February, 2013 – First, the bad news. This is not a well-written book, and it carries a disappointing punch for a book that should be the thriller of the decade/century/millennia to date. In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty does a much better job of painting the picture of the actual attack on bin Laden’s compound: this book only muddies the waters in that regard. Which is a disappointment because I believe that’s why most people would be reading it.
But… Pfarrar does make some points worth pondering, especially in the early chapters on Middle Eastern history, as he’s setting the scene for his ultimately disappointing finish.
P. 81 – On Sayyad Qutb, Islamic radical executed by Sadat in 1966 – “…democracy, he claimed, was a failed system. It was corrupt because mankind had been corrupted. Qutb’s writing enjoined Muslims that Jihad against unbelievers was a holy obligation. For Qutb, Jihad meant not just the defense of Muslim lands, but a world-wide revolution, ‘to safeguard the mission of spreading Islam.’ Qutb maintained that the entire world was in a state of jahiliyah – a condition of subhuman stupidity and chaos where ignorance clouded mankind’s understanding of God. Since chaos and the will of God cannot coexist, offensive Jihad was necessary to destroy corrupt societies and bring the world to Islam….Qutb’s acolytes designated what they called ‘near enemies’; these included Israel and every secular government in the Arab world. They named also a group of ‘far enemies’ – including the United states – whose unpardonable crime was moral corruption and military support for the nation of Israel.”
This sounds very much like the Calvinist doctrine of original sin. So why haven’t Christian fundamentalists taken to killing for the same reasons? I would argue it’s the difference between Hammurabi’s Code and the New Testament vision of Jesus. Also, a Christian sense that only God can bring about final justice, the kind that really counts. As to the moral corruption of the U.S., can anyone really argue against that? Casino and on-line gambling, sexual depravity at all levels of society, alcohol abuse, a massive drug problem (both o.t.c. and illegal), gluttony, excess, greed, covetousness… have I forgotten anything? (Just look at our university campuses for a microcosm of the whole problem – and that at the place where our youth are supposed to be getting an understanding of higher level thinking and grappling with the deep moral questions, right?)
(Update May 22, 2013: Today a British soldier was hacked to death on a London street by two Islamic terrorists. This is what they said afterward: “The only reasons we killed this man this is because Muslims are dying daily,” he added, in video aired by CNN affiliate ITN. “This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.” [emphasis mine])
P. 82 – “What made the prospect of bloody sectarian war so attractive to generations of young Arab men? To answer that question, to find out what animated Osama bin Laden’s personal concept of Jihad, it’s necessary to make a brief trip through the history of the Middle East, as through Arab and not occidental eyes. An old SEAL adage says, ‘See it like your enemy’….One way to do that is to learn what the enemy has learned – assemble his ‘fact set’ and look at the problem from his side of the fence. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you will be in a much better position to anticipate his actions….”
I have a very serious question about this: how come when liberals say this, they’re told they hate their country, but when a SEAL says it, it’s somehow the wisdom of the ages?
P. 82 – “It is one of the ironies of history that the most emblematic weapon of Islamic terrorism, the truck bomb, was invented not by a Muslim fundamentalist, but by a radical Jew, Menachem Begin….” (I just found this a fascinating tidbit.)
P. 96 – Re: Islamic suicide bombers. “Why are they sacrificing themselves? What is the higher purpose? And why are they targeting innocent people? The answer is simple and terrifying: Islamic fundamentalists hate. And they hate profoundly….What has been misnamed the ‘Global War on Terror’ is actually a struggle not between Islam and Christianity, but between religious bigotry and Western secular liberalism.”
I would break this down further to the before-mentioned war between Hammurabi’s Code and the New Testament (both of which came from the Middle East).
P. 100 – “No one in the West could foresee that because of the Soviet defeat, a new class of warrior would emerge into history. The West had armed, trained, and encouraged Jihad fighters against the Soviets – it would now find itself fighting these same men. It was blowback on a global scale….
The idea was to remake the planet: one world, one people under Islamic domination and the will of God. To accomplish this, these new jihadists would use any means, however bloody, nefarious, or cruel….They would fight to bring about the end times as predicted in the Koran.”
P. 103 – “Both the United States and Saudi Arabia believed that the Russians’ aim was to conquer Afghanistan and destabilize the countries in the Persian Gulf region. There was oil in the region but the Russians had plenty of their own. What was really in question was the Strait of Hormuz – the opening of the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Through this narrow body of water, almost 40 percent of the West’s petroleum passes by tanker. The Russians wanted the Strait of Hormuz, and the West needed it. That is what raised the stakes of the Soviet-Afghan war.”
P. 95 – “Starting with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the perception on the Arab street was that the United States was in the business of propping up Israel. The face the Israelis show to their neighbors is a catalog of American military hardware: Phantom jets, HueyCobras, Hellfire missiles, M-16 rifles – these weapons are emblematic of the United States….Islamic radicals might only add that in addition to being a stooge of international Zionism, the United States is a godless, corrupt, warmongering, satanic parasite whose imperial pretenses are sucking dry the world’s resources, while murdering and enslaving the Muslim people.”
P. 131 – “In the 1990s, Osama would speak often of how the United States had murdered Muslim men, women, and children. In the days before American troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, these pronouncements left Americans baffled. To their recollection, they had never engaged in warfare against the Arab people or the Muslim faith. But this was to overlook that American weapons had killed Arabs, in the tens of thousands. Flown by Israeli pilots, American-made airplanes dropped American-made bombs. Israeli gunners fired American-made artillery pieces that scattered American-made cluster bombs on Arabs soldiers and civilians alike.”
Now Pfarrar moves to another topic: Saddam Hussein’s WMDs
P. 137 – About WMD’s in Iraq, following a failed sarin attack in 2003 – “Although the attack blipped on the media’s radar, the story was quickly quashed. The press wasn’t interested in stories about WMD in Iraq: They had already convinced themselves, and most of the American public, that Saddam Hussein didn’t have any chemical weapons. Since Saddam had none, Osam bin Laden couldn’t possibly have any. This was the story line they were invested in. And it was dead, flat wrong. It is a chilling fact that thousands of chemical weapons have been uncovered in Iraq….These weapons have been used by Al Qaeda against coalition and NATO forces on dozens of occasions.”
I personally think there’s a lot wrong with this statement, and the conclusions it leads one to. More later on this.
P. 138 – “To perpetuate the myth of ‘no WMD in Iraq’ the media and the U.S. government has had to scrupulously ignore facts on the ground, the testimony of victims, half a dozen United Nations reports, and medical journal articles discussing the treatment of soldiers exposed to nerve gas. Clearly, big media in the United States wanted nothing to do with the issue. Presented with the facts, it ignored them. The facts wouldn’t go away. Confirmation of the chemical attacks would come from a very unlikely source: the U.S. military itself. Enter Julian Assange and the WiliLeaks Papers….
P. 140 – …If the WkiLeaks papers are searched for under the term ‘chemical warfare improvised explosive device (CWIED),’ more than six hundred documents offer themselves for inspection. ‘Suspected chemical’ yields an additional eighty-five. These are battlefield reports of hundreds of Al Qaeda chemical attacks…. Yet the chorus droned on: ‘There are no WMD in Iraq.’”
There’s a lot I’d like to address in these two previous passages.
Outside of a page of acknowledgements, a glossary of terms, and a 2-page summary of “how this book was written”, there are zero (get it?) end notes. None. Pfarrer makes a lot claims about the background of Osama bin Laden that are backed up by nothing other than his word. This is not how a good history book is written, regardless of how much “better” the word of a Navy SEAL is in relation to anyone else’s on earth (sarcasm intended).
I was looking forward to reading this book, in much the same way I was looking forward to seeing Zero Dark Thirty. The book let me down. It’s not well-written or well-edited or something – it just doesn’t hang together.
I first started being bothered with the certainty with which Pfarrer describes the activities and beliefs and thoughts of bin Laden in his formative years prior to 9/11. There are no endnotes, so we just take Pfarrer’s word that everything he says about bin Laden is true: he’s a Seal, after all, so his word should not be doubted.
By the time I reached the passages where Pfarrer tells us with certainty that Hussein’s WMDs certainly did exist, and are now being used many times by Al Qaeda, and that the press is ignoring the story because, you know, they have already determined they didn’t exist and of course they could never admit a mistake, well, let’s just say I was doubtful. Pfarrer does cite the WikiLeaks documents which, he says, provide numerous examples to support his hypothesis. Ok, at least we have a citation. That’s good. Further research is needed by this reader on that claim.
But his concept of the press as a monolithic personality that makes up its mind about something and once made, can never be changed, shows the typical conservative misperception of the press as enemy. In my opinion, it represents a very shallow understanding of how the press works. A reporter who could show the existence of WMD in Iraq would have the biggest scoop of the first part of the 21st century. But that reporter wouldn’t bring that story out because “the press” has made its mind up? Really?
Finally, like many current and ex-military types, he relishes throwing weapons terminology around. I’m assuming he thinks the reader will think this is cool. I don’t. I see it as an attempt to show us he’s a part of an exclusive club that a non-military person simply can’t possibly understand. I get very tired of this kind of exclusivity. In fact, I feel it’s dangerous, and displays a sense of the military-as-vital that is dangerous to a democracy. In addition, a good writer does not use terminology that the average well-educated reader won’t understand. To do so displays a degree of insecurity, or possibly immaturity.
April 8, 2013 – It was on Spring Break in conversation with Lois that I was able to coalesce something about the book that bothered me but on which I couldn’t quite put my finger. It starts with that feeling that oozes through the book that no one who isn’t a Seal could possibly understand the truth behind what’s really going down in the world. Why are there no endnotes to this book? Because why would a Seal need to back up his hypotheses with “facts” from other people who have never been a Seal?
Okay, so I made this point earlier in the review, but it speaks to a larger issue. How has Pfarrar arrived at this mentality? In my opinion, it’s been a process. We have become a nation that kowtows way too much to the military. The change began to occur after we had our national come-to-Jesus time over the way we (supposedly) treated Vietnam vets. America felt it collectively blamed the soldier instead of the politicians and generals. Since then, we’ve gone overboard in the other direction, and of course the Pentagon loves it. September 11 sealed the deal and now we “honor our heroes” at every public event (including the start of tonight’s NCAA Men’s national basketball championship game). Private enterprise (like baseball clubs and the NFL) have jumped onboard for one reason and one reason alone: the American public now demands it.
This reverence for our nation’s military would not only have been foreign to our Founding Fathers, it would have been abhorrent. Certainly to George Washington. Ask him how he felt about a standing army?* In fact, they created a government structure that put the final military decisions (as well as the military itself) in the hands of a civilian. Why did they do this? Because they had seen what happened to Europe when nations glorified and relied upon militaries, and they did everything possible to ensure that it wouldn’t happen here.
And now, look at us. People like me are subject to scorn because we refuse to worship “our heroes”. But aside from the fact that every military conflict we’ve been involved in since World War II has been one-sided “we’ve got guns and they’ve got sticks” affairs (which should give us pause when one thinks about how poorly we’ve fared of recent), I consider myself holding to a Founding tradition of our nation. Which kills me, because the people I’m arguing against are the ones who seem to think they have a lock on what the Founding Fathers meant.
(*What’s that you say? The world has changed, so now we need a standing army? Sorry, my Constitutional originalist friends; you’re not allowed to use that argument unless you’re willing to admit that the Constitution should also change in other ways to fit the times.)