“Dirty Wars” exposes the nation’s most covert military force and its use of night raids, assassinations and drones to kill thousands around the globe with near impunity.
That it happens to be the Joint Special Operations Command, which reports directly to the White House and was celebrated for killing Osama bin Laden, makes it no less disturbing.
The fast-paced documentary, written and narrated by on-camera investigative war reporter Jeremy Scahill, puts a human face on the unintended victims – whom one official calls “collateral damage” – from actions that occur with little Congressional oversight or media scrutiny. And Scahill, echoing Chalmers Johnson’s acclaimed trilogy of books about “blowback” following 9/11, warns that the hatred and future retaliation toward Americans from actions known only to a few will perpetuate a cycle of violence for decades to come.
“This is a story about the seen and the unseen, and about things hidden in plain sight,” Scahill says, referring to the Joint Special Operations Command’s actions, fudged statements from military spokesmen, and the people who have been victimized in remote outposts in the Middle East and East Africa and ignored by an often-complicit media.
Scahill begins by investigating the senseless killing of five villagers – including a U.S.-trained police commander and three women, two of whom were pregnant – in the middle of the night by special operations forces at a family gathering in Garbez, Afghanistan. He learns that soldiers removed bullets from the victims’ bodies to cover their tracks. After NATO issued a news release saying the women’s deaths were the result of honor killings by the Taliban, cellphone video footage surfaces that forces a retraction.
The nighttime raid, Scahill later learns, was one of some 1,700 – almost all unreported – in Afghanistan in a three-month period, with none of the victims’ names released. Scahill goes on to Yemen and Somalia to learn about the Joint Special Operations Command’s reach in countries where there are no declared wars – and he sees again the terror unleashed on victims who are often in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Americans know war. They are war masters,” says one hardened warlord who is on America’s payroll to do the killing for them.
Scahill, 38, covered wars in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia for the left-leaning Nation, and he reported on atrocities committed in East Timor for Democracy Now. He is the author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” and the film is based on his book “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.”
The assassination of an American citizen and Islamic cleric in Yemen who had become an outspoken critic of U.S. policies is also examined, as is the death of his 16-year-old son, also by a drone, weeks later.
Director Richard Rowley uses hand-held cameras, phone footage and changes of speed to give the film a sense of immediacy and to add to the drama when Scahill must avoid the Taliban or interview unsavory characters.
The film is weakest when it focuses on the reporter; he doesn’t project well on camera, and the segments often feel staged and flat. The film also fails to argue the other side, perhaps because those arguments are well-known, but it would have been stronger if it did.
Scahill is pointedly critical of President Obama for unleashing the Joint Special Operations Command around the globe and approving ever-expanding assassination targets. He also shows how Obama personally intervened to prevent the release of a Yemeni journalist who was imprisoned for exposing the command’s actions.
The story being covered, Scahill concludes, is an ominous one with no end.
“Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe, foreigners and citizens alike assassinated by presidential decree. The war on terror transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy,” he said.
Rating: 3½ stars