Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has reported on activities in the Middle East for the better part of his career. His new film Dirty Wars is a powerful foray into the hidden underbelly of America’s covert operations being implemented all over the world, most notably in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. It’s a project born out of relentless research of the secretive military unit known as JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), interviews with local civilians, and outings with nefarious warlords beyond the “safe zone” where access for foreign journalists is hard to come by. The risks are many, but necessary, and what results is an intriguing and sincere look at the lives on the other side of America’s missiles.
Unlike other documentaries of the same ilk, Dirty Wars seeks to inform viewers rather than propagandize. Scahill spends time interviewing families, including children, who are victims of night raids gone wrong and missile attacks by American forces. But even when the camera lingers on the faces of these people I never felt my empathy was being taken advantage of. There was always something tangible to be upset about beyond a young child’s face plastered on the screen. Perhaps it’s because Scahill and director Rick Rowley take the time to feel out their subjects. We see home videos taken on Nokia phones of a celebration taken the night of a raid, with men and women together dancing and singing. In the morning, we learn, the family is fewer in number after poor military intelligence decides this is a Taliban hideout, causing unnecessary deaths. Strangely, the families do not express anger or hatred towards America, as our media would have you believe. They seem more disappointed, confused, by the nature of the events. Scahill takes his research and stories back to the states, reports on his findings to the news media and even sits before Congress. But as is so often the case, no one is interested in listening.
With recent announcements concerning JSOC released to the media, the events of the film take on new urgency. We are making enemies where before there were none, including our own citizenry. The film spends time discussing the story of Anwar Al Awlaki, the first American citizen placed on the White House’s “kill list,” and his 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman al Aulaqi. Both were killed by US drone strikes in Yemen. Lack of due process aside, there arguments that can be made as to why the US government felt threatened by Awlaki and his increased extremist views. But do the sins of the father reflect on a 16-year-old? Scahill interviews Nasser al Aulaqi, Anwar’s father and again, there is less anger in his voice and more confused sadness over the actions of his own countrymen.
The breadth of Scahill’s interview subjects is extensive, and includes civilians, US-backed warlords, as well as an informant formerly connected to JSOC. On paper, this film may appear to be one-sided, as no representatives in defense of US military actions is featured. But that’s hardly the case. I think Scahill and Rowley’s decision to make Scahill the “subject” of the documentary aides in the film’s investigative eye. Instead of a series of talking heads with Scahill behind the camera, we watch as he collects and puts the pieces together using facts he has garnered throughout his journey. There’s little blind faith behind Scahill’s interviews. Each claim is vetted, researched and discussed before final opinions are rendered. The physical risks Scahill and Rowley take are proof enough that the truth is worth seeking out no matter where it may take you.
Safety aside, there’s something insanely amiss when Taliban members seem more accessible for a chat then your own government. And that’s the crux of Dirty Wars. It calls us to demand answers and take personal responsibility and interest in the actions of our government abusing its power, all in the name of a national security that feels ever more delicate. Dirty Wars is a gritty, beautifully shot testimony of our darkest hours, and a call for truth.