We live in a time of polemics, of polarized politics and of truthiness. Named “Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster in 2006, for anyone who hasn’t heard of it, truthiness is a concept devised by comedian Stephen Colbert to characterize something claimed as truth, based on gut feelings and not facts, distorting facts for emotional appeal and political gain. Truthiness.
BLACKWATER by Jeremy Scahill is the truthiness about Blackwater USA. BLACKWATER (the book) is to Blackwater USA (the company) what the aluminum tubes were to WMDs in Iraq. Whereas underlying facts may be correct, the conclusions based on pre-conceived political agendas are wildly off.
Because I believe the underlying research was solid and the topic of Jeremy Scahill’s book BLACKWATER needed to be discussed, I’ve waited until it had good traction on The New York Times bestseller list to write candidly about it and its truthiness.
Now truthiness by its very nature is difficult to debate and dispel, as Stephen Colbert demonstrates so brilliantly night after night. That’s why it’s so damn useful as a political tool. I’ve rolled my eyes every time I’ve heard Mr. Scahill call Blackwater Bush’s Praetorian Guard. The analogy is so far from historical fact, it barely passes as truthiness and it pains the historian in me. So rather than give it the gravitas of a more serious analysis, I decided it was better to respond to this truthiness with more truthiness:
Top Ten Ways Blackwater Shooters aren’t the Praetorian Guards
10. The bulging muscles of the Praetorian Guards weren’t from steroids.
9. Praetorian Guards watched real gladiators; BW shooters watch 300—over and over.
8. Praetorian Guards really were tier-one.
7. Praetorian Guards wore togas only in Rome; BW shooters wear Speedos only at the Liberty Pool.
6. Praetorian Guards didn’t have their own ProShop.
5. Praetorian Guards never Googled, “What Color is the Boat House at Hereford?”
4. Praetorian Guards were loyal to death; BW shooters always want to know how much Triple Canopy is paying.
3. Praetorian Guards were immortalized in marble statutes; BW shooters get bear paw tattoos.
2. Praetorian Guards assassinated emperors; BW shooters never really get to do the cool offensive stuff.
1. Praetorian Guards knew what the Praetorian Guards were.
I’ll spare you a top ten list about the inferences that Blackwater is a crusading army of God. Suffice it to say they’re not choirboys.
I’m in an unusual position. I am the only blogger who focuses upon the nexus of the current transformation in national security, the outsourcing of the War on Terror. I am also a novelist, a thriller author, who, in less than two months, has the first novel coming out about this outsourcing revolution.
Although I’m writing fiction, I do so with a strong commitment to the truth, to reality of the War on Terror industry and to a fair portrayal of its players. These men and some women put their lives on the line with the belief that they are keeping the rest of us safe and free. At the same time they’re also working for personal and corporate profit. Patriotism and profit. It makes a lot of us uncomfortable and it's hard to understand how they can coexist without corrupting one another. Such contradictions are what makes fiction interesting and this industry so hard to understand.
And I've tried. I’ve done my damnedest to get to know the private military and intelligence industries and the people working in it so I could understand it on its terms and write real characters, not caricatures bases on preconceived ideas. I’ve slipped into the shadows and at times I’ve been afraid. It’s a rough crowd.
I’ve also studied the larger political issues and have combined these with my best understanding of the private military and intelligence industries in order to present the subtleties, mixed morals and contradictions that characterize the age we live in. There is no more important issue to our society than the War on Terror, how we're fighting it and who we are becoming because of it.
It’s ironic that something that was pivotal in my decision to venture into this territory was an essay in The New York Times Book Review that chided thriller authors for their failure in helping the public make sense of the post- 9/11 landscape, particularly in regard to intelligence. It concluded with the damning words, ‘To understand what’s going on in the world…we readers need to turn to non-fiction.”
Sadly, that nonfiction is now betraying us.
My forthcoming novel is the truthiness about the War on Terror and about a company not unlike Blackwater USA. My fictional private military company, Black Management, is not evil. At the same time, it’s hard to call it good. OUTSOURCED is fact warped into fiction so far it again resembles fact, maybe more fact than in today’s nonfiction.
Like Mr. Scahill, I, too, have a book to pimp. And this is where things become even more twisted. Although his is nonfiction and mine is fiction, they’re both on the same subject, more or less. Mr. Scahill is a journalist and I’m a novelist, but we’re both part of the publishing industry. I’ve had strong pressure to market my book similar to his--with truthiness and hyperbole. Fear mongering sells. So does sensationalism.
(Regular readers of The Spy Who Billed Me will already know which route I chose because of how I run this blog. I call things as I see them with humor and irony but also with a commitment to fairness and truth--all the while doing my best to avoid truthiness, today’s Top Ten excepted. I'm sure I fail at times, but I try. And for those of you who just popped by, please don't mistake me for an industry pundit and start blasting. Read the blog.)
Whether an author is selling fiction or nonfiction about this subject, it’s too important for us as a nation to understand the War on Terror industry to portray it or one of its main players as a one-dimensional character out of a cheap pulp thriller. The real world is more textured than that, most of it in shades of gray and perhaps in this case, shades of black.
There’s an unprecedented amount of force as well as military and intelligence expertise concentrated in private corporations such as Blackwater USA. That alone is reason that we as a society need to understand the industry and keep a close eye on it. It’s an industry that is not going to go away, so we also have to figure out how to live with it. And to do that, we have to put the histrionics aside. Mr. Scahill’s book really isn’t a bad place to start to learn about it, as long as you understand the truthiness in it and filter it out. Remember, juxtaposing facts does not make them related. Read his book critically and you'll be rewarded.
My personal concern is more with the private intelligence industry than the private military one. The manipulation of intelligence regarding Iraq’s alleged WMDs had to be very artfully done to short-circuit a formidable bureaucracy designed to prevent just such warping of intelligence. We all know now that's possible, truthiness in 16 words or less.
Today, unlike during the run-up to the Iraq War, the key pieces of that intelligence apparatus are now in private hands. Substituting truthiness for intelligence to misdirect US foreign policy for corporate gain has never been easier. It's an industry of the shadows, with a deep culture of secrecy, one that's necessary for national security. It also makes it impossible for the public to monitor. If there were ever an industry for close Congressional oversight, this is it.
It is a very unusual time that we live in, when patriotism and profit; comedy and news, fiction and nonfiction converge. To truthiness and the darker truths it tells about all of us. May we learn to live with those very uncomfortable truths—or are they fiction?