by Zoha Waseem
The Guardian described it as one of the most important political films in two decades, while The Independent called it the most effective film since All the President’s Men. Jeremy Scahill’s script for Dirty Wars, based on his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, peels apart layers of secrecy and unaccountability shrouded under cloaks of expensive national security measures in order to expose America’s covert operations and the increasingly notorious Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The film depicts how the US directs conflicts around the world in a war that seemingly ‘has no end’. Dirty Wars is not an easy watch, and it leaves you more than a little uncomfortable.
The film opens in Kabul, Afghanistan, narrated by Scahill, an investigative reporter and author of the book of the same name. It takes the viewers through warm hues and sepia tones to Gardez, in the province of Paktia, where in February 2010 US-trained Police Commander Mohammad Daood and two pregnant women were gunned down late at night during a family gathering celebrating the birth of a new-born. NATO said the women killed were victims of Taliban honour-killings, but Daood’s family members, also attending the gathering that night said the shooters were men from the US forces who had later also assaulted survivors. In response, one American General simply stated that these civilians just happened to be ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
Scahill’s investigation into what one survivor of this raid called the ‘American Taliban’, leads him to uncover the then little known JSOC. The then commander of JSOC, William McRaven – who later tried to offer a sheep as compensation for the deaths – was ultimately suspected to be involved in the raid on Gardez that night. Under US President Obama’s orders, JSOC has been given unprecedented authority for covert military operations. Formed in 1980 in the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed hostage recovery mission in Iran, JSOC was the very unit responsible for the coordination of Operation Neptune Spear which led to the Abbottabad raid of 1 May 2011, killing Osama Bin Laden.
By Scahill’s estimates, US special operations and interventions have expanded the Global War on Terror to 75 countries. During the course of this film, we are taken into Yemen where Anwar al-Awlaki, the one-time go-to Imam for the United States and an advocate of democracy turned rogue (following the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003)), became the first American civilian placed on the drone kill-list. Voice recordings of Awlaki and Obama are played simultaneously, and repeatedly, during the coverage of this operation. ‘Mirror images of each other’, Scahill narrates them to be.
While Scahill’s investigations may be met with dubious voices and harsh criticisms, and his efforts undermined in the same manner as those of other activists, it goes without saying that Scahill’s script succeeds in breathing morality into even the most critical observer. The soul of his film rests in testimonies gathered from families of victims such as members of Awlaki’s family who suffered the loss of his 16-year-old son in a simultaneous drone strike. This second attack seemed to have been a preventive strike, in case the son was to grow up and take on his father’s role. Further, interviews with former warlords of Somalia, supposedly on US payrolls and Scahill’s own conscience which remains at the centre of his storytelling strengthen the script of this film.
Though depicting the human side of war and violence, Scahill makes no half-hearted attempts of providing solutions to the war on terror. Instead, he solemnly voices the concerns of the masses, in that it is likely to go on for a very long time.
‘Our job is to go to the other side of the barrels of guns and the other side of missiles and talk to the enemies. Our job is not to be nationalists. Obama’s administration has targeted more whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined’, said Jeremy Scahill while addressing an audience following a screening of Dirty Wars at Birkbeck University in London. ‘Mr Nobel Peace Prize Winner’, he mocks, ‘is presiding over a global assassination programme’.
Dirty Wars (dir. by Richard Rowley) premièred in the UK 29 October 2013.
Zoha Waseem is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. You can follower her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.