It’s hard to imagine a better context, however troubling, for the release of Dirty Wars, an expose of America’s covert wars fought on undeclared battlefields around the world. If the NSA revelations are the domestic face of our nation’s security obsession, Dirty Wars reveals the other side of the coin.
Produced by Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley, Dirty Wars documents a story and its teller. The latter is Scahill, an award-winning national security correspondent for The Nation magazine who serves as the documentary’s narrator and its protagonist. Scahill authored the doc’s 600-plus page companion of the same name, and previously wrote Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, detailing the rise of the private military company whose record is so sordid that the firm has changed its name multiple times.
Dirty Wars is structured so that we accompany Scahill as he reports the story, one of Bush-era counterterrorism policies that have been continued (and in some cases expanded) under President Barack Obama. The result is a yarn that much of our post-9/11 cinema has been imitating — with the glaring, and chilling, difference that this is real life.
After beginning in more typical circumstances, embedded with American forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, Scahill starts to see the edges of another war “hidden in the shadows.” His curiosity leads him to a village in Gardez and the fatal aftermath of a deadly night raid that left two pregnant women dead. The assault was carried out, surviving family members tell him, by a group of bearded men known to them as the “American Taliban.”
The clandestine killing force, Scahill learns, is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the military’s most elite unit, and the only one that reports directly to the White House. JSOC would come to be seen as a set of American superheroes after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Gardez raid, government officials would eventually admit, had been a mistake — a sin atoned for with the gift of a sheep to the village.
By following what turns out to be an ever-expanding trail of similar raids, Scahill learns that JSOC’s activities are not limited to known war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. He goes to Yemen, where the evidence of American force is left out in the open — yet the only local journalist to have investigated it remains in jail at the request of President Obama. And he goes to Somalia, where a warlord tells him, with awe in his eyes, that the Americans are “war masters” and “great teachers.”
All the while, Scahill is, at best, stonewalled and dismissed by government officials and at times fellow media members. We see him testify before a mostly absent congressional committee. We hear a Pentagon spokesman dismiss his reporting as “conspiratorial.” And most apropos of our government’s current posture toward efforts to shine light on their activity, he recounts a phone call he received from James Kirby, spokesman for then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, just hours before he was to publish an exposé in The Nation. If he proceeded with the story, Kirby told Scahill, he would be “on thin ice.”
The height of Scahill’s consternation, which we witness and take part in throughout, comes with the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulraham, who were killed in separate drone strikes in 2011. Both were American citizens, and while Anwar had indeed transitioned from a moderate Muslim cleric, often interviewed on American television, to a widely popular voice for jihad, Abdulraham was by all accounts no terrorist. The U.S. government has since claimed responsibility for both deaths, and the deaths-by-drone-strike of two more American citizens, but said Abdulraham was “not specifically targeted” — a term no doubt mined from some unpublished George Orwell manuscript.
What’s powerful about the narrative strategy of Dirty Wars is that it gives us the opportunity to venture alongside Scahill into a secret America that barges into homes around the world in our name. It repeatedly brings us to points at which Scahill must consciously decide to trudge further toward disorienting knowledge that will never allow him to see his country in the same way. A film like this lets us do the same. If we turn back now, our ignorance will have been by choice.
Dirty Wars opens tonight at The Belcourt. Jeremy Scahill will give a Q&A via Skype hosted by Steven Hale after the 7:35 show Sunday night.