Updated: Apr 7, 2020
By Sayre Sheldon
The blurbs for Ronan Farrow’s recently published book are impressive: “one of the most important books of our time.” Reading it has shown me why. Farrow is an on-the-scene reporter with extraordinary skills. Drawing from his own experience in the State Department, he puts you there, directly confronting scenes, no matter how grueling and upsetting for U.S. readers, showing the U.S. embroiled in many parts of the world in actions we are not likely to be told much about. Don’t read this book if you are not prepared to suffer pain and perplexity over what our far-flung military does that you may not even have been aware of.
The purpose of Farrow’s book is to alert the U.S. population to what to has been occurring behind the scenes as diplomacy is stripped of its functions and military power is substituted. This changeover is the subject of both Farrow’s career and his book.
Much of his early time in the State Department was spent working for Richard Holbrooke who courageously gave his life to defending the importance of negotiating peace through diplomacy. Holbrooke’s final struggle to provide alternatives to going to war in Afghanistan convinced Farrow that diplomacy might have avoided or ended much earlier our now eighteen year long war in Afghanistan.
Farrow believes that continuing our funding of Pakistan’s military and turning Afghanistan over to warlords guaranteed this “war without end” and will keep Afghanistan in its present miseries as far into the future as we can see. Farrow’s descriptions of spending time with warlords is riveting and includes being present at the exhuming of a mass grave — a full-fledged atrocity of which Dostrum, the warlord responsible, will never be charged. He is still controlling large parts of Afghanistan.
Farrow takes us through U.S. military actions including Egypt, Ethiopia, Columbia, and Syria — each case resulting in tragic results for each of those countries and our own. He comes right up to the present “hollowed-out” State Department under Trump and the tragedy of experienced foreign policy experts being ignored and discarded.
He describes how when former Secretary of State Tillerson presented his first budget to the Senate Committee for approval the Republican chair said it was pointless because “the eventual budget would be completely different; and decided by others.” Then the Democratic chair, Ben Cardin, remembering the Marshall Plan after World War II, said “Your administration will be in the history books for destroying what that plan built: security, prosperity and ideals.”
We as citizens are left to watch as most traces of viable diplomatic action are subverted by Trump’s tweets and his choice of advisors who are not just committed to the military, many of them are generals. And worse, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton both see the U.S. military as our only real source of power. Meanwhile the U.S. joins proxy wars which result in civilian casualties and violate human rights. Farrow describes in harrowing detail U.S. raids in distant parts of the world for which our military no longer even needs White House approval.
Peace activists have a great deal to learn from this book. It offers both a clear view of what we are up against and a reaffirmation of how important our work is. Alerting a new generation of WAND activists to the price we are paying for our lack of foreign policy and diplomacy is essential to creating new solutions to combat the challenges we face.
War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and The Decline of American Influence. By Ronan Farrow. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN 0393652106.