The first, they say, is written by journalists. Then there’s The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke, which dives deep on the conflicts launched back on That Day ten years ago and takes the story right up into 2011. I think it’s probably essential reading for anyone fascinated by these sad sequences, especially those who might want to have public opinions.
Large parts will be unsurprising to anyone who followed the first draft closely; few of these stories remain secret. Furthermore, Burke doesn’t do grand unifications; the strength of the book is in the attention to detail and a determined refusal to bypass the particular.
And that is the great lesson that the book hammers home: These have been wars, not one war. The conditions and teachings that fed the growth of Bin Laden’s crazed faction, and those that drove the Iraqi insurgency, and those that provoked the Euro-jihadi train bombers; all were intensely localized and particular. You can’t begin to understand the whys and wherefores of any of these narratives without a close look at the immediate local environment, and that’s what Burke focuses on.
The Corollary · It’s obvious: Those, mostly on the right wing in the West, who lump all our adversaries together using a catchy label like “Islamofascism” or “Eurabia”, are fools or liars or both. Not only are they objectively wrong, they make things worse by pitching this as a grand war of Us against Them, which would actually help the other side if it were true. Fortunately for us, the conditions and perceptions driving each of the groups who have taken up arms against the West are unique, local, and personal.
This should not be a surprise. The supposed link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussain that the Cheney/Bush war-drum-beaters liked to bandy about was wildly implausible to anyone with even the faintest grasp of the region’s dynamics; see my words on the subject from 2004.
Oh yes, this book leaves no room for doubt as to the duplicity, bigotry, credulousness, and malignancy of the Cheney/Bush crew. They launched a war on patently false premises and they explicitly encouraged the administration of torture to thousands, mostly on the basis of their being brown-skinned Muslims. Burke has the citations and they’re not particularly open to challenge.
Not that they were evil geniuses as such; they were led down the path by some of the slimiest and least-credible snake-oil merchants ever; one need only recall the post-war Republican fury when it turned out that Ahmed Chalabi couldn’t arrange for Iraq to recognize Israel and route a pipeline through it.
Who Are Those People, Actually? · I mean, the ones trying to kill us. For me, this is the best part of the book. Burke goes deep on the other side. If you want to know what distinguished Bin Laden’s teachings from those of the Taliban and those of Iraqi insurgents, he’s got it. If you’ve always wondered why Falluja became the white-hot center of the post-war war, here’s the back story. If you’ve been puzzled by Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, or how middle-class British Muslims ended up taking bombs onto the Tube, you won’t be any more after reading this.
Most important: Has it ever seemed to you that the fighters on our side are beset with endless financial, logistical, and political problems, while those guys over there go from strength to strength? Not so; they’ve got problems in spades, and Burke lays them out in intense and sometimes entertaining detail.
Get It While It’s Fresh · The 9/11 Wars is definitive and comprehensive.
Often, the best histories of any episode are written decades or centuries after the fact. But it’s difficult for me to imagine later generations having much to add to this study of these events.
My only criticism would be that the book ends while some of the 9/11 Wars still haven’t. I look forward to a second volume in the fullness of time; but I hope it’s short.