Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed. Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power. He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”
Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.” In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged. It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.
Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”
With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally. After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.
Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar. Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter. His name is Jeremy Scahill. In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spies, rent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.
In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is. And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows. As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making. In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.
In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else. Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end. It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name. As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written. Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Scahill has tracked, in particular, the rise of JSOC. In Iraq, it grew into a kind of Murder Inc., “an executive assassination wing,” as Seymour Hersh once put it, operating out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. It next turned its hunter/killer methods on Afghanistan and then on the planet, as the special operations forces themselves grew into an expansive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. In those years, Scahill started following the footsteps of special ops types into the field, while mainlining into sources in their community as well as other parts of the American military and intelligence world.
In his new book, he dramatically retraces the bureaucratic intel wars in Washington as the Pentagon, the CIA, and the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community muscled up, and secret presidential orders gave JSOC, in particular, unprecedented authority to turn the globe into a free-fire zone. Finally, as a reporter, he traveled to a series of danger spots — Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan — that Americans could care less about, where the U.S. military and the CIA (in conjunction with private security contractors) were experimenting with and developing new ways of waging Washington’s spreading secret wars.
As Scahill writes in his acknowledgements, thanking another reporter who traveled with him, “We were shot at together on rooftops in Mogadishu, slept on dingy floors in rural Afghanistan, and traveled together in the netherlands of Southern Yemen.” That catches something of the spirit behind a book produced by a dedicated, unembedded, independent reporter — a thoroughly impressive, even awe-inspiring piece of work.
In the process, Scahill, who in these years broke a number of major stories as national security correspondent for the Nation magazine, fills us in on those American military death squads in Iraq, nightmarish special ops night raids in Afghanistan (that target all the wrong people), secret renditions of terror suspects to a CIA-funded jail in Somalia (after President Obama had forsworn “rendition”), the dispatching of drones and cruise missiles in disastrous strikes on civilians in Yemen, the hunting down and assassination of American citizens (aka terror suspects, although 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki certainly wasn’t one) also in Yemen on the orders of the president, thecomplex world of JSOC-CIA-Blackwater operations in Pakistan — and so much more, including an indication that JSOC has even launched secret ground operations of some sort in Uzbekistan. (Who knew?)
Dirty Wars is also, in Johnson’s terms, a history of the future; that is, a history of potential blowback-to-come, a message in a bottle sent to us from the hidden front lines of America’s global battlefields — and therein lies a tale of tales.