Oscar nominated “Dirty Wars,” the riveting documentary by journalist Jeremy Scahill and director Rick Rowley that probes the shadowy world of U.S. paramilitary operations, almost didn’t get made. Or rather, it almost didn’t become the film that premiered at Sundance in Januar 2013y to critical plaudits and had a stateside release this past June, via IFC Sundance Selects.
Scahill and Rowley first finished a version of the film that was significantly different from its final iteration, which follows Scahill–a national security correspondent for The Nation magazine who has investigated and reported stories in Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia–as he uncovers a much larger narrative about a secretive and deadly unit at the center of the U.S. military after a puzzling trip to a remote area in Afghanistan.
The earlier version of “Dirty Wars” was a straight-up, linear documentary, a just-the-facts-ma’am look at Scahill’s reporting, not the journalist himself. But with the help of David Riker, a writer and director whose film “The Girl” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, in 2012 Scahill and Rowley turned the film from a story about the most covert arm of the U.S. national security apparatus into a story about an investigation into that elite fighting force.
It was undeniably the right choice. Through its unique framing, focusing on a journalist reporting rather than a story reported, “Dirty Wars” manages to simultaneously delve deeply and authoritatively into the murky world of U.S. counterterrorism while ultimately posing a series of questions, or perhaps a central dilemma. How do we understand the world around us and our priorities as a nation when we don’t even know the breadth of our country’s armed forces engagement around the globe?
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As Scahill says towards the beginning of the film, “This is a story about the seen and the unseen.”
Shadows and questions in a nighttime raid
One of the earliest clues that there was more to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than met the eye came from U.S. soldiers themselves, who told Scahill that the real fighting–the real war, in fact–was taking place in secret, in the background, away from the skirmishes of official military units that were reported by journalists embedded in the field. A steady stream of press releases told a different story: nighttime raids where combatants were killed in the so-called ‘denied zones.’ These areas were far outside the secure perimeter within which most journalists operated; these were the areas which few foreigners ever see.
Scahill was determined to be an exception. On a trip to a small city called Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan, he investigated a nighttime raid that had killed five civilians. He met with the family of Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police commander who had trained with the U.S.; he watched cellphone video of Daoud dancing with his family hours before his death at the hands of unnamed, unknown men who showed up at Daoud’s house wearing no uniforms and shot him dead. He left Gardez with questions, as had another journalist, Jerome Starkey of the Times of London, whose reporting had linked the attack to NATO but had been publicly pushed back upon by the treaty organization.
A UN investigation later confirmed U.S. involvement in the Gardez killings. NATO changed its story, and a chilling cell phone video surfaced, in which bloody, bullet-ridden bodies can be seen, accompanied by two American voices speaking in English as they parse the events of that night, reconstructing a narrative. A photo emerged of a uniformed, high-ranking American officer, Admiral William McRaven, personally apologizing to Daoud’s family for the loss of their relatives. Scahill, a veteran journalist with a deep knowledge of the military, knew little of the man or an unusual insignia on his uniform. After some digging, though, he learned that McRaven had been appointed in 2008 as the head of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, one of the most secretive–and most elite–arms of the U.S. military.
“Dirty Wars” follows Scahill’s investigation of the then-almost unknown JSOC, which takes him from Afghanistan to New York to Yemen to Washington. Scahill interviews former officials with knowledge of the unit’s operations who detail how the war in Afghanistan transitioned to one spearheaded by JSOC through targeted killings and strategic, almost surgical attack-and-grab missions. In Yemen, Scahill visits the site of a deadly airstrike, later returning to the country to speak with the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who became the first U.S. citizen to be slated for a targeted killing and to die in the crosshairs of an unmanned drone.
Awlaki becomes an anchor for “Dirty Wars” and the central conflict of Scahill’s reporting, especially in light of the fact that by the time of Awlaki’s death in September 2011, JSOC’s public profile had markedly increased after the dramatic operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan the previous May. How, Scahill asks, could a cleric who had been looked to as a prominent American Muslim voice against terrorism and extremism during his time preaching at a mosque in Fairfax, Virginia turn into a rabid supporter of jihad and the eventual target of an extrajudicial killing by the U.S. government?
In search of the answer to this question, Scahill–and “Dirty Wars” itself–looks to the story of Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman. A U.S. citizen himself, born in Denver, he had sneaked out of his family home in Sana, Yemen, leaving a note to tell his mother he had gone in search of his father. Two weeks after his father’s death, Abdulrahman too would be killed by a drone strike, one apparently intended for an Egyptian al-Qaeda member, Ibrahim al-Banna.
Due to incorrect intelligence, the drone instead struck an outdoor cafe where Abdulrahman and several other young men had been eating. As the New York Times later reported, the fallout from the strike became a “public relations disaster” for the Obama administration, especially after unnamed officials said that Abdulrahman was 21 years old. In response, his family released his birth certificate, one that had been issued by the Colorado health department, which revealed his true age. Abdulrahman was 16.
A future where covert is the new normal
For Scahill, Abdulrahman’s death points to an American foreign and military policy that has gone off the rails. “He was killed not for who he was,” Scahill says towards the end of the film, “but for who he one day might become.”
To be fair, that is one man’s opinion, one based on Scahill’s travels to Yemen and his deep experience reporting on JSOC and the American military. In the end, though, “Dirty Wars” is not, at its core, a movie about apportioning blame, nor is it an academic lecture on the facts and figures of the changing profile of the American military. It is more like an invitation to conversation, or perhaps reflection, one that is made all the more powerful because it is framed through the personal journey of one man.
When presented with the enormous, quasi-unanswerable questions about power, war and justice that “Dirty Wars” posits, any viewer’s natural reaction might be to simply disengage from the material. Scahill’s tenacity, his refusal to disengage from an issue that is disturbing and morally ambiguous even in the face of personal peril and a lack of cooperation from those in the corridors of power, make his reporting–and his analysis of American politics and policy–so compelling. We are certainly not all brave enough to venture into danger in search of the truth. What we can do, though, is pay close attention to those who are.
As “Dirty Wars” demonstrates, once we allow our eyes to be opened, we may discover that we are very blind indeed.