Dirty Wars, the documentary film counterpart to the book of the same name, begins its investigation of the secretive world of US counterterrorism operations with a disturbing episode set in Afghanistan. The book’s author, Jeremy Scahill, was working as a war correspondent in Afghanistan when he looked beyond the limited flow of information provided by the American and allied military authorities to report on the killing of Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police officer, and others—including two pregnant women—in the town of Gardez. The killing appeared to be the work of American forces, and, after initial evasions, the United States eventually acknowledged and apologized for the operation. Investigating the Gardez incident led Scahill, who currently writes for The Nation and narrates the documentary, to the agency responsible for the killings: the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive branch of the military that carries out certain covert operations.
This discovery is the first chapter in a globe-trotting detective story as Scahill travels beyond Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, as well as back to the United States, and interviews various people inside and outside the US government in an effort to find out more about JSOC and its activities. He focuses on JSOC’s killing of various alleged enemies of the United States, particularly the US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose father Scahill interviews.
Awlaki, who had initially condemned the September 11th terrorist attacks and seemed the epitome of America-friendly Islam, was apparently embittered by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and other abuses of Muslims by the US government—as well as by his own US-supported imprisonment in Yemen—and turned to advocating violence against the United States. He subsequently was marked for death by American authorities and was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Shortly after Awlaki’s death, his teenage son, Abdulrahman, was killed in another drone strike. Both killings receive significant attention in Dirty Wars (although the treatment of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki’s death is questionable: while the killing might have been an accident, the documentary implies deliberate targeting of the teenager).
Other topics covered are a 2009 military strike in Yemen that Scahill maintains was the United States’ work and American use of Somali warlords to combat al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. Those interviewed in Dirty Wars include US political and military officials such as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR); General Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; two Somali warlords (one of whom memorably described Americans as “war masters”); various inhabitants of Afghanistan and Yemen; and a mysterious unnamed source who supposedly has inside knowledge of JSOC and appears only in shadow, his voice electronically distorted to disguise his identity.
As an investigation and analysis of JSOC operations, and US foreign policy in general, Dirty Wars has definite limitations. Narration and snippets of interviews cannot convey as much information as a printed page and checking the sources of Scahill’s various claims is impossible. The documentary also raises questions of how much footage captures spontaneous real-life activities and how much was staged: sequences of Scahill surreptitiously going to meet his unnamed source at different locations were presumably recreated for the film. Also, as one of the panelists at a post-screening discussion I attended commented, the film can be faulted for adopting the most negative interpretations possible of American actions.
As a work of cinema, Dirty Wars does not hold too many surprises, either. Rick Rowley, the film’s director, cinematographer, and (with David Riker) co-editor, follows conventions that will be familiar to viewers of documentary exposés and espionage thrillers: talking heads interspersed with footage of Scahill walking or driving through various exotic locations, all filmed in bleached colors cinema verité-style and underscored with ominous or melancholy music.
Nevertheless, Dirty Wars is worth seeing. Its value lies in drawing attention to lethal US counterterrorism operations in an accessible, absorbing way using a popular medium. Also, it provides what movies can deliver very effectively: emotional impact. When Scahill interviews Nasser al-Awlaki, the father and grandfather of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, for example, and the filmmakers show photos and video footage of these men, they make the costs of US policy vivid and moving.
No one interested in the methods by which the United States is fighting terrorism today should rely only on the material presented in Dirty Wars. If seeing the film can inspire people to read the book, learn more about targeted killings and covert operations, and ask questions about the justifications for American actions, however, Dirty Wars will have accomplished something very important.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.
© 2013 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.