Life During Wartime

At first, the title sounds like a bit of puffery, because this isn’t a thick, dull reference about the geopolitical changes of the last decade. But nevertheless, it’s exactly what’s advertised: an impeccably sourced, human-scaled look at how 9/11 made our world different, so quickly that we hardly noticed. It is also a fine counterweight to dependence on a 24/7 news cycle or the thin accusations of rabble-rousers on both the left and right. The author, Dominic Streatfeild, makes the pages fly while giving us the background detail we need to fully apprehend eight significant consequences of the attack on America and our overheated (and ultimately tragic) response to it. I’d already heard about some of the events he discusses, but I hadn’t really understood them. This is not an anger-inducing book; most people have gotten past that stage. What it invokes are sorrow, as the actions of mostly well-meaning people spin out of control; and foreboding, that sudden injections of fury and fear – of which our fellow countrymen have recently demonstrated plenty – could make it all happen again.

Each of the eight chapters begins with a tight closeup on a single human being and pulls back to place that person in the context of something wider, like a reverse zoom in the movies. Thus we see that great changes, sometimes sinister ones, issue forth from living individuals, that utter innocents can become victims in an eyeblink. It’s a vantage point that tends to fade when you’re looking at, say, a list of troop movements from the comfort of a Washington office – made somewhat less comfortable by the paranoia that permeated the Bush administration.

We begin with Mark Stroman, a young Dallas racist who was unhinged long before 9/11, but was swept away in the riptide of rage that followed it. He hated most minorities, but the very worst were “sand niggers,” “Ay-rabs.” The author guides us through the virulent cowboy-revenge posture that swept American culture immediately after the attacks; whether or not the cruel and vulnerable Stroman heard this or that broadcast or snippet of commentary, he was right in tune with the times. The attacks drove him over the edge, and he went on a rampage, first murdering an Indian convenience store owner. “For legal reasons, I can’t tell you about the others,” the author writes. “I can’t even tell you how many others there were.” But they were all Asian immigrants, and no money was ever taken. We visit Stroman on death row, and find him utterly unrepentant: if allowed to do so, he would undoubtedly continue.

A rickety Indonesian boatload of desperate international refugees sought asylum in Australia, but had the bad luck to try it in October 2011 and was stopped by a Royal Australian Navy frigate. The right-wing coalition leading the country began to mold public opinion, conflating protecting Australia’s borders with the War on Terror. Through a bizarre chain of communication lapses, the government believed, and managed to convince Australians, that the refugees had thrown their children overboard to force a rescue, something all the sailors present knew to be untrue. The boat was shunted off to Papua New Guinea, out of the reach of Australian law yet administered by Australians, so untouchable by the host country. This is the same kind of legal no-man’s-land that exists at Guantanamo Bay, which in fact set a precedent using Haitian boat people in the 1990s.

On June 30, 2002, an AC-130 SPECTRE gunship obliterated a wedding party in Deh Rahwood, Afghanistan, killing 48 and injuring 117, first with 105mm cannon and then with 25mm and 40mm machine guns fired on fleeing revelers. The party was targeted on a tip that an uncle of the bride’s, the Taliban’s #2 leader, might be there. He wasn’t. The AC-130 crew claimed it responded to anti-aircraft artillery. Apparently the soldiers hadn’t been briefed on the Afghan custom of firing rounds into the air as part of a celebration. This was only the first of several wedding ceremonies to be lethally disrupted the same way: lousy intelligence, “anti-aircraft fire.” But it’s the most important to us, because Mr. Streatfeild introduces us to the decimated family.

Remember those aluminum tubes that “proved” Iraq’s nuclear intentions? A blowsy bit of “intelligence” that had been repeatedly swatted away by everyone with any expertise, yet to their shock and horror, it reappeared after 9/11 and helped justify our invasion of Iraq. We watch the discovery unfold, learn why it is technologically impossible for these tubes to be used as centrifuge rotors – as every engineer knows – and sigh as the discredited “evidence” rises from the dead in the American confusion and panic after 9/11. So hungry for war are our leaders that the CIA’s hapless WINPAC (Weapons, Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control) unit, which had been beating the drum loudest, is reduced to arguing, well, maybe these are the wrong-sized tubes for WMD, but maybe the Iraqis plan to upgrade them; and finally, they knew we were monitoring, so they deliberately ordered the wrong tubes to confuse us! The administration leaks its mushroom-cloud theory to the New York Times, then uses this very story to bolster credibility in a bit of circular logic that would confound Lewis Carroll, ending after the invasion with if we can’t find anything, that only shows you how sneaky they are!

Al Qa’qaa is a 1,100-building complex ten times the size of Central Park, located in the desert near Yusifiyah, southwest of Baghdad. On April 3, 2003, less than two weeks after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Al Qa’qaa was bombed and its guards fled, leaving the Middle East’s largest explosives plant unprotected. About a week later, the US 101st Airborne, en route to Baghdad and glory, bivouacked just outside the facility, apparently unaware of what it was. By now, it had already been looted of trucks, air conditioners, equipment and the like. But Al Qa’qaa was also stuffed with missiles and explosives. All of it had been vetted by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who had specifically warned Americans about this location, along with the other weapons sites they examined. It did no good. The invaders were utterly unprepared for the scope and scale of looting (some of it, astonishingly, while Coalition troops passively stood by), and failed to protect anything, with one exception: the facilities of the Ministry of Oil. Through its indifference, the coalition squandered any local support it might have initially gained, and looted Iraqi munitions found their way around the world – and into the hands of the newly-empowered insurgency, which obtained about 90% of its explosives right under the Coalition’s nose. Alongside the U.S.’s flustered, ever-shifting denials and conflicting attempts to explain, the author interviews one of the founders of the Iraqi Islamic Army, who casually recounts what he did with some of the ordnance that the Americans asserted did not exist.

Suspects have been secretly “rendered” – that is, snatched abroad and relocated to face justice – since the Reagan administration. But it was under George W. Bush that most safeguards regarding the American rendition program were loosened or eliminated: “suspects” could now be pre-emptively kidnapped, even when there were no charges against them, and “rendered to interrogation,” to “black” CIA sites outside the country where no judicial process was even planned. Like the Australians had, the U.S. decided that during a “War on Terror,” treaties requiring humane treatment of prisoners did not apply even to its own citizens when held abroad. But its program of “extraordinary rendition” blew up when Khaled el Masri was abducted in Mallorca, whisked to a black site called the “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan, and held for 149 grisly days without trial. The reason we know about the case of “the Egyptian” is because this time, the CIA snatched the wrong guy. Mr. Streatfeild expertly tells the story from the captive’s point of view, then from inside the informal gang of planespotters and journalists which pieced together the secret U.S. program.

Uzbekistan’s brutal president Islam Karimov became a vital strategic Coalition ally as we planned the invasion of Afghanistan. In exchange for a shopping list of American goodies, he provided the “undisclosed location” that was the staging area for our assault (it’s where the convoy which destroyed the Deh Rahwood wedding party came from) – a U.S. airbase deep within central Asia, even inside the former Soviet Union – and hosted an unknowable number of CIA renditions. Unfortunately, despots around the world seized on this unholy alliance to further enslave their own people; they loved Bush’s “with us or against us” stuff, and used the Global War on Terror to justify any punishment they chose on anyone they chose to declare a “terrorist.” And in Uzbekistan, things went from bad to worse.

Finally, the single most heartbreaking fallout from 9/11 damaged the World Health Organization’s massive effort to defeat polio, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the largest public health project in history. Begun in 1988, GPEI vaccinated more than 2 billion children in 200 countries and was on the verge of stamping out the poliomyelitis virus once and for all. Even in warring zones, “Days of Tranquility” halted hostilities so children could be inoculated (the Taliban and the Northern Alliance both helped with the effort in Afghanistan). Then came 9/11, the invasion of two countries, vicious and untrue Internet rumors about contaminated vaccine and the West’s secret intentions, and general mistrust of Muslims. Nigerians were the first to refuse vaccines, then polio vectors were traced to Mecca, where the annual Haj brings together about three million Islamic pilgrims, ripe for contagion. Al-Qaeda and other ultra-right-wing Muslims forbade vaccination as blasphemous and Western. Most polio victims were now Muslim, and because 9/11 turned the world upside down, especially with regard to this particular faith, the virus’s relentless spread now threatens to undo GPEI’s quarter century of miraculous work. On July 2, 2007, Australia’s first polio case in 21 years was diagnosed. He was an unvaccinated foreign-exchange student from Pakistan, traveling lawfully, with a visa.

Each of these stories is told in exquisite detail, using crisp, economical language. I guarantee that no matter how closely you paid attention to the contemporary media (in fact, you might be less informed if you did), you’ll still learn something from this important book. Mr. Streatfeild does not attach blame to any person or country: there’s plenty to go around. The politicians, the military, the media, the citizenry, we all share in collective overreaction to a barbarous act, and willful disinterest in the true responsibilities of a free and just people. “Al-Qaeda doesn’t threaten our existence,” the author writes. “It never did. Our reaction to it just might.”

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