“Pay Any Price:” The Terrible War on Terror

March 16, 2015

JamesRisen“A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat. Fear sells. Fear has convinced the White House and Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars — more money than anyone knows what to do with — into counterterrorism and homeland security programs, often with little management or oversight, and often to the detriment of the Americans they are supposed to protect” (p 203).

Those sentences neatly sum up the central thrust of  Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin, 2014), James Risen’s stunning report on the ‘War on Terrorism.’  He adds, “Fear is hard to question. It is central to the financial well-being of countless federal bureaucrats, contractors, subcontractors, consultants, analysts and pundits. Fear generates funds.”

The phrase “pay any price” was first uttered to indicate national determination in the face of a real threat. Risen takes the phrase to be cynical and hollow: the United States is being looted by what is done in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’ Moreover, unchecked power is being amassed, and secrecy and the invasion of privacy have come to dominate.

The book laces together several years of Risen’s reporting on the ‘War on Terror,’ much of which first appeared in the New York Times. (Earlier, Risen had published State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Free Press, 2006.) Most of this book’s argument is carried not by broad-banner claims but by detailed cases of profiteering, indefensible torture, invasion of privacy and unchecked power. “Greed,” “Power” and “Endless War” are the book’s main sections Risen uses to assemble his account.

Here are a few more topic sentences to give you a sense of the case Risen draws together:

“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society — including many poor and rural teenagers — fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks, and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable, and so there is no longer any great incentive to end it (p xv).”

Today, at least $11.7 billion of the approximately 20 billion the Coalition Provisional Authority ordered sent to Iraq from New York is either unaccounted for or has simply disappeared (p 19).”

“Far more than any other conflict in American history, the global war on terror has been waged along free market principles. … From Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia, American counterterror operations have relied heavily on outside contractors to provide intelligence and logistics. As a result, the tenets of twenty-first century American capitalism have become the bywords of twenty-first century American combat. That includes the catchphrase of the global financial crisis — ‘to big to fail’ (p 142).”

“Before the war on terror, the U.S. military had a well-earned reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. … During the post[WWII]war years, the United States was a driving force behind the 1949 Geneva Conventions, codifying the rights of prisoners in armed conflict. … Bush’s decision to abandon the Geneva Conventions changed everything” (p 168).

“The American archipelago of terror…was built on a myth. It was a myth built despite strong evidence to the contrary. It was as a myth enabled by a community of supposed experts, many of whom now admit they knew better…. Like many myths throughout history, its real resonance came from the fact that it helped powerful men justify what they wanted to do” (p 176). [The myth is the claim that the United States could torture prisoners, denying what we did was torture, and gain useful intelligence from that torture. We knew not only that it was wrong but that it would not work.]

“Despite the professional consensus among psychologists that torture was counterproductive, the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program” (p 194).

“One of the most baleful consequences of the toxic combination of fear and money in the post 9/11 era has been the constriction of the physical landscape of the United States. Freedom of movement–one of the greatest attributes of life in the expanse of the United States–has been curtailed” (p 203).

“America remains on combat footing in the global war on terror, without realizing that the war that was declared after 9/11 is all but over. The main adversary in that war, Osama bin Laden, is dead, and al Qaeda is broken. What is left are shattered remains and splinter groups” (p 216).

The book’s final chapter closes with this chilling thought, again told largely through specific instances:

“Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in the endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth. On the one hand, the executive branch has vastly expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining any insights into its dark arts, waging a war on truth” (p 230).

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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