The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda. Peter L. Bergen. Free Press, New York, 2011.
Writing history is a matter of placing points in time as bookends or markers for significant events that have occurred around the world. Generally, this is done by the winners of the particular struggles that create the events of history in order to highlight their own prowess and beneficence as compared to the other parties backwardness and ignorance. Peter Bergen, representing the U.S. as putative winner of the war on terror, bookends the “war on terror” with the dates spanning Sept 11, 2001 to the extra-judicial assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. The latter date is not written in stone yet, as Bergen’s last statement is, “In 2011, the Longest War, finally, began to wind down.” I will return to that final statement later, partly because of the convenient name change from the “war on terror” and partly because of the “winding down” aspect.
First, to the book cover, with its laudatory recommendations for the value of the work: The front cover has a recommendation that it is better than a novel, that it is a “history of our time.” True, but when combined with a comment from the back cover about it being “wide-angled” view of the “war on terror”—note the nomenclature—this history of our time suffers from myopia and narrow perspectives. Other notes tell me that I will read it and weep, but having been informed through my own reading and a continual monitoring of alternate news sites on the web since 9/11, I have already done the weeping that this work is supposed to conjure. Further, it is “essential reading” and in several respects it is a reasonable read, but is not essential, as its main fault is its narrow perspective.
Bergen, as a trained historian and researcher who has been following al-Qaeda for a couple of decades, obviously knows his subject matter well. For anyone who has been following the story—and there are a surprising many who “don’t want to go there,” and prefer to remain entertained by the mainstream media without concerning themselves about current events—this work comes across as conventional. Sure, it has some new well researched information, but it is a standard U.S.-centric read on the narrow events surrounding bin Laden’s relationship with the U.S.
Rather than “wide angle,” this is a telephoto shot of the war on terror. It has a narrow line of sight and focuses only on events narrowly connected to the thread of the narrative between bin Laden and the U.S. The background is out of focus, and events happening around and about are out of sight, and events occurring before hand—other than events directly relating to al-Qaeda—are similarly out of view.
A work supposedly of this magnitude, a supposed “magnum opus,” cannot succeed without including more background information and a wider perspective. The background missing is the whole context of U.S. imperial desires in the Middle East since at least the end of the Second World War, and the need to gather and harvest the energy resources of the area to its own needs for wealth and power. Okay, let’s tame the rhetoric down a bit and say that the missing background includes the lack of coverage of important historical items that allowed the creation of a bin Laden-style personality to occur. These items could include among many: the deal Roosevelt made with the still authoritarian Saudi regime concerning protection for oil; the U.S.-U.K. sponsored coup of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran; the Carter doctrine that stated that the U.S. would use military force to protect its interests in the Middle East; the at first conditional but now unconditional support for the Israeli suppression of the Palestinian people and the annexation and expropriation of their land.
When the longest war started with Bush’s declaration after the 9/11 attacks the significance of the neocons within the Bush government is down played immensely.
Israel is noted several times throughout the work, but not with the focus that a supposed history of our time requires. Bergen discusses in a very limited manner some of the neocons within the Bush administration and by avoiding or evading this issue, downplays the role that Israel has played in the “Long War.” The list of Israel supporters, either through ideology or religious bias, or political expediency, or combinations of the three, include Wolfowitz, Wurmser, Feith, Pipes, Bolton, Armitage, Rove, Perle, Ashcroft, Cheney, Libby, Abrams, et al. While several of these people are mentioned in the text, the influence of the Israeli lobby and the particular interests of the neocons projecting their power of the “New American Century” throughout the world is not at all examined as it should be.
Another item that receives a distinct lack of discussion with Bergen’s acceptance through silence is the official 9/11 story. In spite of far too many questions concerning the official representation of events (my personal two biggest are: “Where are the Pentagon video tapes showing the attack?” and “How could the collapse of Tower 7 be construed as anything but a freefall demolition?”), Bergen accepts the truth of the commission. That combined with the lack of information on the neocon Israeli supporters places a distinct lack of context onto the whole “long war”, and places its validity into even more serious questioning than Bergen provides in his own arguments.
Finally, this presentation of current U.S. militarism is under the heading of a “long war” rather than its original terminology of the “war on terror.” The latter phrase is closer to the truth in a mirror image kind of way—for the true terror in our age comes from the very military adventures of the U.S. throughout modern history. Throughout its history, the U.S. has used military violence in order to gain its desires for its political and corporate leaders.
There has been more terror created by the U.S. in its military adventures at home and abroad. Before the Second World War, it was Bolshevism and unions that were under attack, literally, both domestically and in foreign lands. After the war, the all-inclusive and all-consuming fear of communism spread terror throughout the world as the U.S. attacked or supported covert actions that would overturn any government that did not side with them, including many with their stated neutrality. Millions were killed globally as this fear fed orgy of terror attacked people in South Asia, the Philippines, all of Latin America, and into Africa and the Middle East.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. as the sole world power turned to its military to ensure “full spectrum dominance” which would allow no competitors in the global environment. The above mentioned neocons were just chomping at the bit for a “new Pearl Harbor” in order to put in place their global desires.
They received their new Pearl Harbor, a terror attack on the Twin Towers, best considered in context as blowback for all the killing fields that the U.S. had created themselves. Certainly it was terror, a terrifying action, against human rights and international law, but the response of the U.S. was simply to take advantage of the attack and create a new paradigm of fear within the U.S. U.S. citizens were—and generally are—ignorant of the effects of U.S. actions elsewhere in the world, either ignoring events or believing the grand rhetoric of U.S. self-proclaimed exceptionalism.
From that Bergen’s title “The Longest War”, is an attempt to make it seem more comfortable to the general reader—it is not a terror war anymore, simply a long war. Which brings me full circle back to his closing statement that the long war is finally beginning to wind down. Far from it.
The U.S. remains the undisputed military power in the world, with the largest military budget, the largest domestic military corporate budget in the world, and over one hundred fifty bases in over a hundred countries around the world. It is also a power in decline, economically, socially, and morally. As its economic debt burden carries on, as the decline of resources—in particular oil—increases, as the world turns away from U.S. sentiment as much as it can given its military presence, the ‘long war on terror’ will assuredly continue, somewhere, somehow, as the dying empire strikes back at all fearfully contrived foes.