Wars on terror, lives in shadow: a review of Victoria Brittain

The neglected experience of family members swept up into the vast detention-and-data-collection systems of the post-9/11 decade is illuminated in a valuable new book.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 March 2013

Victoria Brittain, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Pluto Press, 2013)

In responding to the 9/11 atrocities, George W Bush launched the "war on terror", initially against the al-Qaida movement and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. That war progressed rapidly and the Taliban regime was terminated in a matter of weeks. Initially, Afghanistan seemed to be in a transition to peace but within years that prospect disappeared as a bitter counterinsurgency campaign against a reviving Taliban developed - a war that continues to this day.

Following the early success in Afghanistan, President Bush used his state-of-the-union address in January 2002 to expand the war against al-Qaida to an “axis of evil” of rogue states, especially Iraq, Iran and North Korea. A little over a year later, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was terminated, once again within weeks. All seemed well. This time, Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech on 1 May 2003 and the Project for the New American Century seemed back on track.

In the event, seven years of war in Iraq and more than a decade in Afghanistan have left over 200,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands injured, around 8 million refugees and trillions of dollars of costs. It has also left a very different legacy, a hidden cost to ordinary people, mostly women, which is scarcely known about and certainly not acknowledged by western governments.  This is the impact of the arrests, renditions, detentions without trial, torture and systematic abuse on the wives, children and wider families of those that virtually disappear from view.

There have been powerful accounts of the experiences of prisoners in Guantánamo and a few accounts of rendition and of detention in British prisons, but what has been almost entirely lacking have been accounts of the experiences of the people left behind. These are the families, especially the wives who have had to cope with sudden loss as husbands and fathers are removed from them and are detained without trial with little or no hope of finding whether they will be detained indefinitely, brought to trial or extradited to face perhaps life imprisonment elsewhere.

Behind the screen

Victoria Brittain's book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Pluto Press, 2013) focuses on this neglected topic. It is serious journalism of a rare but welcome kind. Her central task has been to learn of the many problems and difficulties faced by women in Britain left to cope with virtually no help from the authorities and often many hindrances. What they were experiencing, and still do, is the sharp end of what Brittain sees as part of a much wider process. As she puts it “…in late 2002 probably few people outside the UK intelligence and police circles had any idea of the way Britain in the post-9/11 period had become part of a vast web of data collection on Muslims across the world and their connection with each other.”

In this web of data there were many instances of incomplete indications that might suggest connections with al-Qaida, indications that were far too limited to stand up in court but sufficient for the authorities to detain people for many years. As well as imprisonment there were the "control orders", not infrequently imposed based on “secret evidence that was not disclosed to their lawyers and about which they were never interrogated nor charged.”

The pattern in the UK was part of a much wider response to 9/11, led primarily by the United States where “the PATRIOT Act and subsequent legislation gave the US government extraordinarily wide powers including the Attorney General's right to arrest, indefinitely detain or deport anyone, even if they had committed no crime, massive surveillance of mosques and Muslim Americans, a new regime of selective enforcement of immigration laws, prohibition of legal and other 'material support' to a wide number of groups deemed 'terrorist', and data mining on a massive scale”. Guantánamo may be the best-known symbol of this approach and is now well into its second decade - still housing over a hundred detainees - but Brittain's book concentrates mainly on the people held in UK prisons or subject to control orders.

What makes Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror so valuable is the way in which the author expresses the  struggles of women suddenly left to their own devices, often with young families and, most difficult of all, having little or no idea of how long they might be in this predicament, what will happen to their husbands and whether they will ever be freed. Added to this are the bullying and harassment and the scaring of children that have so often accompanied the arrests, all too often stemming from an underlying cultural antagonism to Islam that so few politicians have done anything to counter.

Shadow Lives is beautifully written and brings to life the predicament of the women and their families. Brittain has got to know many of them and has become a trusted source of support. She writes with deep empathy for them and their experience and throws a searching light on a rarely understood element of the war on terror. It is a remarkable book by a committed author and should be read by anyone troubled by the experience of the last decade.

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