Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill (center) in Afghanistan filming Dirty Wars

The new documentary Dirty Wars skips the question of whether the War on Terror is right or wrong (a little late for that anyway) and instead concerns itself with how we’re fighting that war and whether it’s likely to have a desirable outcome. Investigative journalist/author Jeremy Scahill and his director Richard Rowley probe the edges of the conflict, digging into the invisible margins overlooked by the reporters embedded with the US military to find an increasingly covert war being waged from Afghanistan to Yemen mostly untouched by headlines back home. It’s a war veiled in secrecy where innocents are killed in drone strikes and nighttime raids and the guilty are rarely made to face the consequences. The question ultimately becomes whether we’re protecting ourselves from the threat of terrorism or if we’re merely planting the seeds of a whole new generation of America-hating jihadists.

For Scahill, the story begins with press releases about raids in Afghanistan that give few if any details. He travels outside the Green Zone protected by the US military to enter dangerous Taliban controlled country. There he finds a village where a US-trained Afghani policeman and two pregnant women have been killed. The official US story is that the policeman had turned terrorist and that the pregnant women were killed by the Taliban. However, the angry villagers tell of a botched US covert raid and a subsequent cover-up. The story is at first met with official US denials but it ultimately winds up with a mostly unpublicized US apology.

As Scahill investigates, a picture starts to emerge of the people behind these covert actions, the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC which was formed way back in 1980 in the aftermath of the failed US mission to rescue the Iranian hostages. JSOC of course has since become a household name for its role in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, but at the time of Scahill’s investigation it was still mostly unknown. What is disturbing about the agency is its seemingly unchecked power which exists largely in the shadows where it continues to grow.

Especially troubling is the story of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and imam who spoke out against terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 and who is described in the film as the “go to Imam for journalists trying to understand the experience of American Muslims” only to eventually have a change of heart. As an accused al-Qaeda recruiter he became an authorized target of assassination by the US government and he was finally killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. His US-born 16-year-old son was killed in the same way two weeks later. One can argue whether al-Awlaki was right or wrong, good or bad, but the fact remains two US citizens were murdered by the US government without so much as a trial. We should all at least be asking ourselves whether selling out the basic Constitutional freedoms we hold so dear is too high a price to pay for victory.

At apparently great risk to themselves, Scahill and Rowley do a terrific job of putting names, faces and human stories to what would otherwise be abstract statistics. It’s one thing to hear about a drone strike on the news and another to see and hear the aftermath. At times though, there are two documentaries going on here simultaneously. One is the story that Scahill is investigating, and the other is the story of Scahill himself. Both are fascinating and worthy of their own documentaries, but they don’t necessarily support or benefit each other. Scahill’s investigation is no more important because of the difficulties and dangers he faced, nor are his efforts more admirable for the rightness of his cause. On the other hand, other than possibly bringing the notion of objectivity into question, the stories don’t detract from each other. It’s more a matter of precision and focus.

One could conceivably receive everything Scahill and Rowley uncover and conclude it’s all a necessary if ugly consequence of waging war. Dirty Wars doesn’t so much seek to change minds as it does to question and to inform. As one interviewee says of JSOC near the end of the film “What we’ve essentially done is created one hell of a hammer and for the rest of our generation…this force will be continually searching for a nail.” Once power is given, it’s difficult to take it away and, when concentrated, power always demands to be used. Since 9/11, the President has been given power perhaps unprecedented since the Civil War. The only way to keep that power in check is to constantly expose and question its uses. The news media hasn’t been doing its job so it falls to independent filmmakers and documentaries like Dirty Wars.

One Response to “Dirty Wars (2013)”

  1. “One can argue whether al-Awlaki was right or wrong, good or bad, but the fact remains two US citizens were murdered by the US government without so much as a trial. We should all at least be asking ourselves whether selling out the basic Constitutional freedoms we hold so dear is too high a price to pay for victory.”

    Indeed, what a complete travesty, and disgrace. And certainly a relief to know the film stays clear of propaganda to focus instead in questioning and informing. Excellent, insightful review–this is definitely on my must see list. I will finally be listening to the Awards Daily Cannes podcast over this weekend!

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