Movie Review: Dirty Wars (2013)
The problem with “Dirty Wars” is the adjective.
The documentary, directed by Rick Rowley, about and starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, is concerned with shattering two illusions of the War on Terror: the illusion of cleanliness and the illusion of safety. What the U.S. government is doing in other countries is immoral and thus unclean. And while we may eliminate some enemies we create others. We finish one kill list only to be handed a longer one, which was created going through the first kill list. In this manner we trade short-term safety for long-term insecurity and a war without end.
The doc focuses on the first of these illusions: the illusion of cleanliness. You could feel it in the Q&A after a screening of the doc during the Seattle International Film Festival with guest Jeremy Scahill. The concern of the people who stood up to ask questions was basically, “How do I feel clean again?” but that’s a concern of the privileged. The more widespread human concern, the entire point of civilization you might say, is for safety. The whole point of terrorism, certainly, is to make people feel unsafe, and the whole point of a War on Terror is to give people the illusion of safety. The doc is mainly telling its viewers, certainly its American viewers, that the policies of its government are immoral, and thus unclean, but this requires a level of empathy that most people, certainly in a time of war, don’t have. The doc should have more forcefully told its viewers the more alarming fact that every day they are becoming less safe. They are in a bubble of safety. And one day that bubble will surely burst.
It may burst no matter what we do.
The American Taliban
“Dirty Wars” begins as an investigation by Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, and author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” into an early-morning raid in Gardez, a remote village in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces killed five people. The forces aren’t traditional U.S. forces. They’re bearded. The people there call them “the American Taliban.” We’re shown, by the family of the deceased, the patched bullet holes in the wall. We’re told two pregnant women were killed along with a local police commander and a local prosecutor. The family doesn’t understand why it happened. They’re angry. One relative says he wants to wear “a suicide jacket and blow myself up among Americans.” He says, “I want jihad against the Americans.” Scahill, in voiceover, tells us, “I believed the family but that wasn’t enough—for me or anyone else.”
At this point in the narrative, the proposition is we said/they said. But it quickly becomes they said. The U.S. owns up to the atrocity. It tries to pay off the victim’s family. We see a picture of a U.S. military officer, McRaven, in Gardez, offering the family a goat. Scahill wonders who McRaven is. He wonders who “the American Taliban” are. He investigates further and discovers there were 1700 raids similar to the Gardez raid in the three previous months. He just doesn’t tell us what year we’re in. 2009, it turns out.
Scahill keeps pulling on the Gardez thread that reveals the wider, titular war. The “American Taliban” is Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, a special forces unit created in 1980 in the wake of Pres. Carter’s desert debacle, and now used indiscriminately at the behest of the president. Scahill interviews Matthew Hoh, a foreign service officer who resigns his commission in October 2009 over our failed policy in Afghanistan, and Cpt. Andrew Exum (Ret.), who talks about JSOC and the kill lists of Iraq. You’d start out with 50-200 guys on a list, he says. When you got through that list you’re handed a list of 3,000. How did that happen? Well, you created that second list by working through the first one.
Scahill, in voiceover, chastises himself for missing the JSOC story when he was embedded in Iraq. Then he wonders aloud, “What was I missing today?”
Cut to: footage of Pres. Obama, in black-and-white, slowed down, made grainy, and backed by ominous music.
And that’s where I rolled my eyes.
Everyone’s got their kill list
This is a tough movie to watch as a supporter of Pres. Obama, but this bit, making the ordinary ominous, does a disservice to the subject. It’s something you’d expect from Sean Hannity. It made me doubt the rest of what I was watching.
Not that there’s much to doubt. That’s another problem with the doc. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Scahill is slowly uncovering what, in 2013, we already know, thanks in large part to Scahill’s reporting. Drone strikes in Yemen? Really? JSOC? You mean the guys who killed Osama bin Laden? The U.S. government targeting U.S. citizens? We’ve been talking about that for months.
Where the doc is helpful is in detailing the extent of it. We’re engaged in secret wars in 70 countries? Scahill focuses on drone strikes in Yemen. He also visits a U.S.-backed warlord in Somalia. “America knows war,” this warlord, Gen. Adde, says approvingly. “They are war masters. … They are teachers, great teachers.”
Even so, my doubts remained. Scahill wants to put a human face on the victims but it often feels like a partial face. He’s shocked, for example, when he sees Anwar al-Awlaki’s name on a kill list, since he knows al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, and he can’t imagine America killing its own. Yet Al-Awlaki is also a radical cleric who called for jihad against the U.S. In 2010, he called for a fatwa against a Seattle Weekly cartoonist for declaring May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” and she had to change her address, name, life. Everyone’s got their kill list. But that’s not in the doc. Instead we see al-Awlaki, post-9/11, touted as the moderate imam who can bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But then something happened. We targeted him and turned him into something else. He was clean, and now he’s dirty, and now he’s dead— killed in a drone strike in south Yemen in September 2011. But I doubt he was ever clean. Who is?
The doc is horrified by the mere existence of JSOC, and certainly by the way it’s being run today—as a private army of POTUS— but I flashed back to March 2003 and remembered my arguments against the Iraq War. Invading a country and taking out its leader is fighting the last war, I argued, not this war. Terror groups like al Qaeda are hidden within a country. How do you fight a group hidden with a country? Or many countries? JSOC is one answer. It may not be the answer, or even an effective answer, but it’s a better answer than the one we had in March 2003. A low bar, admittedly.
What do you do?
A day after the doc, I keep turning over its images and ideas in my head. I have nothing but sympathy for the family in Gardez, and nothing but questions about the raid that killed five innocent people there. I question the effectiveness of JSOC. I do believe, as I believed in March 2003, that our actions against terrorists are creating more terrorists. It’s a Hydra head. Cut off one, two more grow.
But I also have sympathy for the movie’s purported villain, Pres. Obama, because I asked the question the doc doesn’t. You’re elected president of the United States. You enter office in the middle of two conventional wars and countless shadow wars against an enemy, or a group of enemies, who may strike us anywhere at any time. What do you do?
Pres. Obama’s answer has been to wind down the conventional wars and ramp up the shadow wars, and the doc focuses on the horror, the immorality, of these shadow wars, and ends there. But this, to my mind, is where the discussion begins. If the shadow wars aren't working, what do you do? What do we do? It’s a question that has no clean answers, no matter how much we may want them.