the entire machinery of the government transformed itself in response to the 9/11 attacks, with deadly wars, proliferating immigration restrictions and an elaborate apparatus dedicated to mass surveillance.

“When terrorism was white,” Ackerman writes, “America sympathized with principled objections against unleashing the coercive, punitive and violent powers of the state.” He continues: “When terrorism was white, the prospect of criminalizing a large swath of Americans was unthinkable.”

“Reign of Terror” makes clear that what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, can only be called an atrocity; this isn’t one of those accounts that tries to play down the trauma. But Ackerman also suggests that instead of defining the enemy as the specific terrorist network responsible for the attacks, the George W. Bush administration resorted to “deliberate indecision.” White House lawyers pressed for maximum executive power, while Bush would insist that Muslims weren’t the enemy in one moment and then describe the War on Terror as a “crusade” the next.

[Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ contained] “a vague definition of an enemy that consisted of thousands of Muslims, perhaps millions, but not all Muslims — though definitely, exclusively, Muslims.”

“The result,” Ackerman writes, “was a vague definition of an enemy that consisted of thousands of Muslims, perhaps millions, but not all Muslims — though definitely, exclusively, Muslims.”

Ackerman guides us through the next two decades, showing how any prospect of national unity in response to 9/11 buckled under the incoherence of the wars that followed, which he says were “conceptually doomed” from the start. Their endlessness was a source of profound instability, as one conflict (with Iraq) begat another (with ISIS). Ackerman shows how euphemisms became so far removed from the reality they tried to obscure that they were rhetorically useless — “targeted war” (i.e. war), “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture), “targeted killing” (i.e. drone strikes), “Long-Term Non-Religious Fasting” (i.e. hunger strikes).

President Bush may have been a conservative Republican, but Ackerman reminds us that liberal Democrats were complicit in starting and sustaining the forever wars. A growing popular disgust with both parties reflected how nativists on one side and progressives on the other understood a truth that centrists elided. The fringes on the right and the left could see how the War on Terror was an extension of the country’s history, Ackerman says, with its settler colonialism and fantasies of a race war; the difference was that the nativist right insisted that settler colonialism was part of what made America great, while the progressive left found it morally despicable. By 2016, nativists were rejoicing at the prospect of Trump pursuing (nonwhite) terrorists without any restraints; progressives wanted the War on Terror abolished.

The fringes on the right and the left could see how the War on Terror was an extension of the country’s history, Ackerman says, with its settler colonialism and fantasies of a race war; the difference was that the nativist right insisted that settler colonialism was part of what made America great, while the progressive left found it morally despicable. By 2016, nativists were rejoicing at the prospect of Trump pursuing (nonwhite) terrorists without any restraints; progressives wanted the War on Terror abolished. . . . Trump, Ackerman writes, “had learned the foremost lesson of 9/11: The terrorists were whomever you said they were.”

Those progressives were especially disenchanted by President Obama, who was a vocal opponent of the forever wars but once in office labored to put them on a more “sustainable” and “more lawful” footing. Obama abhorred torture; otherwise, Ackerman says, he was “flexible.” Ackerman depicts the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 as an opportunity to declare the mission accomplished. “Instead,” he writes, “Obama squandered the best chance anyone could ever have to end the 9/11 era.”

There is, of course, a counterargument, and Obama’s close adviser Ben Rhodes offers it to Ackerman: “Let’s say he did that, and dismantled our counterterrorism apparatus over that summer, and there’s a terrorist attack and then the world ends.” However inelegantly phrased, it’s a possibility that Ackerman doesn’t really address.

Still, this revelatory book shows that for all the lawyering and “targeted killing,” Obama’s centrist approach simply could not hold. Under President Trump, there were even more drone strikes and less transparency. According to one study, Trump’s accelerated bombing campaign in Afghanistan increased civilian casualties by 330 percent.

Not to mention that the animus and cruelty that had been stoked for a decade and a half could be easily turned on immigrants closer to home. Trump, Ackerman writes, “had learned the foremost lesson of 9/11: The terrorists were whomever you said they were.”



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