Author Benjamin Runkle on his new book, Wanted Dead or Alive
Author Benjamin Runkle will be at the Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch tonight to talk about his new book, Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden. In preparation for his appearance, we caught up with Runkle to talk about his book, the importance of manhunts and the effect of them on both military and social experiences. Of course, we also wanted to know how much like a Tom Clancy book they were in real life too, and thankfully, Runkle obliged.
Westword: Can you just start with a quick background about yourself and why you chose to write this book?
Benjamin Runkle: I'm a former paratrooper and presidential speechwriter with a Harvard PhD (in government), and a Bronze Star from Operation Iraqi Freedom. I have worked in the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council, and I am currently a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.
This is my first book (aside from a few I co-authored while at the RAND Corporation), the idea for which actually came in 2003, while reading Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace. Boot noted the similarities between the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Pancho Villa -- invading a country that was harboring a terrorist/bandit who had attacked the U.S. homeland with the specific objective of capturing or killing that individual -- not to mention the similarity between the hunt for insurgent leaders such as Aguinaldo and Sandino. I was drawn to the amazing adventure stories and larger-than-life encompassed by these campaigns, but also realized these "strategic manhunts" were more pervasive than even Boot realized, as he excluded older cases such as Geronimo, and modern cases such as Noriega and Saddam. So I wanted to retell these real-life Tom Clancy-esque operations, while also seeing if there were lessons to be learned for the then-still-ongoing hunt for bin Laden.
The idea of the manhunt seems like it gets mixed reactions from the press and the public; what do you feel its place is in modern warfare?
Well, strategic manhunts themselves are almost as old as organized warfare itself, as Alexander the Great pursued Darius III all the way from Mosul to eastern Iran in 331 B.C. to cement his conquest of Persia, and the Romans targeted Hannibal for two decades as he fled eastward in exile after the Second Punic War. But I think it is inevitable that the United States will conduct more manhunts in the future for several reasons.
First, Americans tend to personalize conflicts, as it is easier for policymakers to win public support if they put a face and a name to a threat rather than relying on abstract theories of international relations. Second, the immensely destructive nature of modern warfare has increased the long-standing American aversion to causing collateral damage, so policymakers have an incentive to focus on as narrow a target set as possible when considering how to enter a conflict. At the same time, since the end of the Cold War autocratic and aggressive leaders -- rather than the populations they command -- have increasingly been perceived as posing a threat to U.S. strategic interests.
Globalization has only amplified these trends, as modern communications brings the ravages of war into our living rooms as never before, and the diffusion of lethal technologies -- particularly the increased lethality of dual-use technology -- allows increasingly smaller organizations and possibly even "superempowered" individuals to threaten U.S. interests. Thus, rather than make war on populations, there will be a strong motivation to kill or capture individuals or rogue leaders who threaten our national security. Finally, the U.S. military's increasing ability to target individuals with greater accuracy, either by precision guided munitions or deep special operations raids such as the Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden, will also increase the appeal of targeting individuals rather than states.