Reviewed: The Secret War On Terror

Remember the days when you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Dubya Bush giving erratic speeches about “the war on teeerrrr”? Teaching us to be scared of everything from young Asian men with rucksacks to suspicious-looking sherbet? BBC2 treated us to a peek-behind-the-curtain documentary that promised to reveal the ‘secret’ of this vague and truly terrifying military concept.
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By now, we all know the ‘War on Terror’ is a global military, political, legal and ideological struggle against organisations deemed to ‘be terrorist.’ And also against regimes that were accused of having terrorist connections. Also against those simply perceived as posing a threat to the US and its allies. And we know it had a particular focus on militant Islamists and al-Qaeda. But could it be that this War On Terror is a potential framework for perpetual military action by a military industrial complex pursuing other, shadier goals? Is ‘The War on Terror’ a media construct potent enough to scare us all into blind submission? Is it right that people who ‘look a bit shifty’ should have a super-power’s military shock and awe unleashed upon them? These are questions I hoped the documentary would try to answer.

The War on Terror campaign was launched in 2001 with the US/UK invasion of Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks. Since then, other operations have raged on, the largest being the War in Iraq which began in 2003. And still the war goes on with devastating consequences for us and the enemy. But who, precisely, are we at war WITH? And why?

Through the use of emotive music, dramatic reconstructions, news footage of terrorist atrocities, doomy voiceover, eye-witness accounts and soundbites provided by authoritative experts, this documentary sought to convince us of the clear and present danger of terrorism across the world and, specifically, in the UK. It also explored the idea that torture, however terrible, was / is (might possibly be) justified if the threat to western lives is grave enough.

Al-Qaeda, we’re told, is “the most deadly and sophisticated” terrorist organisation in the world. “Never has the west felt more threatened.” Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5 reveals the enormity of the threat. So does the ex-head of the CIA. More talking heads expose The Threat. It seems there’s terror, terror everywhere, and threat upon threat waiting, lurking, just out of arm’s reach, praying for the authorities to lose focus and inadvertently offer the terrorists an opportunity to strike and kill, kill, kill.

But what is the precise nature of the threat? A CIA talking head told us: “There are still hundreds of them out there plotting to come after us and until they’re gone, we’ll face a threat.” We should be scared, it seems, of Them because They are still out there, plotting to do the kind of stuff They do. And by God, we should be really scared. Scared enough to use horrifying cruelty to try to stop Them, it seems.

At this point, images of flip-charts covered with felt-tipped ‘mind-maps’ flirted with my sensibilities. If it wasn’t so appallingly outrageous, it’d be funny. But it’s not. It’s not funny at all.

“The war on terror would test the west’s commitment to human rights to the limit. How far should the American government go to save western lives?” asks reporter Peter Taylor. Then there were hideous descriptions of mock-executions, water-boarding, prisoners being hung up, the use of dogs, holding a drill to a detainee’s head, even women’s underwear being put on prisoners’ heads - accounts of inhumane, brutal cruelty. The General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA tells us of the torture: “the reality is: this. Did. Work.” This, the documentary suggests, is the secret of the war on terror.

Peter Taylor interviews the former head of MI5. “Is Britain complicit in torture?” No, she says. “Is water-boarding torture?” Yes, she says. When pressed, she reveals that after she retired she discovered that Americans used water-boarding and thought it was appropriate. She seems shocked. Was our intelligence so flimsy that MI5 didn’t know what was going on? I’m not sure I buy it.

We learn that shockingly, an unnamed officer at Guantanamo Bay confided in a CIA behavioural scientist that she’d watched the TV show ’24’ to “get ideas” for torture techniques. At this point, images of flip-charts covered with felt-tipped ‘mind-maps’ flirted with my sensibilities. If it wasn’t so appallingly outrageous, it’d be funny. But it’s not. It’s not funny at all.

The strident narrative voice of this documentary suggested we should all be stunned into compliance with the erosion of civil liberties. In the face of the kind of violence that threatens the lives of millions, torturing the occasional radical’s a no-brainer, surely? But the documentary was using out-dated political and military thinking to persuade us to buy into its central idea.

The term “War on Terror” has not been used by the American government since Barack Obama came to office in 2009. In the US Army Personnel Policy Guidance document last reviewed on 4th March 2011, there’s a note on the first page: The term “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” has been replaced with “Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO)” throughout the PPG. So for Obama, there’s no war as such and no ‘terror’ per se. For the American government, it’s merely an ‘operation’ that makes and carries out contingencies. Wondering what the hell that means? Me too. On this, ‘The Secret War on Terror’ kept its counsel.

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