I could never do Jeremy Scahill’s job. Genuinely bored by the mundane nature of everyday civilian life in Brooklyn, New York, the muckraking journalist frequently throws himself into the most dangerous of environments – Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia – not just for the adrenalized thrill of working in war zones, but for a deeper purpose, a faint hope that his work will lead to the possibility of accountability and justice for otherwise silent victims. He is obsessed with doing the right thing which drives his relentless reporting. He is either courageous beyond words or foolish in the extreme considering all the risks involved and the non-existent rewards for such actions. Then again, to be a war correspondent, you have to be both. I am neither and sadly, I’m not alone.
In Dirty Wars, his extraordinarily harrowing documentary about America’s secret war on Muslims, he brilliantly exposes a racist, sexist foreign policy in the grips of absolute chaos and disorder. Begun by President Bush shortly after 9/11 but expanded beyond reason by President Obama, the so-called Global War On Terror has forever changed the nature of armed conflict. No longer restricted by Congressional approvals and country boundaries, the United States Government sees the entire world as a battlefield where secret mercenaries under their control and absolute support do most of the invading, torturing and murdering with zero oversight and little understanding for the inevitable blowback such depraved actions will inspire in the future. No one can stop them, not even the feckless United Nations who go curiously unmentioned. A list of people to be exterminated, including Americans, keeps growing and growing without any due process for them whatsoever. As Scahill notes, “The War On Terror is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” A terrifying, ongoing cycle of death and destruction.
Unconscionable war crimes are common. Innocent families are ripped apart by night raids targeting the wrong houses. Drone strikes obliterate the young and the old because of bad intelligence. A Yemeni journalist is locked up for embarrassing Obama with damning truth and kept there at his insistence. (He was eventually released years after this film’s 2013 release.) Cover-ups for all this American misconduct are alarmingly routine. And almost never punished.
Sounding and looking numb from all the unjustified horror he’s observed and reported on for over a decade, Scahill nimbly reveals through his dry narration and reporting the human toll American bombs, drones and machine gun bullets, not to mention physical violence, have taken on decimated Middle Eastern families. All of this material is already covered superbly in his epic companion book. But the movie does what the printed word cannot. It allows Obama’s Muslim victims to personally voice their painful first-hand accounts directly to the audience. As a result, Dirty Wars sears your soul and leaves you wrecked and lacerated. It should haunt Obama for the rest of his life.
You’re struck by all the young children you see, many of them with blank, angry faces. Too young to fully comprehend why their brothers, their sisters, their grandparents and their own parents have been murdered by America. But heartbreakingly aware of their absences nonetheless. You can’t help but wonder. Are they next? It’s not an irrational thought considering how one ex-military general openly justifies attacking pregnant women. One grieving parent pointedly observes, “If they think children are al Qaeda, then we are all terrorists.” When a dead child is picked up by a relative in one deeply disturbing scene, the face forever frozen after being murdered by an Obama drone, there is no humanity left. It looks like he’s picking up a lifeless toy doll.
The 16-year-old son of radical preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki is murdered by an American drone just two weeks after his father’s assassination. The Obama Administration claimed he was “collateral damage” and not the central target. Scahill suggests, not unpersuasively, they didn’t want to take the risk that he would eventually become an outspoken radical like his distant father who he was trying in vain to reconnect with when he was needlessly assassinated. Scahill aptly refers to this as “twisted logic”.
As he traverses throughout battlefields both declared and undeclared in the Middle East, talking to broken families with many legitimate grievances against the American military and a couple of scary Somalian warlords fully backed by the USG, Scahill becames a political detective, slowly putting together some uncomfortable puzzle pieces that get him closer to understanding “the unseen war” not reported on by embedded journalists safely ensconced in the Green Zone, a story he himself had missed for years. He even has a bulletin board where he pins all the evidence he’s collected thus far.
It is a lonely, thankless task. Politicians in Washington don’t care about his findings. There’s a startling scene where he testifies in front of one Democratic Congressman and his staffers in an otherwise empty room during a televised committee hearing. FOIA requests go nowhere. Few government officials including military personnel are willing to go on the record to pass on damning revelations to him. There are clips of him facing hostility on cable news shoutfests. Even unfunny Jay Leno gives him a hard time.
Scahill ultimately realizes that the White House has its own secret military, JSOC, which it employs out of the prying eyes of journalists and everybody else to dozens of countries for activities of “questionable legality”, as one rare, anonymous, voice-altered whistleblower puts it. It is immensely difficult to learn much about them because the Obama Administration at first refuses to even acknowledge their existence. (Their history dates back to the botched mission to rescue the hostages in Iran during the Carter era.) One Pentagon official during a press briefing plays dumb claiming with a straight face that suggesting such a thing is the work of an imaginative conspiracy theorist.
But then Osama Bin Laden is assassinated. “So much for secrecy,” notes a surprised Scahill as JSOC are outed and suddenly seen as heroic figures by the media, agenda-minded politicians and the gullible, celebratory public. Now they’re openly given free reign to invade other countries which they were already doing under quiet order by President Obama. Hero worshipping murderers gives them undeserved immunity.
Dirty Wars manages to cover a lot of treacherous ground in less than 90 minutes. It is an urgent call to reconsider the damage America is doing to the entire planet. It rightly questions the usefulness of an endless war, one that can continue seamlessly from administration to administration regardless of party affiliation in perpetuity because war crimes lead to angry Muslims revolting who suddenly get placed, without any solid evidence, on a secret kill list. And there is literally no legal mechanism to stop it.
This movie repeatedly socks you right in the gut and leaves you weary about the coming storm America’s actions will eventually invite. Nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, it is essential viewing. And now with Donald Trump about to acquire all of these authoritarian powers from Obama, how much worse is it going to get?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, January 15, 2017