Trial by Fire

Compelling first-draft history of the chaotic decade after 2001

As Barack Obama settles in for his second term as U.S. president, one of his key goals is to turn the page on the disastrous decade that followed 9/11. Many Americans seem to share his wish. It was striking how low key were the ceremonies last September marking the 11th anniversary of the attacks. It was as if history was finally trying to comprehend the wider picture. For many people, it seemed, maybe for the first time, September 11, 2001, no longer symbolized only the horrific events of that one awful day, but also the horrendous legacy of the many awful days that have followed. These have been the days when more than 7,000 American military men and women, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, have fallen.

Thankfully, the story of the decade or so since 9/11 is gradually being rewritten as new information emerges. This is particularly important given the efforts, still, of political and military people on all sides to distort and obfuscate the true history of this period. For example, how avoidable were the attacks by al Qaeda on the United States on that fateful September morning? Answers to that question have always been shrouded in official secrecy. But in September, on the eve of this year’s 9/11 anniversary, respected author and journalist Kurt Eichenwald reported in The New York Times that several classified briefings given to U.S. president George W. Bush in the weeks immediately prior to September 11, 2001, indicated that a “dramatic” al Qaeda strike in the U.S. could be “imminent.” This was rejected by Bush and his high command, who argued that Osama bin Laden “was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives [in the Pentagon] saw as a greater threat.” This is revelatory new information. Although many of the unwise decisions made in response to the 9/11 attacks were rooted in ignorance and arrogance at the highest political and military levels, they were aided and abetted by a lazy American news culture that compliantly fell into line. It is encouraging if this is beginning to end. We all need to better understand the momentous events that led to, and followed, 9/11.

It is in this context that a new book by Canadian journalist Michael Petrou—Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World—is so valuable and engaging. It is a vivid story of a young journalist’s remarkable connection with the decade of turmoil that flowed from the 9/11 attacks. With a PhD in modern history from the University of Oxford, he found himself travelling in the tribal areas of Pakistan a year before 9/11. He returned to the region, including Afghanistan, as an intern at the Ottawa Citizen a month after the September 11 attacks. Since then, as a senior writer at Maclean’s, Petrou has covered wars and conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Beyond describing his personal journey over the past twelve years, which he recounts in entertaining detail, Petrou’s well-­written book weaves together many of the complex and dramatic threads in an unfolding post-9/11 world that continually challenge even the most informed. It is also insightful about present-day topics such as Iran, Israel and the Arab Spring.

I am often asked by aspiring young journalists at Ryerson University how they should “kickstart” their careers. From now on, I will cite Michael Petrou’s experience as a model. In 2001, he joined the Citizen as an intern and, eight months into his internship, had the good fortune to be at the newspaper on that fateful day, September 11, 2001. He thought he was well regarded by editor-in-chief Scott Anderson—”I wore a shirt and tie. I wrote well, and quickly”—but it was his familiarity with the tribal areas of Pakistan that caught Anderson’s attention. A month after the 9/11 attacks, Petrou convinced the Ottawa Citizen to include him as part of its team that was dispatched to Afghanistan. And this young man, still only an intern, managed to find his way into that country just as American and British forces unloaded on the Taliban and began their pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda fighters: “It was a surreal experience, in 2001, to ride horses to front lines that had barely budged in months, as though the war were unfolding a century ago.” Petrou described one French journalist sitting near him on the floor of a trench, where Petrou was “still catching my breath from the bombs that had landed so close.” With “a perfect Parisian sneer,” the journalist asked, “Is this your first war? … I can tell because your face is so white.”

Before I began reading the book, and somewhat influenced by its title, I worried this would be a modern-day journalistic version of Gidget Goes to Rome (Mr. Petrou Goes to War: Whom did he drink with? Whom did he sleep with? Whom did he bribe?). But it is far more revealing than that. This man obviously went to war with an inquiring mind, a multitude of notebooks and an extraordinary recollection of detail. And his book has a greater ambition: although told as a personal journey of discovery with many engaging anecdotes, it tries to makes sense of this early part of the 21st century where the power of religious and ethnic nationalism, the force of western military intervention and the spectre of Islamic extremism all seem to be combining to define our age. All need, urgently, to be understood.

Petrou’s explorations since the year 2000 have taken him from China to Pakistan, and then later to Africa, Iran, Israel and the rest of the Middle East. But in his book, they begin and end in Afghanistan with the crimes of al Qaeda and, eventually, across the border in Pakistan, with the demise of bin Laden. Petrou is a wonderful storyteller and the book is replete with intriguing vignettes of the multitude of people he worked with, and against. Once, after arriving at the Afghan front, shells whistled over his head and he asked one of the teenagers what he was fighting for. His translator replied: “He says Taliban very, very bad … If he sees one, he will kill him.” Petrou writes: “I scratched in my notebook. Not a bad quote, I thought. Vivid stuff. ‘How long have you been here?’ I asked. ‘Taliban very, very bad,’ came the response by way of my translator. ‘He will kill them.'” It then dawned on Petrou that these were the only English words his translator knew.

In the book’s final chapter, “Return to Afghanistan,” the author recounts his first visit back since October 2001. It was 2011, and there were now more than 100,000 foreign soldiers battling the still-resilient Taliban. Petrou left just before the last Canadian combat soldiers did, and like so many who have experienced the fascination of Afghanistan, he came away with conflicting feelings about the road ahead. He acknowledges that “large numbers of foreign soldiers are counterproductive in a fight against the likes of al-Qaeda,” but believes that western countries have an obligation to help Afghans with nation building. “There is an ethical case for staying. We can’t intervene everywhere. Millions die through violence or neglect all over the world, and we don’t have the will or ability to do anything about it. But we do in Afghanistan.”

In a concluding summation of the decade, Petrou makes several important points. He writes: “Despite the ongoing clash of modernity and tradition in many Muslim countries, and despite the thousands murdered by Islamists in the last two decades, radical Islam’s strength, one cautiously predicts, is fading.” Osama bin Laden was “isolated and ignored by most of the Muslims he sought to inspire.” Al Qaeda’s “bitter war against democracy never materialized.” He views the wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world in the direction of democracy as positive, however imperfect. “Democracy and governments that uphold the basic freedoms and human rights will eventually flourish in the Middle East and Central Asia,” he says. “The West has a role, but it will be a supporting one. We can’t remake the world in our image. But we can recognize that our truest friends in the region are those who share our values, and we can stand unapologetically and unflinchingly beside them.”

Michael Petrou’s optimism about the future of this post-9/11 world, which I share, inevitably flows from his sense of the moment. This is not easy because we are in the middle of it. History is on the run, our noses are still pressed against the glass. None of us yet has the benefit of distance to know precisely how all of this—9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, al Qaeda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Arab Spring—will appear to historians and to the world 10, 20 or 80 years from now. Except, perhaps, that it will most certainly appear different. Petrou undoubtedly understands this more than most of us. This was evident in his first book, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, which began as his doctoral thesis in 2006 and developed into a rich and revealing exploration of a fascinating but largely ignored chapter in modern Canadian history. Between 1936 and 1939, more than 1,600 idealistic Canadians defied their government and volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist Franco regime. More than 400 of them died, while most of the rest returned to Canada, often injured, vilified and alone. They saw their sacrifice as an effort to forestall a looming world war between fascism and democracy. Their critics dismissed them as communist stooges.

As I read Petrou’s book about his travels through the post-9/11 Islamic world, I thought of that earlier struggle. In 1986, I worked with the distinguished CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger on a feature documentary, The Last Great Cause, for CBC’s The Journal, marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War. Our focus was also on the involvement of Canadians. This was 20 years before Petrou did his research, so we were able to interview many of the same Canadian veterans he did in 2006. But there was an intriguing difference. With us in 1986—in a world deeply embedded in the U.S./Soviet tensions of the Cold War—these veterans were still idealistic and feisty, determined to convince an unknowing Canada that they had been in the right place at the right time. In contrast, the tone of several of their interviews with Petrou in 2006 was more melancholy and doubting. Perhaps this was due to age, or possibly distance. Or maybe, as these old and ailing veterans scanned the wreckage of the 20th century, they were more uncertain about what enduring legacy their sacrifice actually left. Eighty years from now, when the fullness of this 21st century is known, how will historians assess the meaning of the turbulent “post-9/11 world” in which we now live? For those of us who cannot wait for that, Michael Petrou’s first draft of the history of this period provides an excellent early glimpse of where we appear to be headed.