Dirty Wars is a fever swamp of paranoia, painting a picture of a Global War on Terror that has no boundaries, no limits and no end.
This documentary explores the shadowy war against terror conducted by drone and special ops that continues in states with which we are at war and states with which we are not. In it, Jeremy Scahill, a reporter for The Nation, lays out a chilling picture of America as a global power that conducts an unchecked war against people in remote countries who may or may not be guilty of terrorist activity, in a series of "targeted assassinations" that may or may not hit the intended malefactor.
In Scahill's telling, the secret war is being conducted under the direction of a Democratic president and an indifferent public. These covert operations represent a steep rise in the influence of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite unit led by a Navy officer with the suitably sinister name of William McRaven. This unit, which answers directly to the president, has its roots in the failed 1980 effort to free the U.S. hostages in Iran. It operated largely in obscurity until 2011, when it carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
Scahill's journey through this begins with his effort to investigate the apparently botched raid in the remote Afghani village of Gardez, which resulted in the death of a purportedly friendly police commander and two pregnant women in his household. In some startling footage, McRaven himself turns up later to apologize, bearing a sacrificial sheep in penance.
The deaths of these obscure Afghanis lead Scahill into an examination of the military's daily briefings of its overnight raids, sometimes 20 per night. Scahill concludes that the atrocity of Gardez is being repeated on a regular basis, and he begins looking for evidence of military attacks elsewhere. His investigation takes him to Yemen, where remote Bedouins have been killed by drone strikes. As he visits the survivors—and looks at images of dead children—he's struck by a big difference between Afghanistan and Yemen: The U.S. is not at war with the latter.
But the public oversight is nonexistent. Scahill talks to an anonymous source who, after describing the growth in the power of JSOC as a hammer, says, "For the rest of our generation, for the rest of my lifetime, this force will continually be searching for a nail."
Scahill speaks to an unapologetic Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton, who now holds a post at N.C. State University. And Scahill talks to a clearly uncomfortable U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who we now know was one of the very few Washington officials trying to draw attention to the NSA's surveillance activities.
The film takes us to one of the more disturbing events in recent history when President Obama, making an unprecedented claim of executive authority, ordered the assassination of an American citizen, a radical cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed with Samir Khan, another American citizen (and North Carolina resident). Two weeks afterward, al-Awlaki's teenage son, also an American, was killed in a strike that the U.S. said was not targeting him.
Is this the new normal?
The form of Dirty Wars is noteworthy and perhaps it will prove influential. Instead of being a typical liberal-outrage doc, complete with talking heads and graphics, Scahill and the film's director, Richard Rowley, have undertaken something more ambitious. Scahill stars in his own movie as a Brooklyn-residing war journo, addicted to the action overseas and bored by civilian life (there may be too many shots of Scahill making doleful Jake Gyllenhaal faces). As we follow Scahill on his reporting missions, Rowley shoots the film with the best, most portable HD cameras on the market; the editing includes unabashedly cinematic cutaways, moody lighting and skewed angles. The original score, too, is haunting and droning, courtesy of David Harrington of Kronos Quartet (which also performs it) and older songs by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The film is every bit as cinematic as Zero Dark Thirty.
After seeing Dirty Wars, I wonder if, in the absence of an effective multiparty system and the oversight it's supposed to provide, the only check on American political and military abuses will be whistle-blowers and journalists, individuals who are willing to risk their safety and reputation to confront America's surveillance state. More and more, reporters are concluding that the Obama administration, with its unprecedented war against leakers, is criminalizing journalists. Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are among those paying a price for their actions, while the current brave—or, depending on your point of view, reckless—truth-teller is former NSA spook Edward Snowden, along with a small handful of sympathetic journalists, notably Glenn Greenwald (an American who lives in Brazil and writes for the U.S. edition of London's The Guardian).
Considered against the global reach of the United States intelligence and military operation, it's a pathetically small number of people who are exposing themselves in order to question this country's policies. Obama's supporters have largely turned a blind eye, preferring to chortle at useful idiots like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.
After Dirty Wars, however, we realize the U.S. government is capable of doing just about anything we can imagine, regardless of who is in the White House.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Zero dark dirty."