Author Benjamin Runkle on his new book, Wanted Dead or Alive

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

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. Throughout the book, it seems like there is a struggle between capturing and killing a target; what types of factors go into making that choice?

I think there is almost always a preference to capture the target, either to destroy his symbolic value to a larger movement (i.e. Aguinaldo in the Philippines), or because it is strategically important that he be tried in a court of law (i.e. Noriega and Saddam). Also, military commanders would almost always prefer to capture an insurgent leader or terrorist in order to gain intelligence on his organization. In Wanted Dead or Alive, I found three exceptions to this preference: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was targeted by an airstrike because he had narrowly evaded several attempts to capture him; Che Guevara, whom Bolivian forces captured and then summarily executed because a previous trial of an international guerrilla they had captured had become a fiasco they did not want to repeat; and, of course, Osama bin Laden, who would have been a nightmare to detain and try in a court of law.

Is there one particular manhunt you think best exemplifies a strategy?

Although the United States has been successful in eight of eleven strategic manhunts, I don't think there is a single "best practices" case study. I found that the single variable most critical to success or failure is what I call the "human terrain," or the attitudes of the local population in which the target will hide that determine the availability of human intelligence, indigenous forces as allies, or a border across which the target can seek sanctuary.

If the target is perceived as a hero or a "Robin Hood" (Villa, Sandino, Muhammad Farah Aideed, or bin Laden in Afghanistan), the protection offered by the local population will thwart almost any number of satellites and elite troops. Conversely, if the target has committed acts that make him detested in his area of operations (as was the case for Geronimo, Noriega, Pablo Escobar, Saddam, or Zarqawi), the lack of sanctuaries and available intelligence will prove decisive. This is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion for U.S. policymakers, as it suggests that some variables critical to operational success are not malleable by the decisions of U.S. commanders.

Alternately, what about the worst?

This is an easier question. Two manhunts that stand out as unnecessary failures were the hunts for Villa in Mexico and Aideed in Somalia. First, in both cases the United States telegraphed the hunt before all our forces were in place, thereby giving the target a head start in going to ground. Second, the human terrain for each campaign was especially poor, as Villa was a folk hero to most of the peasants of Northern Mexico, and the Carrancista Government opposed the Punitive Expedition and worked to obstruct General Pershing wherever possible; similarly, the clan demographics of Mogadishu made it virtually impossible to penetrate Aideed's Hadr Gibr network.

Finally, in both cases the Wilson and Clinton administration's gave up on the respective manhunts for Villa and Aideed in less than four months, refusing to press their advantage just when conditions seemed propitious. Pershing actually began a very effective "hearts and minds" campaign in Mexico during the summer of 1916, and could likely have found Villa when he began amassing forces again late in the summer, but the Wilson administration refused his requests to restart the pursuit. Similarly, Aideed's militia was decimated after the battle depicted in "Black Hawk Down," and his clan allies were offering to dump Aideed, but the images of U.S. soldiers' bodies being desecrated by Somali mobs led Clinton to throw in the towel rather than finish the job as the commanders on the ground wanted.

In your research, did you find a particular societal impact from successful manhunts (i.e., does the public have a more positive response to successful manhunts then say, a successfully taking a city)?

This is a good question, and unfortunately not a comparison I examined. I think the societal impact is likely related to whether the public believes the broader strategic objective will be achieved with the successful conclusion of the manhunt. For example, everybody remembers the exuberant celebration of Iraqis when Saddam's capture was announced in December 2003. Iraqi reporters at the press conference wept openly, and in the streets celebratory gunfire was audible throughout the night. Almost everybody thought Iraq was really about to start a new chapter with the tyrant's capture.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years. I was actually on active duty in Iraq when al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006. I remember watching the images of Iraqi men and women dancing in groups that filled the screen on Al Iraqiya, interspersed with shots of Iraqi landmarks. I asked one of my translators where the celebration was occurring, and he said they were simply stock footage of Shi'a tribesmen celebrating. While there were some celebrations in the Shi'a neighborhoods that Zarqawi had targeted, overall the Iraqi reaction was much more subdued than that which marked Saddam's capture, as I think they understood they were still a ways away from defeating al-Qa'ida and the other militias that were tearing the country apart.

Follow us on Twitter!

Like us on Facebook!

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.