Newsletter #1: The War on Terror Made Our World
by Micah Uetricht
Twenty years since September 11, 2001, the War on Terror’s catastrophic effects can’t be overstated. Hundreds of thousands (at least) in the Middle East are dead; trillions have been funneled to the military-industrial complex; our already desiccated democratic institutions have been further weakened; a Pandora’s box of barbarous reactionary currents have been unleashed in the United States and abroad. Our world has been grotesquely deformed by the War on Terror.
Yet somehow, that war receives scant attention these days. Little of the voluminous mainstream discourse on the rise of Donald Trump mentions it. Even Bernie Sanders did not make opposition to the War on Terror central to his presidential campaigns. And when the war does grab headlines, as during Joe Biden’s recent pullout from Afghanistan, the obvious lesson — that the war cannot be won — escapes mainstream pundits. A grinding, decades-long, amorphously defined global military campaign with disastrous consequences and no real end in sight has been largely flushed down the memory hole.
Which makes Spencer Ackerman’s new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking) essential reading. Ackerman, a longtime national security reporter who writes the Substack “Forever Wars” and won a Pulitzer at the Guardian for his reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations, traces the violence and toxicity unleashed by the twenty-year War on Terror: nativism, Islamophobia, erosion of civil liberties, militarization of police powers at home, indefinite detention abroad, torture, expansion of “anti-terrorist” military action far beyond the Middle East, the roles played by a bloodthirsty Republican Party convinced of its ability and right to reshape the world through violence and a Democratic Party that shamefully capitulates to the GOP’s framing of the war, the successful harvesting of the worst of these developments by Donald Trump, and much more. He discusses all of this in a three-part conversation with The Dig.
We’re known for extended conversations on politics, but this Dig series with Spencer Ackerman goes even deeper than usual. That’s because we can’t understand the United States today — its cruelties abroad, the rot it has accelerated at home, its normalization of the illegal and immoral in the name of national security — without understanding the War on Terror.
Ackerman’s book is a crucial starting point, but the twenty-year anniversary of September 11, 2001 has brought numerous retrospectives on the War on Terror. Leftists, of course, have long denounced the war and did so again on the anniversary: Branko Marcetic writes for Jacobinabout how 9/11 could have provided an opportunity to reflect on blowback to US imperialism but was squandered, and the Nation’s September 20/27 issue focuses on the spectacular failures of the War on Terror, including the explosion of Islamophobia at home and the hellish experiences of former Guantanamo detainees. Predictably, mainstream outlets were more ambivalent, but some liberal columnists like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg denounced the war stridently.
We at The Dig have covered the War on Terror closely over the years. Take a look in our vast archive for similar further coverage, such as our conversation with Nikhil Pal Singh on the connection between war abroad and war at home, our two-part interview on “petro-capitalism” with Timothy Mitchell, or our conversation with historian Andrew Bacevich on our wars that never end.