Monday, May 20, 2013

Body of Lies, by David Ignatius

We are living in a shockingly dissimilar world from the one I grew up in.  It’s a cliché, but it’s true.  And we all know what preceded the change – it was the morning of September 11, 2011.  On that morning, North Americans were introduced to a level of violence that we had never seen before, and it had far-reaching consequence that, more than a decade later, we’re still feeling.

That week, I was still pretty young and naïve (I was in high school at the time), so I didn’t know what it meant or what it would mean; my Dad, however, put it all into perspective.  Having served with the Canadian Army in Egypt, Germany, and making visits into Israel during the 70s, he had experienced the level of fear which permeates the atmosphere of a culture after experiencing a terror attack.  So, North America in the days after September 11th wasn’t foreign to him.  He pointed out to me that we were now going to be living the same way that millions of Europeans and Middle-Eastern people lived.  Terror attacks, a previous fringe type of violence in our society had finally crossed the Atlantic, and we would forever be changed by it.  But, since I was 16 at the time, my Dad didn’t know what he was talking about.  It took me years (and two degrees in history) to finally understand the wisdom in that observation.

Personally, I’m still uncomfortable and upset with what happened on September 11th – I don’t think I’ll ever put it completely past me, because it happened at such an impressionable age.  Having parents that worked for the federal government in either target-rich buildings, or that drove past even more prominent targets to get too and from work, I became obsessed with the dangers they faced getting to and from, and while at, work; my mother had to travel for work shortly after the attacks, and I sat in class with my cell phone on my desk, diving for it when it rang (and this was a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, but I think it was a sign of the times that the teachers let it slide when they understood my concerns).  Maybe I was over-sensitive, but as my Dad pointed out, I was catching up to a way of life that millions over-seas had been living for millennia, and I had some adjustments to make.

Over the last 12 years, we’ve seen a lot of fall-out from September 11th.  Many would characterize that fall-out as having done more harm than good, and many more would say it was all a means to an end; of course, I’m referring to the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo, and the larger debate around torturing enemy combatants.  I’m not concerned about what your opinions are, and I’m not about to tell you mine, but I wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page before (finally) launching into my thoughts on my latest read, Body of Lies, by David Ignatius.  (PS. Thanks for letting me get out the parts above – it was cathartic, and as I’ve never discussed it/put my feelings in writing, I think I was due.)

Body of Lies is the story of Roger Ferris, a CIA operative.  While serving in Iraq (c. 2005-ish, I think?) he stumbles across information regarding a high-level Al Qaeda operative, known as Suleiman.  Suleiman is credited with a series of car-bombings in Europe, and Roger, now based in Jordan, is working to uncover the network to which he is connected.  This Zero Dark Thirty, but with a dude, who is chasing a fictional character.

The draw of Body of Lies is that it was written by a long-time journalist who covered the Middle East, so there is a level of authenticity and sincerity to this work that is shockingly real.  In Ferris’ quest to discover Suleiman’s network, he crisscrosses the globe, puts himself in danger, and has to continuously re-evaluate his loyalties.  One might imagine that Ignatius has sat down with former operatives for some in-depth and frank research.

While the plot is fast-paced and the characters interesting and engaging, I think the real pay-off to this book was the big dose of reality it serves the reader.  We are living in a world of layers – the surface layers are barely being held together by the people who are working the under layers.  It’s the hot dog paradox; you might enjoy them, but you never want to see how they’re made, or else you’ll never eat another.  Ignatius has given his reader a hypothetical tour of the hot dog factory; we might now have an idea of how they’re made, but with enough plausible deniability to ignoring it and get on with our days.  The Suleimans of the world are out there, and they surface in our layers occasionally, but the Roger Ferris’ are also out there, doing a thankless job (often in a moral grey-zone) trying to keep our plausible-deniability in place.  Body of Lies reminds the reader of this reality.

So, final verdict?  I would say it’s worth a read.  Maybe as a beach-blanket read, but worth a read none the less.  It’s cathartic to read about this (much as Zero Dark Thirty exercised a lot of our society’s demons), but take it for what it could be – a thriller not a study in CIA operations, and recognize the tiny chip it puts in the veneer on the top layers of our society.  But, for the love of God, don’t follow Ignatius down the rabbit hole of the larger picture he’s telling us about, or you may never get a good night’s sleep again.

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