This Is Forever
The War on Terror never ended. Covering it properly requires jettisoning some long-standing journalism practices – but not standards.
Edited by Sam Thielman
WELCOME TO FOREVER WARS, a journalistic experiment. Whether the experiment succeeds or fails is in your hands.
You may hear that “the 9/11 era is over” in coverage of the 20th anniversary of September 11, and again in coverage of President Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This is false. Paired with gauzy commemorations, it’s pernicious. Treating the 9/11 era as the past obscures every relevant fact about 20 years’ worth of sprawling state violence. The most relevant fact is this: the 9/11 era proceeds. And with procession comes mutation.
The War on Terror made industrial-scale digital surveillance an enduring aspect of U.S. intelligence and federal law enforcement, rendering quaint Constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures. Such surveillance lives in symbiosis with 21st century capitalism in general, and the privatized “public” square we call social media in particular.
It’s true that Biden is withdrawing from Afghanistan – with the caveats that have become so familiar to post-9/11 U.S. “withdrawals.” It’s also true that troop levels in Iraq are a fraction of what they were during the 2003-2011 occupation. Biden has even put drone strikes, commando raids and other counterterrorism operations under a much-anticipated review (the existence of which, just saying, I first reported). But the War on Terror’s enemies are once again shifting before our eyes.
And the War on Terror’s mandate is broader and subtler than its drone strikes, its surveillance, and its active battlefields. It is also a legal apparatus that declared it constitutionally permissible to kill un-charged, un-tried American citizens. It insists that immigration is a national-security threat, and seizes opportunities from war zones – surveillance tools, detention practices and more – to use against immigrants and asylum-seekers at home. It pays $6 trillion – and climbing – of public wealth to security services and their vast network of contractors. It offers a prefabricated emergency to anyone who wants to sort Real Americans from Conditional Americans, and a suite of options for dealing with the latter, as was on display in, among other places, Portland last summer.
Rather than belabor the point, I’m just going to quote something here:
The war routinized official euphemisms and outright government lies about whom it targeted, the scale of its operations, their second-order impacts, and their prospects for success. It withheld the relevant truths about the war as official secrets. And it encouraged an atmosphere of paranoia that frequently turned conspiratorial.
That’s from my forthcoming book, Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. (Please buy the book!) The basic argument of Reign is that the 9/11 Era, an authoritarian panoply of possibilities, continues to shape the dire political and security realities we inhabit. And so the basic proposition of Forever Wars is to document the continuities, departures and permutations of the War on Terror as it enters its third decade.
Forever Wars will accomplish its mission through original reporting, critique, essay, and the exploration of relevant history, ideally at the same time. It will scale up, across the entirety of the mutating war; scale down, to focus on specific developments that impact those mutations/continuities/departures; and zoom out, to examine the impact of the War on Terror on the continuing deterioration of American democracy. Sometimes Forever Wars will feel like a blog post. Other times it will feel like a magazine article. Many times it will feel like an adjunct to Reign of Terror. (For real, buy it, this is no time for dignity).
At all times, Forever Wars’ reporting will be guided by an explicit point of view. Specifically, we will be guided by a socialist perspective that demands the destruction of the War on Terror, U.S. global hegemony, and the American Exceptionalism that created and sustains them. You deserve journalism that tells you exactly what it is and what it seeks to achieve, not journalism that conceals its nature and misunderstands its true achievements. Nor do you deserve journalism that uses its explicit point of view as an excuse to abandon rigor and curiosity.
Forever Wars won’t often be responsive to what journalists call the “news cycle,” which isn’t anything other than the industry’s awful way of misrepresenting coverage decisions as some kind of unchallengeable tidal force. Sometimes it will, as events necessitate. But good journalism – you’ve probably heard this before – takes time to develop flavor. After 20 years of doing this, I’ve had enough of trying to rush my recipes for reasons other than the needs of the stories or the readers.
Similarly, we’re not here for the Discourse. We're here to counterprogram the Discourse. Out there is the Discourse. In here we reckon with an awful and urgent reality. And sometimes we will also have some random off-topic posts because the same thing all the time is boring, and this particular thing all the time is debilitating.
All this isn’t really stuff that operates comfortably within mainstream journalism in 2021. The War on Terror is supposed to be yesterday’s story; but here I am, saying it’s tomorrow’s. Mainstream journalism, to put it as dispassionately as I can, forces apart kinds of writing that I think are better off connected: reporting from analysis; “national security” (I’ll be exploring this term and why I dislike it in this newsletter next week) from materialist critique; journalism from history; voice from integrity. I’ve worked in newsrooms, from city alt-weeklies to newspapers that publish on three continents, from small magazines to blog cartels to big web tabloids, since I was 19 years old. And to be honest, I think I’m done. (More on that the week after.) While I don’t yet know what to make of Substack as a company, the business model it offers – where I can sell you my journalism directly, produced entirely according to a focus, ethic and schedule I determine – is a way out worth trying. No one has a better idea for making journalism valuable and viable, and I’m tired of choosing.
SOME CREDENTIALING. I’m Spencer Ackerman. I’ve reported on the War on Terror, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else, since 2002, for The New Republic, TPM, the defunct Washington Independent, Wired, The Guardian and the Daily Beast (where I remain a contributing editor), as well as for an old blog of mine called Attackerman. This story has taken me to Iraq and Afghanistan, where I’ve done both embedded and unembedded reporting; to Guantanamo Bay, one of the most awful places on earth located in one of the most beautiful; to various ships, subs and military bases on multiple continents; to a police incommunicado-detention warehouse in Chicago that I exposed. I’ve shared in the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism over the Edward Snowden surveillance revelations, a story that netted me several other awards; and won a National Magazine Award for exposing anti-Islam counterterrorism training at the FBI. I’ve gotten other hardware for feature reporting, too. The stories I tell you are ugly, but I try to tell them beautifully.
I’m not in this alone. Good journalism is collaborative; bad journalism tends to be solitary. While I’ve seen up close how editorial processes at major publications can make journalism weaker, none of that removes the fundamental need for an editor. You need someone else, someone you trust, someone whose judgment merits that trust, someone whose journalistic track record inspires that trust, to help you craft an idea with precision and guide it to completion so as to meet their high standards. I blogged for years with no editor – reader, I frequently would publish first drafts, a prospect that horrifies 41-year old me – and I have a lot of regrets. And so Forever Wars will be edited by Sam Thielman, an excellent journalist of wide-ranging curiosity. Since we hope to model best practices here at Forever Wars, Sam will have a byline, for the same reasons I will. Editors, no less than writers, craft what you read, and you deserve to know, for our accountability, who produces what you read. Comic books credit three tiers of editors! Sam may also write for Forever Wars, in which case I’ll edit him and have the editorial byline. (Editline?)
Another exciting aspect of Forever Wars is that I don’t know what journalism of my sort, formatted for a newsletter, looks like. We get to create it as we go along, taking risks, learning from failures and adapting to produce something that rises to the challenge of this oligarchic, authoritarian moment. But as I wrote above, you determine whether this experiment succeeds or fails. Sam and I both have children; I have elder care responsibilities as well. Only if you subscribe – if you pay, to be blunt about it – can we make this endeavor sustainable. The more of you who pay $5 per month, the more ambitious we can get – from litigating to force disclosure of critical government documents (the Freedom of Information Act is less a law than a legal sweepstakes) to reporting trips at home and abroad to expose the war.
Journalism shouldn’t be a for-profit enterprise – how can we tell people, as we truthfully do, that journalism is necessary for a free society and also tell people that they have to pay for it? – but the inescapable facts are that worthwhile journalism requires money, time and focus. Your subscriptions will not only make Forever Wars possible, they’ll subsidize comp subscriptions for those who can’t afford $5 per month.
I hope you’ll subscribe. We’re at a dangerous moment in American history. We need rigor, precision, solidarity and courage to get ourselves through it. Or it really will be forever.