ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

Each evening the nightly news seems to zero in on another story that relates to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  We are bombarded with border crossings into Syria from Turkey, the state of the effort by Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit, fears concerning Iran’s role in Iraq should ISIS finally be defeated, the capture of a former American Air Force veteran seized at the Turkish border and extradited to the United States, and yesterday’s brutal attack in Tunisia.  This nightly visual obsession has produced a number of new books on the rise of ISIS and suggestions on how we should deal with them.  One of the better or perhaps the best of this new genre, explaining ISIS, is Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR.  The book is written in a very straight forward historical narrative that tries to explain how we have arrived where we are today in trying to understand current events and how they relate to the last decade of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

The narrative traces the evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi until his death in 2006 by an American air strike.  It continues its discussion by zeroing in on the schism that develops between al-Qaeda and the emergence of ISI over strategy in the sectarian civil war in Iraq, and integrates events in Syria that will culminate in the movement to overthrow Bashir al-Assad.  What stands out in Weiss and Hassan’s effort is their analysis of how the current situations in Iraq and Syria came to be, and what role the United States and Iran played.  The rise of ISI is directly linked to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and American support for the Shi’a politician, Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister.  The authors repeatedly point out that Iraqi Sunnis hoped to be treated fairly by the government in Baghdad.  After the United States invaded Iraq, American decision makers fired Sunni bureaucrats, dismissed the Sunni dominated Ba’athist Party, and disbanded the Iraqi military, leaving Sunnis unemployed, and when Shi’a politicians, like Maliki did not deliver on their promises, very bitter.  As Iran’s influence in Baghdad increased many Sunnis, particularly former policeman and military officers under Saddam Hussein turned to ISI.  The authors provide details how Maliki became Prime Minister and his negative impact on creating a unified Iraq.  The authors also delve into the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the supreme leader of ISIS and his split with al-Qaeda, a major schism for the jihadi universe.

The authors provide an depth analysis of the civil war that broke out in Syria in February, 2011.  Weiss and Hassan make a number of important points that allows the reader to understand the complex political situation that exists and how it came about.  Once the revolution gained a foothold it seems Assad’s strategy was to terrorize Syrian Sunnis so they would become radicalized and join the forces that sought to overthrow him.  He wanted to create a situation where Alawites (Shi’a sect that Assad belongs to that made up 8-15% of the country’s population) and Christians felt endangered.   By so doing he hoped to show the world that he was a victim of terrorists who wanted to overthrow his government.  The groups that opposed Assad believed that his blatant use of chemical weapons, rape, and bombing of civilians would be enough to gain substantial support from the west, but this was not to be.  The result was that the only means of support came from Iran.  In fact, the authors argue that “Syria is occupied by the Iranian regime.”  Assad doesn’t run the country, Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force is in charge. (140)  It is Iran that is opposing ISIS (ISI became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2011 once the Syrian civil war began) in Iraq and Syria and policy makers in Washington must wonder what will happen once ISIS is defeated with the Quds Force in Syria, and Iranian Shi’a militias in Iraq.  It seems that the Iran-Iraq of the 1980s is now being refought.

What separates Weiss and Hassan’s work from ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger another useful monograph that has also been recently published is that within its narrative it analyzes the role of the tribal networks in Iraq and Syria.  They compare how Saddam and Assad dealt with Iraqi and Syrian tribal structure and organization, and how ISIS manipulated tribal influence in order to gain support.  Stern and Berger take a different approach as they provide a narrative history of ISIS’ terrorist methods, and the organization of civil society.  Further, they devote a great deal of space to ISIS’ use of technology in order to gain support and attract foreign fighters, but spend much less time on the rise of key personalities, jihadi organizations, and the interests of nation states.  Weiss and Hassan touch on the role of psychology and technology, but not in as much detail as they concentrate on the political paradigm that has brought together the common interests of Iran and the United States in opposing ISIS, and at the same time an alliance between Assad and Teheran also exists.  Weiss and Hassan offer useful explanations for how this obtuse situation was created.  One of which seems somewhat convoluted but accurate.  According to Weiss and Hassan the closer ISIS gets to conquer an area, the less religion plays a part in gaining public confidence.  For most people joining ISIS is a political decision as Sunni Muslims feel they have nowhere else to turn.  They see the world as one between a Sunni and Iranian coalition.  They believe that extreme violence is needed to counter the coming Shi’a hegemony.  They feel under assault from Assad, Khamenei (Supreme leader of Iran), and Maliki (who was finally ousted six months ago) and are left with few options other than supporting al-Baghdadi’s new Caliphate.  In their epilogue Weiss and Hassan paint a sobering picture of what the future holds.   They examine the massive US bombing campaign that seems to have offered mixed results, and Sunni anger over what appears to be an American administration that is indirectly supporting Assad’s reign of terror from Damascus.  They conclude that more than eleven years after the United States invaded Iraq, a deadly insurgency adept at multiple forms of warfare has proved resilient, adaptable, and resolved to carry on fighting.” (242)  ISIS appears to have tremendous staying power and the sources of revenue to maintain their quest, not a very optimistic picture.

(Tikrit University, the site of fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS)

If you enjoy well written narrative history based on numerous interviews including Iraqi, Syrian, American, and Iranian politicians; as well as military observers, foreign fighters and other jihadis then you cannot go wrong with Weiss and Hassan’s new book.  If you want less of a historical narrative and are interested in more of a socio-psychological study you might find Stern and Berger’s work be more satisfying.  The bottom line is that you cannot go wrong with either work.

ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

ISIS: The State of Terror

At a time when we see images of Iraqi forces backed by Iranian supported Shi’a militias trying to retake Saddam Hussein’s home of Tikrit from the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and we witness young girls leaving their homes in London and make their way through Turkey to join the jihad in Syria, it raises enumerable questions for politicians and the public worldwide.  Foremost, is how did we arrive at this point with ISIS, ISIL, IS or whatever their name is at the moment.  In addition, how culpable is the United States for the situation that it finds itself in today; returning troops to Iraq, engaging in a major bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, spending millions, if not billions of dollars on an Iraqi army that when confronted with ISIS soldiers months ago fled in fear and left behind enough weaponry and equipment to enhance ISIS’ already burgeoning military machine.  The answers to these questions can be found in Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s new book, ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR, one of the first books that seriously attempts to analyze the rise of ISIS; concentrating on the fallout from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, its evolution under al-Qaeda and its eviction from that organization, to its announcement  of the new Islamic caliphate, and its employment of technology and advanced propaganda strategies to attract foreigners to fight and organize their new state.

Beginning with the horrific beheading of journalist James Foley on August 19, 2014 the authors begin to unravel the rise of ISIS and why the United States did not see the latest jihadi organization coming.  The origin of ISIS emerged from the mind of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who joined the insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it was drawing to a close in 1989.  Partially radicalized by Sheik Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the architect of jihadi Salafism, Zarqawi would spend the greater part of the 1990s in a Jordanian prison where he was further drawn to Islamic extremism.  Zarqawi brought a sectarian approach to his understanding of jihad, and the United States gave his beliefs a purpose when they invaded Iraq in 2003.  Zarqawi was able to develop al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) because of American policy errors.  When Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi military and fired all of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party members from civil service positions there were few trained people left to maintain government services, and it produced thousands of angry Sunnis who had military and civil training.  The result has been the development of an insurgency that the US was unprepared for.  The authors correctly argue that the US created the environment for Zarqawi’s brutal tactics and rabid sectarianism.  The second major error the US committed was throwing its support behind Nuri al-Maliki, a supposedly moderate Shi’a Muslim to be Prime Minister in 2006.  Maliki would prove to be a very divisive figure with strong ties to Iran.  His policies turned Sunni Iraqis against his government as promises of political power and integration into the military never came to fruition.  By 2006 a full scale sectarian war had broken out resulting in the death of Zarqawi by an American air strike, and months later a coalition of jihadi insurgents announcing the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Omar al Baghdadi.  As Maliki cracked down on Sunni leadership and purged them from positions of power.  Sunnis, fearful of their government and Shia militias had no place to turn to, hence they looked to ISI.

Once the authors explained the origins of ISIS they move on to provide a detailed description of how ISI expanded and eventually moved into Syria, changing their name to the Islamic State if Iraq and Syria.  The authors review ISIS’ relationship with al-Qaeda and Osama Bib-Laden, exploring their differences in strategy, organization, and interpretation of the Qur’an.  ISIS took advantage of events in Syria and expanded their violent millenarian view of Islam and by February, 2014 Ayman al Zawahiri, who had taken over leadership of al-Qaeda after Bin-laden was killed, disassociated his organization from ISIS over their extreme tactics and their presence in Syria.  With Maliki’s partisan Shia approach to governance more and more Sunnis joined ISIS, many of which were Saddam’s generals.  The result was that by June 2014, ISIS had captured Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit.  On June 29, 2014, ISIS declared the Islamic Caliphate, an action designed to subsume all jihadi organizations, including al-Qaeda under their leadership.  ISIS abhorrent approach to human life continued, but their sophisticated messaging now included a vision of the type of society it wanted to create.

About half way through the book the authors switch their approach from a historical narrative supported by many keen insights to a sociological-psychological dimension.  Chapters dealing with the importance of how ISIS employs technology and social messaging, including how twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media are used to  recruit foreigners to join the new Caliphate, and spread their influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.  The authors explore how ISIS presents a strange dichotomy of ultra-violence and civil disorder as it streamed its propaganda and vision of society that went beyond the violence of jihadism, i.e, governing and social services.  The sophistication of ISIS’ approach to the media and the digital film world are detailed.  ISIS professionalization of film making and messaging are designed to attract fighters, but also “middle management.”  In effect what ISIS is engaged in is “cyber jihad” with electronic brigades that allow them to create new opportunities to expand their “brand.”  The authors examine the new psychology of terrorism and how it is used to influence their enemies and maintain control of other jihadi organizations world-wide.  The main problem they export is “disproportionate dread,” and the manipulation of perception that the west has yet to counter.

According to Stern and Berger ISIS’ message differed from the approach that was offered by al-Qaeda whom they saw as defeatist because they never believed that the Caliphate would be achieved in their lifetime.  Their message is one of extremism itself, but purified.  They offer no rationalizations of self-defense against the west, just revenge.  No longer will there be subtle assumptions of weakness, just aggression and shocking violence and strength.  No more talking about a generational conflict, the Caliphate had been proclaimed.  Their “combination of successful strategy, aggressive messaging, and an appeal to strength over weakness has proven unequally powerful and energized at least tens of thousands of ardent supporters.” (197)

The latter part of the book explores the current state of ISIS as of early January, 2015 and the authors are fully cognizant that things may have changed since the book went to press.  Stein and Becker offer advice as to how to deal with ISIS and suggest that a different approach than has been used in the past should be implemented.  Military action to decapitate the leadership of a country does not always prove successful.  Once the leadership is gone we are then faced with situations that have existed in Iraq since 2004, and more recently in Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.  President Obama may call for the defeat and destruction of ISIS, but what we must accept is that this has become a generational problem as the authors point to the indoctrination of children by ISIS, so that once the current leadership has passed a new generation will take over.  The book also includes a detailed appendix dealing with Islamic thought and history that nicely supplements the main text.  Explaining the differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism, and the different interpretations of jihad are important to understanding what has occurred and where we go from here.  The book is based on interviews and secondary sources and at this point, is one of the two best monographs on the topic.  The other, ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan will be presented in my next review.

(George C. Marshall was chosen as TIMES man of the year in 1943)

When one thinks of the great World War II generals the names George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas Mac Arthur, and Bernard Montgomery seem to always enter the conversation.  However, one of the most important military figures of the war never seems to be mentioned, that individual is George C. Marshall.  The former Chief of Staff under Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State and Defense under Harry Truman had a tremendous impact during and after the war, and even has his name placed on one of the most important initiatives taken by the United States after 1945 to help rebuild Europe, the Marshall Plan.  Marshall never did command troops on the battlefield but his impact on the military was substantial and his role has been the subject of a great deal of debate among historians.  The latest effort is a new biography written by Debi and Irwin Unger with the assistance of Stanley Hirshson.  The book, GEORGE MARSHALL is a comprehensive examination of Marshall’s career and a detailed analysis of Marshall’s role in history.

In the January 3, 1944 issue of Time magazine, Marshall’s photo adorns the cover as “man of the year.”  The article that accompanied the photo stated that George C. Marshall was the closest person in the United States to being the “indispensable man” for the American war effort.  One must ask the question, was this hyperbole justified?  According to the Unger’s the answer is a qualified no.  After analyzing Marshall’s policies they conclude that his shortcomings outweigh his successes ranging from his poor judgment of the individuals he placed in command positions to his underestimating the number of troops necessary to fight the war, particularly in providing replacements for men killed or wounded in combat.  In addition, they criticize Marshall for his approach to training and preparing American soldiers for combat which was painfully obvious during the North African campaign and other major operations during the war.  The authors argue their case carefully supporting their views with the available documentation, though there is an over reliance on secondary sources.

Everyone who has written about Marshall and came in contact with him all agree that he epitomized the characteristics of a Virginia gentleman.  He presented himself as aloof and honest, and though a rather humorless and direct person no one ever questioned his character.  This persona remained with Marshall throughout his career and emerged during policy decisions, diplomatic negotiations, or his dealings with the divergent personalities that he had to work with.  The narrative points out the importance of Marshall’s association with General John J. Pershing during World War I and the first major example of Marshall losing his temper over policy, and having the target of his tirade take him under their wing.  The story follows Marshall’s career in the post-World I era and his association with men like Douglas Mac Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower and others who he would enter in his notebook as people to watch for in the future.  The majority of the book deals with Marshall’s impact on American military planning.  In the 1930s he worked to train National Guard units, but he also worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps which brought him to the attention of President Roosevelt.  From this point on his career takes off.  By 1938 he becomes Deputy Chief of Staff at the same time the situation in Europe continued to deteriorate.  By 1939, after an overly honest conversation with Roosevelt about the state of US military preparedness, the president impressed with Marshall’s seriousness appointed him Chief of Staff.

The author’s integrate the major events in Europe and the Far East up to and including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but they do not mine any new ground.  As the book analyzes the major components of Marshall’s career, the authors have a habit of presenting the negative, then produce some positives, and finally concluding their analysis with the mistakes that Marshall supposedly made.  A number of examples come to mind.  Roosevelt haters for years have tried to blame the president for the events of December 7, 1941 and the authors examine Marshall’s culpability for how unprepared the US was for the attack.  The Ungers examine numerous investigations of the attack on Pearl Harbor and seem disappointed that more of the blame did not fall on Marshall.  They seem to conclude as they comment on his appearance at a Congressional hearing that “Marshall’s demeanor may also reveal a degree of self-doubt-indeed pangs of conscience-at his own imperfect performance in the events leading to Pearl Harbor.”   The Congressional investigation criticized Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark for “insufficient vigilance in overseeing their subordinates in Hawaii……[and] deplored Marshall’s failure on the morning of the attack to send a warning to Short on a priority basis.” (367)

(Marshall announced the European Recovery Program that bears his name at a commencement speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947)

It is painfully obvious based on the author’s narrative that the United States was totally unprepared for war.  They credit Marshall for doing his best to lobby Congress to expand the American military and institute a draft and then extend it.  In 1942 Roosevelt wanted to strike at North Africa, but Marshall believed that the American needs in the Pacific and plans to assist the British in Iceland and Northern Ireland would create man power shortages if the strike in North Africa went forward.  The authors criticize Marshall for not presenting his case forcefully enough to Roosevelt which would cause manpower issues later on in the war.  In planning for the war Marshall argued that a force of 8,000,000 men and 90 divisions would be sufficient to win the war.  Throughout the war there were constant worries that certain strategic decisions would not be successful for lack of manpower.   The author’s point to the cross channel invasion of France, having enough troops to take on the Japanese once the Germans were defeated, and the landing at Sicily to make their case.  They do praise Marshall for trying to reform the military command structure by always placing one general in charge in each war theater, be it D-Day, Torch, or other operations.  They also praise Marshall for trying to reform the training of American troops, but at the same time they criticize him for the lack of morale of American soldiers and their supposed lack of commitment to defeat the enemy.   Marshall would partly agree with the authors conclusions as he admitted that the soldiers sent to North Africa “were only partly trained and badly trained.” (168)

As mentioned before, Marshall maintained a list of men he though would be invaluable in leading American troops during the war.  The authors have difficulty with some of his choices and argue that he was a poor judge of character in others.  “On the one hand we note the names of fighting generals George S. Patton, Robert Eichelberger, Courtney Hodges, J. Lawton Collins, and Lucian Truscott,” and administrators like Dwight Eisenhower and Brehon Somervell, but on the other hand we find the likes of Lloyd Fredendall and Mark Clark, which provoked a respected military correspondent like Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times to have written “the greatest American military problem was leadership, the army he concluded, had thus far failed to produce a fraction of the adequate officer leadership needed.” (208)

(Marshall in conversation with General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Many of the criticisms that the authors offer have some basis, but their critique goes a bit too far by suggesting that Marshall was indirectly responsible for the death of his step son, Allen at Anzio as he had placed him in range of peril because he facilitated his transfer to North Africa after he completed Armored Force School at Fort Knox.  The most effective historical writing is one of balance and objectivity, but at times the Ungers become too polemical as they try to downgrade Marshall’s reputation.  Granted Marshall had never led troops in combat, but as a logistician, administrator, and diplomat he deserves to be praised.  Marshall’s ability to deal with British generals and their egos was very important to the allied effort.  His ability to work with Winston Churchill and argue against the English Prime Minister’s goals of a Mediterranean strategy and movement in the Balkans as part of retaining the British Empire merits commendation.  His ability to navigate American politics and strong personalities was also a key to victory.

Once the authors have completed their discussion of the war they turn to Marshall’s role as Secretary of State.  They correctly point out that it took Marshall some time to realize that Stalin could not be trusted and had designs on Eastern Europe.  They are also correct in pointing out that the European Recovery Program that bears his name was not developed by the Secretary of State but by a talented staff that included the likes of George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and Robert Lovett.  Marshall’s importance was lobbying Congress to gain funding for the program.  The authors also give Marshall credit for trying to work out a rapprochement between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists after the war, a task that was almost impossible. The authors describe the heated debate over the creation of the state of Israel that Marshall vehemently opposed based on the national security needs of the United States and dismissed the political and humanitarian calculations of Clark Clifford and President Truman. A position the authors feel that when looked upon from today’s perspective was quite accurate.   Finally, the authors give Marshall a significant amount of credit for the creation of NATO.

(Marshall greets President Truman at the conclusion of World War II)

f Marshall’s term as Secretary of State is deemed successful by the authors his one year stint as Secretary of Defense is seen as flawed.  The main criticism of Marshall deals with Douglas MacArthur and the Korean War.  After taking the reader through the North Korean attack on South Korea and the successful Inchon landing the authors describe in detail the dilemma of how far to pursue North Korean troops.  The question was should United Nations forces cross the 38th parallel into the north and how close should American bombing come to the Yalu River that bordered on Communist China.  According to the authors when the Communist Chinese troops entered the war it was not totally the fault of MacArthur because of the unclear orders that Marshall gave.  According to the authors Marshall’s orders were “tentative and ambiguous,” thus confusing the American commander.(464)  The limits on what the President allowed were very clear and when General Matthew Ridgeway, who replaced MacArthur as American commander was asked “why the chiefs did not give MacArthur categorical directions the general responded “what good would that do?  He wouldn’t obey the orders.” (467)   It appears the authors can never pass on an opportunity of presenting Marshall in a negative light.

Overall, the book is well written and covers all the major components of the Second World War.  It does less with Marshall’s role as Secretary of State and Defense, but if one is looking for a different approach to Marshall’s career this book can meet your needs as long as you realize that there are segments that are not very balanced.  Even in the book’s last paragraph they feel the need to make one last negative comment, “all told, the performance of George Marshall in many of his roles was less than awe-inspiring.” (490)

BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR by Robert Timberg

(Author Robert Timberg during a book presentation)

As most are aware the Vietnam War has left many scars on those who fought the war and the American people in general.  With 58,000 men dead and roughly 270,000 wounded, many like the author, Robert Timberg suffered life changing injuries that affect them psychologically and physically to this day.  Mr. Timberg, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a Marine Corps officer suffered second and third degree burns to his face and parts of his body on January 18, 1967 when his armored vehicle went over a North Vietnamese land mine in the vicinity of Da Dang, just thirteen days before he was to be cycled out of the war theater as his thirteen month tour was drawing to a close.  Mr. Timberg has written a long delayed memoir dealing with his experiences in Vietnam, his recovery, and his career which was a major component in trying to recapture some sort of normality.

(Timberg writing a letter home from Vietnam)

The book, BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR is written on multiple levels.  It is an emotionally captivating story by an individual who wages a courageous battle to regain some semblance of what he lost on that fateful day when delivering a payroll to another unit his vehicle hit a land mine.  The book is also a personal journey that takes him through numerous hospitals and thirty five operations with the support of two wonderful women, his first wife, Janie, who Timberg credits for his level of recovery and the family and career he is most proud of.  He readily admits that he was responsible for the end of their marriage and how poorly he treated her.  The other woman, his second wife, Kelly, allowed him to continue his recovery and develop a successful journalism career.  Unfortunately for Timberg, they too could not keep their marriage together.  The last major thread is how Timberg repeatedly lashes out against those individuals that did not go to Vietnam and as he states found, “legal and illegal ways” to avoid doing their duties as Americans.  Despite repeated denials that he is past those negative feelings and no matter how much he pushes his bitterness below the surface employing the correct verbiage of an excellent writer, his ill feelings towards a good part of his generation repeatedly bubbles to the surface.

(Timberg being evacuated from Da Nang area after his vehicle hit a land mine, January 18, 1967)

This memoir is very timely in light of the type of injuries that American soldiers have sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last twelve years.  It brings a message of hope for the future based on Timberg’s remarkable recovery and the success he has enjoyed as a reporter and a writer.  Our wounded veterans face a long road to recovery and Timberg’s story could be a wonderful model that they can try to emulate.  The first two-thirds of the book for me were the most interesting.  Timberg lays his life out for all to see.  His emotions which seemed to rise and fall with each sunrise and sunset are heart rendering.  His descriptions of his treatment with multiple skin grafts and surgeries are a testament to his perseverance.  His tenacity and ability to overcome most of the obstacles that were placed in front of him are truly amazing.  We learn a great deal about the Naval Academy and the United States Marine Corps and what they stand for.  Timberg takes the reader through many stages of recovery by interspersing his relationships with those who are most responsible for his making him whole, his first wife, Janie, and Dr. Lynn Ketchum, the surgeon who like a sculptor put Timberg’s facial features back together as best he could.  Despite his recovery, throughout this period his loss of identity constantly tugged at him, even as he earned the satisfaction of a successful career, but the loss of identity seemed to always be under the surface.  Once Timberg reaches the end of his period of recovery, he must leave “the cocoon of the hospital to home cycle” of constantly undergoing surgery and recovery.  For Timberg it was very difficult, but finally with Janie’s assistance he is able to overcome his fears and earn a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Stanford University and begin his career as a reporter in Annapolis.  That career would lead to a Nieman Fellowship, positions at the Baltimore Evening Standard, and the Baltimore Sun.  Timberg became a leading White House correspondent, and the author of three very important books.

The one area of the book I have difficulty accepting is the sections that deal with the germination of the ideas for the book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, and how the book was finally conceived and reached fruition.  It was fascinating how Timberg pulled together such disparate personalities as John McCain, James Webb, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, and Oliver North to create narrative dynamic that made sense.  What sparked this dynamic was the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked President Reagan’s second term in office.  Timberg was able to parlay the scandal and the personalities just mentioned into a coherent and interesting monograph.  I remember when the book was published and after reading it I wondered if Timberg had an agenda that called for damning those who were able to avoid serving in Vietnam, and blaming the prosecution of the Iran-Contra scandal on the media and members of Congress who figured out ways to remain out of the military during the war.

Timberg’s judgment is deeply flawed in attacking, what seems to be everyone who did not fight in Vietnam for pursuing the Iran-Contra scandal.  I understand that he suffered unbelievable horrors as a result of his military service and significant emotional issues remain.  However, his inner drive to become the person he was before he was seriously wounded has clouded his judgment to the point where he deeply hurt, Janie, his first wife, the woman who was mostly responsible for making himself whole as he recovered.  His comments dealing with the need to find another woman to have sex with aside from his wife to see if he could find another person who was attracted to him is deeply troublesome.  It was thoughts like this and leaving her alone with three children for a great deal of time reflects poorly on Timberg no matter how courageous he was.  As Timberg researches and writes THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, his obsession with those who did not fight in Vietnam comes to the fore completely.  Though there are repeated denials in the book his understandable prejudice against “draft dodgers,” etc. is readily apparent, i.e., his convoluted logic of going after people who believe that Iran-Contra was a major crime and resulted in violation of the constitutional and legislative prerogatives of Congress, aside from the cover-up and outright lying the of the Reagan administration with a vengeance.  By explaining away the scandal by raising the question; “was Iran-Contra the bill for Vietnam finally coming due?” for me, is a bit much and cannot explain away the illegal acts that North, Poindexter, and McFarlane committed no matter how hard Timberg tries.  For the author it seems like everyone who did not go to Vietnam used money and connections to avoid serving.  Further, those who did not serve, “much of the rest of that generation came up with novel ways to leave the fighting and dying to others.”(213)  Timberg quotes from Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Srauss’ excellent analysis of the draft, CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE to buttress his arguments, however if he revisits objectively the Pentagon statistics that the authors quote he will find that not all who did not serve in Vietnam committed acts that Timberg finds reprehensible  There are millions who were involved in defense related jobs, duty in the United State Army Reserves and the National Guard, had legitimate medical deferments, or were conscientious objectors.  I agree a significant numbers did avoid service and Baskir and Strauss put the number of draft offenders at about 570,000, accused draft offenders at 209, 517, with about 3250 actually imprisoned.  We must also keep in mind that of the 26,800,000 men of the Vietnam generation, 6,465,000 served but never went to Southeast Asia, and of the 15,980,000 who never served in the military 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted or disqualified -all cannot be painted with the broad brush of being draft dodgers as Timberg seems to strongly intimate.*

Overall, Timberg is correct, Vietnam is still a raw nerve for a generation that witnessed men rallying to the flag, and men who felt the war was wrong.  As history has borne out the American people were lied to by the Johnson administration and the government in general.  I respect Mr. Timberg’s service, the wonderful career he used as a vehicle to become whole again, and I find that he is an exceptional author, who at times goes a bit overboard in his attempt to rationalize why people avoided service in the war.  The book is a superb read, deeply emotional and for my generation dredges up a great deal and provokes deep thought concerning how the experience of the Vietnam War still affects American foreign policy and the conduct of combat to this day.

*See Lawrence M. Baskir & William A. Strauss CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 5 for an excellent chart that is reflected in the figures presented.


After reading Eric Schlosser’s COMMAND AND CONTROL: NUCLEAR WEAPONS, THE DAMASCUS INCIDENT, AND THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY, I felt a sense of wonderment that mankind has survived the Cold War and the nuclear age in general.  Schlosser, who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his work, has written a forceful indictment of American nuclear policy and a realistic assessment of what has gone wrong with the American nuclear program; including strategy, safety, and the lack of transparency and honesty that a democratic system of government is entitled.  The book presents a general history of the development of nuclear weapons dating back to World War II through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  In reviewing the history of the nuclear age Schlosser narrates and analyzes the different approaches of each administration from Harry Truman through the first President Bush.  In telling his story Schlosser intersperses alternate chapters dealing with the Damascus incident, an accident that took place on September 18, 1980 at a nuclear missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas that contained a Titan II missile armed with a nuclear warhead.  The book reads like a fast moving suspense thriller as Schlosser takes the reader inside the Titan II complex and step by step leads you on various missions designed to defuse the crisis that resulted from a technician dropping a socket from a wrench inside the missile silo that pierced the Titan II rocket resulting in a fuel leak.  The book is a sobering and yet fascinating narrative of the danger posed by the numerous examples of the mishandling American nuclear weapons.

The Titan II missile contained a warhead with a “yield of 9 megatons-about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.” (3)  Though Schlosser concentrates a significant part of his thrilling narrative on the Damascus incident, another accident had taken place outside Searcy, Arkansas on August 9, 1965 involving a Titan II launch complex that resulted in the death of 53 men, and what is equally disturbing is that the same missile that had been in the silo near Searcy was involved in the accident in Damascus fifteen years later.  After introducing these accidents, and providing the backgrounds of the individuals involved, Schlosser turns his attention from the discovery of the Titan II problem to July, 1945 and the assembly of the atomic bomb.  A mini-history of the Manhattan Project and the scientists involved is provided as Schlosser blends the political and military history relating to nuclear research and strategy following World War II.  The author reviews the contentious arguments between the military and civilian branches of government as to who should have ultimate decision making power over nuclear weapons.  This is a theme that will be carried out well into the 1980s and the Reagan administration, even though the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which the military sought to undermine, placed the weapons under civilian control.  Schlosser offers the standard account of the causes of the Cold War and the development of the containment policy.  There are no major breakthroughs offered, but the narrative is concise and thoughtfully dealt with.   The inter-service competition among the military branches, particularly the Navy and Air Force over control and implementation of nuclear strategy are detailed, with particular emphasis on the role of General Curtis LeMay, who headed the Strategic Air Command following the Berlin Air Lift.  Schlosser moves on to discuss the major issues of each administration turning to  Eisenhower’s New Look, that relied less on conventional weaponry and more on the nuclear option as he trimmed the defense budget, as the administration called for “more bang for the buck.”  Following the discussion of Eisenhower, under the leadership of John F. Kennedy we see a shift in nuclear strategy as the president was faced with two crises, one in Berlin and one in Cuba that almost resulted in a nuclear confrontation. Under Lyndon Johnson the war in Vietnam dominated and with the Nixon presidency the Soviets were confronted with Kissinger’s ideas of limited nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapons, and the use of the “madman concept,” based on the unpredictable nature of the president.  In all cases the idea of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) dominated our approach in that the Soviets would not launch an attack as it was fully aware of the consequences.

The concept that bothered me most about the book was the practice of employing mathematical probabilities to our nuclear strategies.  What were then odds that an accident would take place under a certain scenario?  What would be an acceptable amount of destruction and death if a certain sequence was introduced into our nuclear preparation, was 1 in 100,000 acceptable, or should the odds be better.  Schlosser takes the reader through countless discussions in dealing with this zero sum game and as I read it I became very unsettled as I kept thinking about the B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear warheads that experienced numerous accidents since the plane was first put into service in the 1950s.  Government officials put their dilemmas very clearly as they wrestled with two interconnected questions: “What was the ‘acceptable’ probability of an accidental nuclear explosion?  And what were the technical means to keep the odds as low as possible?” (171)  The countless accidents that Schlosser describes, makes it a wonder that a nuclear catastrophe has never occurred. As General George Lee Butler, who became head of the Strategic Air Command in 1991 has stated, “I came to fully appreciate the truth…we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.” (457)

The most wrenching aspect of the book is Schlosser’s detailed description of the events that led up to the Titan II accident at Damascus in September, 1980, and the way the event was treated by the military following the explosion that took place.  Schlosser’s approach is worthy of the best suspense novelists.  His narrative is very telling and puts the reader on the edge of their seat, i.e.,   “Kennedy reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the night air.  It felt good to be out there.  The cloud of fuel vapor was insane; he’d never seen anything like it.  Kennedy was tired.  He decided to sit for a moment on the concrete curb outside the access portal.  It had been a hell of a night.  Livingston switched the fan on and came back upstairs.  He was a foot or two behind Kennedy when the Titan II exploded.” (392)  Following the explosion, chaos resulted, in part because of human nature, but also because of the lack of planning and communication due to bureaucratic incompetence.  The Air Force refused to publicly admit what had occurred and the danger involved.  Schlosser grows incredulous at the obstinacy and carelessness of the military as they confront the crisis and to cover themselves, Kennedy and Livingston, two “Explosive Ordinance Disposal” technicians are blamed for the explosion.

Schlosser’s descriptions are based on impeccable research through interviewing the participants and familiarizing himself with the pertinent secondary and primary source material.  His command of the events narrated allow him to take the reader inside the stair wells, behind the blast doors, into the command center as people are met with deadly fumes.  The narrative points to an inability to integrate the necessary safety conditions by employing available techniques to make our nuclear assets safer.  Even in the 1980s, when it was realized that the Titan II needed an overhaul, attitudes existed to not institute safety changes in the Titan II rationalizing that since they were much older than the newer weapons the money to make them safer was not a priority.  Positions such as this make the reader boil and it is with a measure of hope that one can point to the retirement of the Titan II during the Reagan administration.  However, one must not feel too secure as Reagan spent $1.5 trillion on new weaponry during his administration, but at least $18 billion went to rectify some of the safety issues and address the concerns dealing with who was in charge and who would make decisions concerning nuclear weapons, better known as command and control.  Schlosser’s book is extremely unsettling in the post Cold War world where countries like Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran either have nuclear weapons or are very close to developing them, but despite the discomfort of learning the story Schlosser tells, he is to be commended for telling it.



As presidential election results in Afghanistan are being counted one must ask the question; how much better off is Afghanistan today, as compared to the period before the American invasion following 9/11?  Further one must ask; what is the future outlook for Afghanistan as the United States and its NATO allies are about to withdraw by the end of the year?  Carlotta Gall, a New York Times reporter who has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than ten years attempts to answer these questions and many others in her new book, THE WRONG ENEMY, AMERICA IN AFGHANISTAN 2001-2014.  A number of  books have been written about America’s role in Afghanistan and its relationship with Pakistan the best of which are Steven Coll’s GHOST WARS, Ahmed Rashid’s DESCENT INTO CHAOS, and Barnet R. Rubin’s AFGHANISTAN FROM THE COLD WAR THROUGH THE WAR ON TERROR, but what sets Gall’s apart is her knowledge of the region and her ability to coax interviews with villagers, mujahideen, Taliban fighters, government officials, intelligence sources, and major decision makers involved on both sides of this never ending war.  Gall takes the reader inside councils held by the Taliban, government meetings in Kabul, decision making within Pakistan’s chief spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and discussions among village elders as they try to cope with the threats they face on a daily basis.  Gall’s premise is that the United States has failed to confront the real enemy in its Afghani war, Pakistan.  Gall argues that the Pakistani governments, including its presidents over a period of time and the ISI have pursued a duplicitous policy by publicly claiming to be an ally in the war on terror with the United States, but privately creating and supporting the Taliban as a means of manipulating events in Afghanistan and controlling its government in Kabul.  These conclusions are sound, well argued, and supported by abundant research and sources that only she has had access to.

From the outset Gall writes from the perspective of the victims and does not claim to be objective.  She argues persuasively that the ISI is the real power in Pakistan and controls its press and media.  By December, 2001 after the Taliban’s leadership misjudged the strength of the American attack, and their standing with the Afghani people, thereby forcing them to flee to the safety of Peshawar across the Pakistani border.  Soon after, Taliban commanders convened a council of war which included Afghan Taliban commanders, their Pakistani allies from the Pashtun border areas, and Pakistani militant and religious leaders to discuss how they should respond to the American attack.  Watching from the sidelines, but present at these meetings were representatives from the ISI and Pakistani Special Forces who had been involved with the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  Also in attendance was the son of the powerful Taliban commander and minister, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a stalwart against the Soviet Union and a favorite of Pakistani intelligence and Arab donors.  The goal of the Taliban was to create an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan would now be continued as a guerilla war against the United States and its western allies.  The goal for Pakistan was to continue to employ “proxy forces, Afghan mijahideen, Taliban in Afghanistan, and Kashmiri militants against India to project its influence beyond its border.”(21) As Seth Jones, the author of IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES: AMERICA’S WAR IN AFGHANISTAN wrote in the New York Times on April 10, 2014, “Islamabad’s rationale for supporting Afghan insurgents is straightforward and, in many ways, understandable.  Hemmed in by its archenemy, India, to the east, Pakistan wants an ally in the west.  It doesn’t have one at the moment.  Instead, New Delhi has a close relationship with the Afghan government.  Feeling strategically encircled by India, Islamabad has resorted to proxy warfare to replace the current Afghan government with a friendlier regime.”

Gall follows the war as the United States pursued its neocon agenda of the Bush administration and shifted important resources from Afghanistan to support its ill conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003.  This left open the door for the Taliban to try and recapture its position in Afghanistan.  Many have asked why the United States chose Hamid Karzai to head the government in Kabul.  Gall concludes that he was a compromise candidate as he was Pashtun and acceptable in the northern part of the country.  Gall accurately concludes further that Karzai was the problem from the outset.  For the next thirteen years Karzai would oversee the most corrupt country in the world as stated in the “Transparency International Scale”, as  it was tied with Myanmar,” with only Somalia lower. (216)  the key to the Taliban resurgence would be their “friends and supporters in power in Pakistan’s border provinces.” This would allow Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader to emerge in February 2003 and publicly call on all Afghans to wage holy war against American forces. (67)

Galls details the Taliban resurgence and Pakistan’s role in their successes and points out the flaw in American policy towards Afghanistan.  According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who wrote a strategic review on Afghanistan for the incoming Obama administration in 2009, the Bush administration considered the Taliban irrelevant once they were defeated.  In addition, the Bush White House never gave instructions to its intelligence officials in Pakistan to follow the Taliban and CIA officials in Pakistan saw the Taliban as a “spent force.” (75)  The road was open for the Taliban to succeed especially when the ISI forced many Taliban exiles that fled to Pakistan to join the insurgency.  Gall describes the situations in northern and southern Waziristan were foreign militants were sheltered in tribal areas and foreign journalists were banned by the Pakistani government from traveling.  Gall explores the role of President Pervez Musharraf and his double dealing with the United States.  He would feign being an ally and turn over a few Taliban wanted by Washington, but in reality was training, supplying, and encouraging the insurgency to the detriment of Afghanistan who he needed to control because of his fears of India.

Gall correctly argues that America’s approach in dealing with counter terrorism through the use of massive bombing was self defeating.  It alienated the Afghan villagers and turned the Afghan people further against what they viewed as their corrupt government in Kabul that was allied with the United States.  In 2004 the United States supported the reelection of Karzai, but despite his reelection his policies under the heavy handedness of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was in charge of the southern part of the country further alienated the Afghan people and did little to counter the onslaught of the Taliban.  With the economy in dire straits and little hope for improvement, “young unemployed men were going to Pakistan in search of work and being recruited by the Taliban….who paid $175 a month to join and fight.” (133)

Gall makes many important observations in her narrative.  It was clear that America’s NATO allies were not very successful.  With only 2000 Canadian troops in the south the task for the Taliban to seize control of the Kandahar region was made easier.  The U.S. asked its allies for further troop commitments, but they refused.  Exacerbating the problem was the increase in suicide bombings in 2006, many of which were in the south.  Gall accurately describes the voyage of young men to madrassas to receive suicide bombing indoctrination and the final committing of the act.  Most were traced back to Pakistan were Islamic cells functioned quite freely.  Afghan intelligence would share information with NATO allies, who would forward the information to the ISI, which was like warning the suicide cells and resulted in the torture and death of Afghan informers.  The nexus of Pakistani support for the Taliban was Quetta and other border areas.  “The madrassas are a cover, a camouflage,” a Pashtun legislator told the author, “behind the curtain, hidden in the shadows, lurked the ISI.” (159)  From Gall’s extensive interviews in the border region her contention that the ISI played the major role in the Taliban success is well founded.

Some of Gall’s most interesting chapters deal with militant blow back in Pakistan as the ISI periodically would lose some control and then recover, a cycle that went on for years; how close the Taliban came to conquering the south as they reached the outskirts of Kandahar; and the role of Ahmed Karzai.  Many Americans have grown tired of Karzai’s act over the years believing he was ungrateful for the sacrifices and support given by the United States.  However, despite his antics Karzai’s point of view is important in understanding the events of the last thirteen years.  Gall does a remarkable job presenting Karzai’s perspective and making sense out of his statements and actions.  Granted his government was corrupt and appointments were based on tribal membership or political faction, but the United States was aware of the political culture around him from the outset.  But as Gall correctly points out that when a society functions “on patronage, a duty to help your relatives and clans comb[ined] with Karzai’s poor management and the influx of vast sums of assistance, often poorly administered by donors, [it] created the most corrupt regime Afghans had ever seen.” (216)  By 2010, $900 million in loans disappeared implicating Karzai’s family.  The problem is that Karzai is not personally corrupt, yet he has tolerated and benefited from it.  Karzai would brush off complaints “as a necessary way of doing business in cash strapped country.” (217)

By 2009, after the United States mistakenly bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan and Washington’s failure to deal with Pakistan, Karzai became convinced that the US was not going to defeat the Taliban. As Pakistan continued to ignore American requests to reign in the Taliban, Karzai’s bitterness increased and he decided the only way forward that made sense was to negotiate peace with the Taliban and Pakistan.  Richard C. Holbrooke, the US Special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan began back channel contacts with the Taliban.  Holbrooke realized the difficulty Karzai faced and realized further that peace with Pakistan was the key; as he summed up the situation in 2010, “we may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.” (222)

In 2009 the Obama administration also announced a “surge” of 30,000 troops in the south as Kandahar was in danger of falling to the Taliban.  The joint operation with Afghan and Canadian troops lifted the Taliban siege and Gall’s description of the fighting as she went on patrol with US troops brought the reader to the battlefield.   The IEDs, the mines, the booby traps, the rigged houses provide insight into Taliban tactics and what American and Afghan troops faced and have to undo.  However, the Taliban hold in the south was broken.  Over the next three years the Taliban would be kept at bay, but a new crisis developed with Pakistan over the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Gall has an excellent chapter on the raid and Pakistan’s culpability in having Bin Laden seized from under its nose.  From Gall’s interviews it is clear that Pakistani officials were involved with Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.  Whether it was military or ISI involvement is not totally clear, but it’s beyond the pale to imagine that the Pakistani government was not involved.

Gall closes her book with a somewhat optimistic chapter about the future of Afghanistan, however the threat from Pakistan remains constant and they must be reined in.  At the outset of this review I asked whether Afghanistan was in a better position since the pre-9/11 period.  One thing is clear the United States has brought modernity, rebuilding and bright educated graduates in every government office, but “the fundamentals of Afghanistan’s predicament remain the same: a weak state, prey to ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists.” (286)  2014 is a perfect storm for Afghanistan, NATO and US forces are withdrawing, the election of a new president and the appointment of a new government, and the handover of security to Afghan forces in the middle of the summer fighting season.  What will the future hold?  I would be naive to think that once the US withdraws the security situation will not collapse, but we will see.  For those who are interested in reaching an educated guess about Afghanistan’s future I would read Carlotta Gall’s powerful new book.

THE GUNS LAST LIGHT by Rick Atkinson

For those who are interested in the military history of Europe during World War II but do not enjoy dealing with the minutiae of military detail for each battle Rick Atkinson has done us all a service.  He has produced what has been labeled as the “liberation trilogy” which he has just completed with the publication of THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT THE WAR IN WESTERN EUROPE, 1944-1945.  Mr. Atkinson has spent the last fifteen years researching and writing his history of the war in Europe.  In 2002 he presented AN ARMY AT DAWN, THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA, 1942-1943, and in 2008, THE WAR IN BATTLE: THE WAR IN SICILY AND ITALY, 1943-1944 was published.  The project has been a remarkable undertaking and I felt a void in my own study of the war having not engaged these volumes until now.  After watching a series of interviews of the author the last few weeks I decided to undertake the joyful task of tackling the first volume dealing with the war in North Africa.  To say the least, I have not been disappointed.  Mr. Atkinson writes in a fluid manner, presents the necessary background, detail, and analysis of each confrontation, in addition to character studies of the important personages who led the allied armies, and leaves the reader with the feeling he has accompanied allied troops from the landing in November, 1942 to final victory in North Africa in May, 1943.

The reader follows the journey of untrained American troops who make up a somewhat ragtag army through months of fighting emerging as an effective fighting force that learns the key lesson for military success, the ability to hate.  The themes that the author develops are ostensibly accurate throughout the narrative.  He begins by arguing that the invasion of North Africa was a pivotal point in American history as it was the place where the United States began to act as a great power.  The invasion defined the Anglo-American coalition and the strategic course of the war.  The decision to invade North Africa found President Roosevelt going against the advice of his generals who favored a cross channel landing on the French coast.  Roosevelt, ever the political animal was facing the 1942 congressional elections saw the need for a positive military result and North Africa seemed like the safest bet.  By going along with the British Roosevelt made the correct decision because it was unrealistic to expect a successful cross channel invasion in 1942 or 1943.

Atkinson presents the infighting among the allied generals as plans for Operation Torch evolved.  The reader is taken into the war councils and is exposed to the logic of each position as well as the deep personality conflicts that existed throughout this period between the leading actors in the American and British military hierarchies.  The British made known their contempt for the fighting ability of American troops in addition to their disdain for American military leadership throughout this period.  The Americans reciprocated these feelings at the haughtiness and egocentric attitudes of British planners.  The vignettes dealing with Generals George S. Patton, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Omar T. Bradley on the American side and those of Generals Harold Alexander and Bernard L. Montgomery are brutally honest.  We see the development of Dwight David Eisenhower, who is periodically stricken with self-doubt into a confident Supreme Commander.  The relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt does not break any new ground but Atkinson summarizes their relationship nicely developing the most salient points relating to political and military decision making.

The most interesting part of the book involves American GIs.  From the outset Atkinson’s goal is to present the war from the perspective of those who groveled, crawled, marched, and died in the North African campaign.  The author’s discussion of the 34th Infantry Division provides insights into the problems of creating an invasion force without the requisite training.  The issue of “time” to prepare American troops has a lasting impact on the early conduct of the invasion and the attempt to push the Germans out of Tunisia.  The discussion of the “34th” is a microcosm of the war American troops faced and the problems that had to be overcome during the six months of combat that led to victory over the Germans in North Africa in May, 1943.  Perhaps the author’s greatest success is creating the “fog of war” accurately.  The needless death due to planning errors, the civilian casualties, the emotions displayed by the troops are all on display.  In all of these instances Atkinson provides unique examples to supplement his comments.  Whether he is describing the battle for Hill 609 in northern Tunisia, the landings in Oran, Algeria, or the fighting at the Kasserine Pass the reader cannot help but be absorbed in the narrative.  It is not a stretch to come to the conclusion that Mr. Atkinson is a superb writer of military history.

Another area that Atkinson excels is his discussion of wartime diplomacy.  The issue of how the French would react to the invasion would go a long way in determining the length and depth of the fighting and its ultimate results.  Portraits of the two key French figures; Admiral Jean Louis Darlan and General Henri Honore Giraud, both Vichyite collaborators and their negotiations with General Mark Clark and Robert Murphy reflect the tenuous nature of Franco-American relations during the war and by integrating the role of General Charles De Gaulle we have a portent of the problems that will exist during the war and after.  The competition between Patton and Montgomery and other officers is on full display throughout the book.  Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment was his success in dealing with the diverse egos he was presented with.  Eisenhower’s realization of his lack of combat experience and its impact on his decision making is used by Atkinson to explore his evolution as a successful military leader. The North African campaign provided Eisenhower with the training ground in his development as the man who would lead the allies to victory by 1945.

The depth of Atkinson’s work makes it an exceptional read.  He argues correctly that the key to the allied victory in North Africa and the war in general was that the United States was the “arsenal of democracy.”  As the British kept pointing out it was American industry and its capacity to produce that made up for any military errors the allies may have made.  What also separates Atkinson’s work from other histories dealing with North Africa is the human drama that explores the daily activities of the men who fought.  Whether describing battle scenes, the plight of the wounded, and the impact of casualties on the home front, and other aspects of combat Atkinson has done justice to his subject.  Whether talking about such diverse topics as the $26,000,000 life insurance policy purchased by an American division before battle, the role of General Edwin Rommel, or negotiations at Casablanca the reader can trust the material presented.  If you are a World War II scholar, or are simply interested in a narrative of what for me is the turning point for the United States in the Second World War, the first volume of the “liberation trilogy” is worth exploring and I recommend it highly.


The author does an excellent job of describing America’s dubious military strategy during the war and the plight of Vietnamese civilians. It places the blame for the inability to win “the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese squarely where it belongs. with the American military and political leadership during the Johnson and Nixon administration. It is thoroughly researched and well documented. A book that all who are concerned about America’s past, current, and future conduct of war should read.


See excellent related article:

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Special Ops Goes Global
Posted by Nick Turse at 7:57am, January 7, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Nick Turse’s New York Times bestselling book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is just out in paperback with a new afterword.  It’s a must-buy, especially if you haven’t read the hardcover. Jonathan Schell wrote a powerful piece on it at TomDispatch, which you can read by clicking here. Late in the month, TD will be offering signed copies of the paperback in return for donations. Keep it in mind! Tom]

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So consider the actions of the U.S. Special Operations Command flattering indeed to the larger U.S. military. After all, over recent decades the Pentagon has done something that once would have been inconceivable.  It has divided the whole globe, just about every inch of it, like a giant pie, into six command slices: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and part of North Africa), U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM (Latin America), and in this century, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), and starting in 2007, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM (most of Africa).

The ambitiousness of the creeping decision to bring every inch of the planet under the watchful eyes of U.S. military commanders should take anyone’s breath away.  It’s the sort of thing that once might only have been imaginable in movies where some truly malign and evil force planned to “conquer the world” and dominate Planet Earth for an eternity.  (And don’t forget that the Pentagon’s ambitions hardly stop at Earth’s boundaries. There are also commands for the heavens, U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, into which the U.S. Space Command was merged, and, most recent of all, the Internet, where U.S. Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM rules.)

Now, unnoticed and unreported, the process is being repeated.  Since 9/11, a secret military has been gestating inside the U.S. military.  It’s called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  At TomDispatch, both Nick Turse and Andrew Bacevich have covered its startling growth in these years.  Now, in a new post, Turse explores the way that command’s dreams of expansion on a global scale have led it to follow in the footsteps of the larger institution that houses it.

The special ops guys are, it seems, taking their own pie-cutter to the planet and slicing and dicing it into a similar set of commands, including most recently a NORTHCOM-style command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Once could be an anomaly or a mistake. Twice and you have a pattern, which catches a Washington urge to control planet Earth, an urge that, as the twenty-first century has already shown many times over, can only be frustrated. That this urge is playing out again in what, back in the Cold War days, used to be called “the shadows,” without publicity or attention of any sort, is notable in itself and makes Turse’s latest post all the more important. Tom

America’s Black-Ops Blackout
Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.”  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014?  Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year?  How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013?  Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers.  I called.  I left messages.  I emailed.  I waited some more.  I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos — the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world — were doing.

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

Click here to see a larger version

U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2014 TomDispatch ©Google

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion.  It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013.  With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to — or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of — more than 100 foreign countries.   And that’s probably an undercount.  In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nyetold TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet.  “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.”  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, includingassassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily.  With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014.  (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, “badged operators” — SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets — while the rest are support personnel.)  Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013.  If you add in supplemental funding, it had actuallymore than quadrupled to $10.4 billion.

Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 “man-years” — as the command puts it — in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.  About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92.

The Global SOF Network

Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC — a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists — touted his vision for special ops globalization.  In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”

In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it’s at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and power center.  In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.

Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM.  These include Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated to supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.

A similar mouthful of an entity is the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which conducts operations, according to SOCOM, “to enable the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to provide the Afghan people a secure and stable environment and to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of GIRoA.”  Last year, U.S.-allied Afghan President Ha­mid Karzai had a different assessment of the “U.S. special force stationed in Wardak province,” which he accused of “harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people.”

According to the latest statistics made available by ISAF, from October 2012 through March 2013, U.S. and allied forces were involved in 1,464 special operations in Afghanistan, including 167 with U.S. or coalition forces in the lead and 85 that were unilateral ISAF operations.  U.S. Special Operations forces are also involved in everything from mentoring lightly armed local security forces under the Village Stability Operations initiative to the training of heavily armed and well-equipped elite Afghan forces — one of whose U.S.-trained officers defected to the insurgency in the fall.

In addition to task forces, there are also Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”  These light footprint teams — including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon — offer training and support to local elite troops in foreign hotspots.  In Lebanon, for instance, this has meant counterterrorism training for Lebanese Special Ops forces, as well as assistance to the Lebanese Special Forces School to develop indigenous trainers to mentor other Lebanese military personnel.

Click here to see a larger version

Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements

SOCOM’s reach and global ambitions go further still.  TomDispatch’s analysis of McRaven’s first two full years in command reveals a tremendous number of overseas operations.  In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestine commando raids.  In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and kill suspected militants.  Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda.  And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and exercises.

“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity,” McRaven said at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America  “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business.”

In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with Indonesian frogmen.  In April and May, U.S. Special Operations personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic Guardian.  Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities across three countries — Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.

In May, American special operators took part in Spring Storm, the Estonian military’s largest annual training exercise.  That same month, members of the Peruvian and U.S. special operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations.  In July, Green Berets from the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group spent several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny nation’s Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment.  That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of SOCSOUTH’s Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and small unit tactical exercises.

In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia — as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.

Tactical training was, however, just part of the story.  In March 2013, for example, experts from the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales — Mexico’s Special Warfare Center — to aid them in developing their own special forces doctrine.

In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM’s state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations.  “NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this,” said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. “What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts.”

MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune.  This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world.  Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven’s global vision.

In the coming years, more and more interactions between U.S. elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur — as they do today — overseas.  TomDispatch’s analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that U.S. Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.

For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger U.S. personnel.  SOCOM’s Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same.  “You understand that there is information about our military… that is contradictory to reporting,” he told me.  “There’s certain things we can’t release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad.  I’m not sure why you’d be interested in reporting that.”

In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, “When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular.”  He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries.  Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.

Bringing the War Home

This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country — the United States.  The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.”  Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.

While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway.  “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013.  Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.”  Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embeddedat 38.

“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners.  Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.”  At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.

“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event.  But that was only the start.  “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe… I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”

Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces.  In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.”  She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.

Cole also mentioned that her office would be training “a senior person” working for McRaven, the man about to “head the SOF element Lebanon” — possibly a reference to the shadowy SOC FWD Lebanon.  U.S. AID would, she said, serve as a facilitator in that country, making “sure that he has those relationships that he needs to be able to deal with what is a very, very, very serious problem for our government and for the people of that region.”

U.S. AID is also serving as a facilitator closer to home.  Cole noted that her agency was sending advisors to SOCOM headquarters in Florida and had “arranged meetings for [special operators] with experts, done roundtables for them, immersed them in the environment that we understand before they go out to the mission area and connect them with people on the ground.”  All of this points to another emerging trend: SOCOM’s invasion of the civilian sphere.

In remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral McRaven noted that his Washington operation, the SOCOM NCR, “conducts outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting SOF.”  Speaking at the Wilson Center, he was even more blunt: “[W]e also have liaison officers with industry and with academia… We put some of our best and brightest in some of the academic institutions so we can understand what academia is thinking about.”

SOCOM’s Information Warfare

Not content with a global presence in the physical world, SOCOM has also taken to cyberspace where it operates the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 propaganda websites that are run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets.  These shadowy sites — includingKhabarSouthAsia.comMagharebia which targets North Africa, an effort aimed at the Middle East known as, and another targeting Latin America called — state only in fine print that they are “sponsored by” the U.S. military.

Last June, the Senate Armed Services Committee called out the Trans Regional Web Initiative for “excessive” costs while stating that the “effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense.”  In November, SOCOM announced that it was nonetheless seeking to identify industry partners who, under the Initiative, could potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.”

Just as SOCOM is working to influence audiences abroad, it is also engaged in stringent information control at home — at least when it comes to me.  Major Bockholt made it clear that SOCOM objected to a 2011 article of mine about U.S. Special Operations forces.  “Some of that stuff was inconsistent with actual facts,” he told me.  I asked what exactly was inconsistent.  “Some of the stuff you wrote about JSOC… I think I read some information about indiscriminate killing or things like that.”

I knew right away just the quote he was undoubtedly referring to — a mention of the Joint Special Operations Command’s overseas kill/capture campaign as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.”  Bockholt said that it was indeed “one quote of concern.”  The only trouble: I didn’t say it.  It was, as I stated very plainly in the piece, the assessment given by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to now-retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

Bockholt offered no further examples of inconsistencies.  I asked if he challenged my characterization of any information from an interview I conducted with then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye.  He did not.  Instead, he explained that SOCOM had issues with my work in general.  “As we look at the characterization of your writing, overall, and I know you’ve had some stuff on Vietnam [an apparent reference to my bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam] and things like that — because of your style, we have to be very particular on how we answer your questions because of how you tend to use that information.” Bockholt then asked if I was anti-military.  I responded that I hold all subjects that I cover to a high standard.

Bockholt next took a verbal swipe at the website where I’m managing editor,  Given Special Operations Command’s penchant for dabbling in dubious news sites, I was struck when he said that TomDispatch — which has published original news, analysis, and commentary for more than a decade andwon the 2013 Utne Media Award for “best political coverage” — was not a “real outlet.”  It was, to me, a daring position to take when SOCOM’s shadowy Middle Eastern news site actually carries a disclaimer that it “cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.”

With my deadline looming, I was putting the finishing touches on this article when an email arrived from Mike Janssen of SOCOM Public Affairs.  It was — finally — a seemingly simple answer to what seemed like an astonishingly straightforward question asked more than a month before: What was the total number of countries in which Special Operations forces were deployed in 2013?  Janssen was concise. His answer: 80.

How, I wondered, could that be?  In the midst of McRaven’s Global SOF network initiative, could SOCOM have scaled back their deployments from 120 in 2011 to just 80 last year?  And if Special Operations forces were deployed in 92 nations during just one week in 2013, according to official statistics provided to theNew York Times, how could they have been present in 12 fewer countries for the entire year?  And why, in his March 2013 posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee, would Admiral McRaven mention “annual deployments to over 100 countries?”  With minutes to spare, I called Mike Janssen for a clarification.  “I don’t have any information on that,” he told me and asked me to submit my question in writing — precisely what I had done more than a month before in an effort to get a timely response to this straightforward and essential question.

Today, Special Operations Command finds itself at a crossroads.  It is attempting to influence populations overseas, while at home trying to keep Americans in the dark about its activities; expanding its reach, impact, and influence, while working to remain deep in the shadows; conducting operations all over the globe, while professing only to be operating in “a number of locations”; claiming worldwide deployments have markedly dropped in the last year, when evidence suggestsotherwise.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Bockholt said cryptically before he hung up on me — as if the continuing questions of a reporter trying to get answers to basic information after a month of waiting were beyond the pale.  In the meantime, whatever Special Operations Command is trying to do globally and at home, Bockholt and others at SOCOM are working to keep it as secret as possible.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in theNew York TimesLos Angeles Timesthe Nationon the BBCand regularly atTomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Timesbestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback).  You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here

Key to the Map of U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013

Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.

Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.

Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.

Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.

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Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

DIRTY WARS by Jeremy Scahill

The reemergence of the Benghazi attack as a partisan political issue, the popularity of the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and the recent bombing in Boston have refocused Americans on the issue of terror and its threat. Did the FBI and CIA miss intelligence in dealing with the Tsarnaev brothers and other questions regarding the devastation at the Boston marathon have been discussed repeatedly during our twenty four hour news cycle and the question must be asked are we doing enough in terms of protecting the Homeland. The appearance of Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield is very timely as it posits the argument that after 9/11 the Bush administration implemented numerous policies that aborted many civil rights that Americans cherish and created a new world view that assassinations would be a central part of our national security and the secret operations infrastructure to carry out that mission. According to the author this had tremendous consequences for the United States as our policy decisions created the opposite results in countries like Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and ostensibly world wide as our counter terrorism decisions allowed our enemies to recruit more followers and became an even greater danger than they were before. Offshoots from the original al-Qaeda in Afghanistan emerged in Yemen under the banner, al-Qaeda Arab Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabab in Somalia and others. It fostered new spokespersons, even American citizens like Anwar Awlaki. In 2008 when President Obama was campaigning he argued against the tactics that were developed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, but as Scahill lays out his case, the President not only did not change any of the policies of the Bush administration that argued that “the world is a battlefield,” but the Obama administration has gone even further in implementing an enhanced version of counter terrorism that relies on targeted killing and drone strikes worldwide.
The key domestic political component in the implementation of enhanced interrogation techniques, renditions, black sites, assassinations etc. was to make sure that there would be no Congressional oversight for these policies. This was the goal of the Cheney-Rumsfeld partnership after 9/11 that was accomplished with the creation of a separate counter terror infrastructure in the Pentagon and away from the CIA. Scahill does an excellent job detailing how this was accomplished as Cheney and Rumsfeld were victorious in their “turf battles” within the Bush administration after 9/11. The result was that the Bush administration “asserted the right under US law to kill people it designated as terrorists in any country even if they were US citizens.” (78) Scahill reviews the lead up to the invasion of Iraq that has been detailed in books such as The Dark Side by Janet Mayer, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer, and Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks and the author reaches the same conclusions concerning Bush administration deception, lies, and a lack of strategy in all areas. The development of “enhanced interrogation” techniques to obtain information is argued pro and con, but what is important is how the Bush Justice Department developed the legal rationale for such techniques. As the separate infrastructure for counter terrorism was developed with the attendant lack of oversight the United States ignored its own laws and the Geneva Convention resulting in what the author describes as a “prophetic backlash” that would cost us dearly.
Scahill provides intricate details of events in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The reader is brought into US decision-making and the missions that resulted. We see the development of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) as a separate tool apart from the CIA and how it was led, funded, and carried out its killing operations. In fact the “JSOC was free to act as a spy agency and a kill/capture force rolled into one.” (171) Important figures involved in this process are presented from General Stanley McCrystal, Vice Admiral William McRaven and others who implemented counterterrorist policy, to the pseudo allies in foreign countries like General Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, the Ethiopian military, warlords in Somalia, among many others. The victims of American policy are delineated in detail be it the massacre at Gardez in Afghanistan, al Majalah in Yemen, to targeting and killing the likes of Anwar Awlaki, and the persecution of journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. These policies and negative outcomes did not only take place on the Bush administration watch, but were continued at a new level under the Obama administration.
According to Scahill the Obama National Security team is as guilty as the previous administration no matter how much former Vice President Cheney has “chirped” over the years how weak Obama has been in the war on terror. While Obama was receiving his Nobel Peace Prize the US was targeting AQAP in Yemen and al Shabab in Somalia. The basic difference between the two administrations is that the Obama people wanted to make the war on terror more efficient. All one has do is to look at Obama’s national security team to see that it was not going to change policy. Obama did take more responsibility than President Bush by approving certain operations, but that did not alter the overarching policy goals.
Other topics of importance that Scahill discusses include the outsourcing of the war on terror including an in depth look at the role of Blackwater (which the author has presented in his previous book, Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army), the strange case of Raymond Davis, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and many others. What is unique in this work has been Scahill’s access to many of the characters he presents, the impeccable research, and the ability to put forth material in a logical and cohesive manner. From my own readings what is presented in Dirty Wars is historically accurate and his conclusions are extremely scary as we continue the war on terror in the future. I recommend this amazing narrative of the history of “targeted killing” and other policies of our government to those who are concerned about America’s reputation in the world and what kind of nation we would like to be in the years to come.