Journalist Jeremy Scahill’s film, Dirty Wars, is an effort to give Americans a peek at how the United States government is fighting the global war on terrorism in the shadows. It is also a plea to Americans to confront what their government is doing and challenge the justification for operations, which Congress is reluctant to scrutinize and which are product of this idea that the “world is a battlefield,” something the press has been mostly unwilling to question.
It opens in Kabul, Afghanistan. Scahill is in the back of a car in the middle of the night on a road with barely any streetlights. Tight camera shots on him and his driver, along with the gritty style of the award-winning cinematography from Rick Rowley, give the film the feel of a spy thriller. Scahill declares, “This is a story about the seen and unseen and about things hidden in plain sight.”
His journey begins when he makes the decision to leave the insulated and secure boundaries set by the military for the press corps. He acknowledges he has been missing the story, one “hinted at in press releases” from NATO and wants to know who is fighting this hidden war and conducting night raids. He cannot find out the truth by remaining embedded and watching soldiers drink tea with tribal elders.
Scahill meets with a family in Gardez, Afghanistan, who were victims of a night raid. Five people, including three women, two who were pregnant, and an Afghan police commander named Mohammed Daoud were killed. A Joint Special Operations Command team, which raided the home, likely had been given false intelligence that there were Taliban plotting some attack. When it turned out that was not the case and they had killed innocent people, they dug bullets out of the bodies, took out their video cameras and crafted a narrative that this was some kind of “honor killing.”
Nobody in Washington, DC, wants to confront the terror of night raids in Afghanistan. However, Scahill is able to convince one general to appear on camera and rationalize the raid. Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finds the family was “in the wrong place, at the wrong time, our guys were doing what they thought they should do, and protecting themselves and their buddies in the process.” He did not think it ought to be investigated. “I think you write it off as one of those damn acts of war.” But, what about the police commander? What about the women?
“Now, just because he’s a police chief, he could have been a terrorist as well.” It is unfortunate those killed were women, but he says, “I’ve been shot at by women myself.” The statements excusing an obvious coverup of what many might consider a war crime starkly demonstrate the sociopathy of individuals in the chain of command who are fighting the global war on terrorism.
Scahill tries to push members of Congress to address the night raids in Afghanistan, but, unlike his work on the private mercenary contractor, Blackwater, testimony does not spark headlines and great interest in the halls of power. In his work to uncover the role of JSOC in the global war on terrorism, his Freedom of Information Act requests bounce around agencies receiving no responses and appeals for answers from officials go ignored.
In Yemen, he speaks with those in the village of Al Majalah, where 46 people were killed, including 5 pregnant woman, on December 17, 2009, in the first authorized strike by President Barack Obama. It was claimed there was an Al Qaeda base but really a poor tribe was what ended up being targeted.
The one journalist in Yemen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who had worked to get to the bottom of what happened, was imprisoned, likely at the direction of the US. He remains imprisoned today at the request of President Obama. (Today, he is losing his mind in conditions of solitary confinement while very few journalists from the US dig deeper into the nature of this undeclared war.)
There are many countries where special operations are ongoing. Later in the film, Scahill decides to go to Somalia. This part of the film shows how the US government is allying itself with warlords to fight al Shabaab, a force designated as a terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda. One of the warlords, Indha Adde, is a menacing character, who wears sunglasses and a beret, has an entourage and talks of killing foreigners with no mercy to send a message.
But, perhaps, the most profound parts of the film are also the more profound parts of his book of the same title. He explores the American story of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who was assassinated in a drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki was a kind of all-American imam after the September 11th attacks. Subjected to harassment and monitoring by the FBI in the years after, he ultimately left the country after he realized he could not live the open life he wanted to live in a post-9/11 America.
Clips of Awlaki appear, showing him as a father and as the inspiration preacher who developed into someone influential that officials in the Obama administration wanted killed. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s grandfather, appears on camera to discuss trying to save his son from being assassinated by his own government. “I want a decent American lawyer to tell me it is alright to kill [an] American citizen on the basis” that he said something against the United States.
Scahill points out that America’s wars created a man they wanted to kill. Awlaki’s words had been inspired by America’s wars and operations in Yemen were, for a time, were entirely motivated by a commitment to assassinate Awlaki.
Similar to Scahill’s book, the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son, just weeks after his father was assassinated, ends the film. Scahill is struck by a death that to this day has not been properly explained by the Obama administration. He wonders whether it really was a coincidence that Anwar’s son was killed weeks after his father. He visits his grandfather one more time and watches home movies of Abdulrahman, who really was very similar to other boys in America. He hypothesizes that Abdulrahman could have been killed for who he might one day become.
An intensely personal narrative runs throughout the film. “Coming home is never easy,” and “life back home” is “dull after being in a war zone.” He wants to forget about Gardez but cannot. Knowing the US government has crossed a line and is targeting a US citizen, whose name he know is actually on a kill list, is disturbing.
His investigating, he says in the film, crossed a “tripwire.” He is contacted by a member of the military and told if he publishes a story he will be on “thin ice.” He is not sleeping well. His computer was hacked and part of his hard drive copied. He has a sense of guilt when Abdulrahman is killed by the US government, possibly for who he had as a father.
There are undeclared wars happening in countries around the world. The killing of Osama bin Laden did not end the global war on terrorism but opened a new chapter. And so, what is most unnerving is how this story has no end. No matter how much is uncovered one has the sense that it will have little effect because the United States is committed to perpetual war despite any effects or consequences.
The transformation Scahill undergoes is the transformation he probably hopes the audience will undergo. As viewers are able to see the effects of war, which the US government does not want people to see, they might feel the same anxiety and guilt in their consciences. They might grapple with the many moral questions presented and posed throughout.
In a number of documentaries, it does not work to have the filmmaker be the main character yet for this film it is a main thread that ties all the parts together. Without his personal reflection, there would be disparate episodes juxtaposed together that would still be informative but may not have the same emotional punch.
Up until this film, there was no film that appropriately, methodically and honestly addressed the flawed and often pathologically dangerous basis for continuing to fight the global war on terrorism. This film boldly attempts to show what the government is doing in the darkness and, through the art of filmmaking, powerfully brings some of the most distressing aspects of the global war on terrorism into the light.