#Reviewing The Burning Shores

The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. Frederic Wehrey. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

“…Libyans will likely find that winning the war was the easy part. It is not the war but the peace that will define post-Qadaffi Libya.”
—Ronald Bruce St John, 2011 [1]

In The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, Frederic Wehrey picks up where Ronald Bruce St John leaves off in his 2011 historical account, Libya: From Colony to Revolution. In his book, Wehrey seeks to explain how the hope of the Arab Spring in Libya gave way to the frustration and despair of the conflict that still persists today. Drawing from his background as an Arabic speaker, Oxford PhD, and Air Force veteran stationed in Libya who has provided testimony on the crisis to Congress—and as the current Senior Fellow for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—Wehrey has both the access and the academic ability to fully explain the history of the conflict. Unlike the more academic tone of St John’s book however, Wehrey writes with an engaging voice that reads, in parts, more like a thriller than a history. Through conversations with a diverse group of domestic and international players, the human element of what Libya has experienced becomes the core of an authoritative and well-researched narrative. Wehrey’s sense of humanity highlights the messy and complex nature of the conflict and shields it from retrospective simplification. The book’s unflinching embrace of complexity provides its greatest lessons for thinkers at the operational and strategic level: the perils of a broken civil society, the challenge of trust and alliances in that context, and the chaos of a failing state. It offers a rich source of insight for thinking about conflicts, prospective conflicts, and solutions from a whole-of-government point of view.

The book is organized into three parts, beginning with an account of the Libyan experience of the Arab Spring and the fall of Muammar Qadaffi. This is followed by an examination of how the revolution collapsed under its own weight and devolved into civil war. Finally, the book surveys the aftermath of that conflict, recounting the rise (and fall) of the Islamic State in Libya, the conflict’s impact on European stability, and the conquest of eastern Libya by Khalifa Hiftar. Despite the section headings however, the book reads as though it has only two sections: those events taking place before the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and those that followed. The Benghazi attack does not take center-stage in the book, but it does highlight a narrative shift, as U.S. officials reduced their role in Libya and both their interest and access withered. A respectful and humanizing characterization of Ambassador Chris Stevens demonstrates Wehrey’s compassion for the human tragedy of the Benghazi attack, but his coverage of events and ensuing scandal is frank and builds upon the greater Libyan story rather than distracting from it.

However, the author’s heavy focus on U.S. actions and policies in the effort to manage the growing crisis in Libya does distract from the Libyan story in the first half of the book. Due to Wehrey’s impressive access to U.S. officials, much of the first half of the book looks outward at Libya from the perspective of the U.S. government. This is to the advantage of those who want insight into the challenges of managing U.S. interests as crises loom and break out, and Wehrey’s account offers these insights in spades. The depth of this perspective does risk overshadowing other sides of the story, however. To the book’s credit, other viewpoints are still portrayed—peppered throughout the first half—but it is only in the second half that they stand on their own, allowing the book to become a Libyan story rather than an American one.

Following the Benghazi attack, The Burning Shores pivots to the Libyan story, a helpful reframing of the narrative. At this point, Wehrey’s coverage of the conflict broadens, and in doing so offers a multitude of differing perspectives and personalities in Libya and beyond. By taking this multifaceted approach the book addresses—but is not overwhelmed by—the regional and ideological fracturing that took place in Libya. Sharing the perspectives of hopeful kingmakers and those on the margins, Wehrey discusses how Libyan societies have been changed through the conflict and how these changes have often entrenched challenges to peace. This breadth of the context shows how much of the conflict’s complexity comes from personal identity being pulled between local, tribal, economic, ethnic, and religious influences and how the conflict of these identities is heightened as a result of Libya’s early and recent history. Wehrey’s accounts show how Qadaffi’s systematic undermining of Libyan civil society worsened existing fault lines and opened the way for civil war after the dictator’s removal. The resulting social tensions continue to challenge the legitimacy and effectiveness of those who seek to lead the country today. The recent rash of militia conflict in Tripoli in 2018 only re-affirms the tensions Wehrey examines in his book. Ultimately, Wehrey argues the nurturing of Libyan civil society and the development of the social contract among Libyans is a prerequisite for peace.

Libya sinks dangerously close to Hobbes state of nature, a place with “no arts, no letters, no society; and which worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.”

In Burning Shores the loss of civil society is shown to have immense destabilizing power. Without the structure of civil society, the specters of fear, honor, and interest disperse from the national level down to the local, to the tribal, and to the individual. In the first half of the narrative, this reminds the reader of Clausewitz’s Trinity; of how passion, reason, and chance play and strain at all levels of a conflict.[2] But as the conflict wears on and tribalism and violent extremists take the situation from bad to worse in the second half, the book reminds readers of another author: Thomas Hobbes. In Wehrey’s account, Libya sinks dangerously close to Hobbes state of nature, a place with “no arts, no letters, no society; and which worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.”[3]

Sirte and other parts of Libya became destabilized after the death of Moammar Gadhafi. (AP)

This book is a valuable lesson for students of war at the operational and strategic level on how wars are won and lost within the deeper contexts of their histories and their societies. For all its guns, bullets, and talk of a battle for Libya, The Burning Shores is not a book about war. It is a book about humanity interacting with chaos, some directed, and some without direction. War is just a part of the social collapse and momentous struggle of rebuilding Libyan society described in the book. In not letting the reader’s vision narrow to the battles and materiel, Wehrey highlights the importance of context to strategy. Beyond being a retelling of Libyan contemporary history, The Burning Shores is a worthy read for how it vividly presents the inescapable complexity of conflict at the national scale, and the importance of civil society to the pursuit of stable peace during and after conflict.

For all its guns, bullets, and talk of a battle for Libya, The Burning Shores is not a book about war. It is a book about humanity interacting with chaos, some directed, and some without direction.

Stefan DePaul is an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Libyan rebels and civilians burst into Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound in 2011 (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)


[1] St John, Ronald Bruce. Libya: From Colony to Revolution. Oxford, UK: One World Publications, 2011, pp. 295.

[2] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004, pp. 20.

[3] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2002, pp. 96.