Book Review: Guantanamo Diary

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

–James Madison, Political Observations, Apr. 20, 1795

The above quote caught my attention while I was reading a Daily Kos article (“Trump Blames Constitution for his 100 Days of Failure; Declares May 1 Loyalty Day,” May 01, 2017 9:49am EDT by FishOutofWater) about Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office and, in particular, his disdain for The Constitution of the United States because our founding document has kept him from succeeding in some of his authoritarian plans for the nation.

This quote is also relevant to a proper understanding of the book Guantanamo Diary.

I first became aware of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and his book when 60 Minutes told his story on March 12, 2017 []. That I was unaware of his story until then surprises me, since it was first published and became a New York Times bestseller in 2015, when Mr. Slahi was still imprisoned at Gitmo. But within a week of his 60 Minutes appearance, I had purchased the book.

It has taken me 3 months to read it, because there are so many redactions to Mr. Slahi’s original manuscript that it is often difficult to follow; in most cases, the names of the people he writes about—and indeed, some verbs, and even whole pages of text—have been blacked out for security reasons.

Nevertheless, the story of Mr. Slahi’s wrongful incarceration by the United States government—for 15 years—in a post-9/11 sweep of suspected Muslim “terrorists” is a compelling and remarkable one, immeasurably aided by the annotations of critical facts and corroborating records obtained by the editor of the book, Larry Siems.

A brief biography on the back cover of the book indicates that Mohamedou Slahi was born in Mauritania in 1970 and attended college in Germany, where he subsequently worked as an engineer. Upon returning to Mauritania in 2001, his nightmare began.


In both his interview and his book, Mr. Slahi’s voice is calm, simple, straightforward, and gracious as he recounts the horrific treatment he received from the United States military as well as the FBI and CIA in what can only be described as a witch hunt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on our country in 2001. And with the help of Mr. Siems, he reveals the convoluted history of U.S. relations with our allies-turned-enemies in what is now a 16-year “War on Terror.” A footnote by Mr. Siems (p. 179), about Mr. Slahi’s admitted association with al-Qaida in the 1990s, was stunning to me:

‘When Salahi [sic] took his oath of allegiance in March 1991, al-Qaida and the United States shared a common objective: they both sought to topple Afghanistan’s Communist government.’

And who was supporting Afghanistan’s Communist government? Russia! Let this sink in: a decade before al-Qaida committed the atrocity of 9/11 against the United States, it was our ally against Russia’s backing of the Communist government in Afghanistan.

Because of this limited association with al-Qaida, Mr. Slahi was deemed to be an enemy of the United States and a major player (which he wasn’t) in the 9/11 attack in 2001.

This fact, alone—not to mention Slahi’s long, torturous, mind-bending, body-breaking imprisonment in jails stretching from his home country of Mauritania to Jordan, and finally Guantanamo—makes the Vietnam-era Joseph Heller book, Catch-22, seem like a perfectly sane, reasonable world in comparison. Even Mr. Slahi makes the comparison as he describes his horrific journey.

I am amazed that Mr. Slahi survived it all—physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual torture and deprivation. But even more amazing is that, while suffering all these things, he taught himself to speak, read, and write English and managed to write this book with humility, humor, and irony, without a trace of malice or bitterness. His story truly demonstrates the endurance of the human spirit in the face of great adversity.

When I consider how much and how little has changed in the world over the last 16 years, starting with President George W. Bush’s deceptive decision to wage war in Iraq instead of fighting the real perpetrators of 9/11, while simultaneously continuing war against Afghanistan (for reasons other than 9/11), and continuing on through the Obama presidency [still fighting Afghanistan—and Russia(!)], to our current situation with Donald Trump, wherein his ties to Russia and autocracy seek to obliterate any semblance of our democratic or human ideals, I am shocked yet not surprised, and horrified, yet not terrified, by what we face now.


James Madison succinctly and accurately described the basest common denominator of the human condition 222 years ago. And Guantanamo Diary is simply the latest—but still a very important—eyewitness account of the vagaries of that condition.

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