Directed by: Rick Rowley.
Written by: David Riker & Jeremy Scahill.
Dirty Wars, a documentary based on the reporting of Jeremy Scahill, who serves as a writer, the narrator and focal point for the film, argues, convincingly, that America’s War on Terror has become one that will never end. While in Afghanistan, we hears about many night raids being conducted on the civilian population – but cannot get any real information from the US Government on them – so he sets off, outside the safety of the Green Zone, to find out what happened on one such raid. What he finds shocks and saddens him – this raid ended up with an Afghan Police Captain – who had worked alongside Americans for years, being killed, as well as other victims – including women and children. The story the government tells doesn’t fit in with the facts that he discovers when talking to the family of the victims, who tell him shocking things. Scahill keeps digging, and keeps finding more things that disturb him. These raids are being carried out nightly – and the result is often the death of people who have somehow found their way onto a list of targets for American Forces. Yet the list never seems to grow any shorter – the more people they kill or capture, they more people they end up adding to the lists.
When Scahill starts investigating these raids, and finds out they are being conducted by a military group known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a group he had never heard of before. He digs and finds they report directly to the White House, and their commanding officer is a General McRaven. JSOC was shrouded in secrecy – but after conducting the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, they became national heroes. JSOC carries out America’s covert war efforts – the night raids that started Scahill on his path for the truth, as well as targeted assassinations, and the now infamous, and controversial drone strikes. There is little to no oversight on them from Congress, and they are free to conduct their operations in places where war has not even been declared. In some cases, they outsource the war to African warlords – like one we see in the movie who brags about how when they capture foreign fighters, they kill them on the spot to dissuade others from fighting. Or another who says America knows war – he doesn’t question what they tell him to do, he just assumes they know what they’re talking about. The film documents Scahill’s efforts to bring what he finds to the attention of Congress and the mainstream media – and for the most part, he is rebuffed. Politicians hide behind saying things like “That’s classified”, and others dismiss the deaths of women and other innocent as “collateral damage” – regrettable sure, but just the cost of doing business.
For Scahill, a turning point was reached when a drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who was said by government officials to be as dangerous as Bin Laden. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t – but Awlaki’s death signals something that should disturb all Americans – because after all, Awlaki was an American citizen himself. Should the government really have the right to execute an American citizen without charging him with a crime? What about Awlaki’s 16 year old son, who was killed a few weeks after Awlaki in another drone strike? What was his crime?
Scahill’s arguments will be controversial for many. The film shows clips of interviews and sermons from Awlaki, who in the wake of 9/11 expressed remorse for the victims, and condemned the terrorists who killed them. How did this man turn from that into the most dangerous man in the world according the American government? Scahill argues that it is because of America’s War on Terror – that killing innocent people, like the women and children in the first raid he covers, coverts more and more people into terrorists. Thus, it is a never ending cycle.
That may be a controversial position – who really knows why anyone goes from decrying terrorism, to supporting jihad as Awlaki did – but it is at least something worth considering – as is the cost of drone strikes, that the President can use at his discretion, with little oversight. The movie makes the convincing case that while many thought Obama would reign in the War on Terror, he has done anything but in his time in office.
The film does not have a typical look of a documentary. Director Rick Rowley almost approached the movie as a Tony Scott-style thriller – with Scahill as the hero detective, trying to piece together parts of the story. The movie uses the same kind of desaturated color, and exaggerated words directly placed on screen (one at a time, like a typewriter), that Scott favored. Often in the past, I have complained that documentaries don’t do much visually to differentiate themselves from each other – but this time, it’s a little bit of overkill. At times, it almost detracts from the arguments the film is making, as it gets lost under all that style.
Still, Dirty Wars is a fine documentary about the ongoing War on Terror. We’ve seen a lot of these documentaries in the past decade, but the fact that they keep getting made, and keep exploring different aspects of the War means there are still things worth discussing. The unanswered question of Dirty Wars is simple – How SHOULD America conduct the war on terror? The movie doesn’t even attempt to answer that question. Perhaps because no one really knows. What Scahill is convinced of – and what is worth discussing about the film – is that while he may not how America should conduct the War on Terror, he’s convinced of how they shouldn’t – which is to do the same thing they’re doing now.