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Dirty Wars follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, author of the international bestseller Blackwater, into the hidden world of America's covert wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. Part action film and part detective story, Dirty Wars is a gripping journey into one of the most important and underreported stories of our time. What begins as a report on a deadly U.S. night raid in a remote corner of Afghanistan quickly turns into a global investigation of the secretive and powerful Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). As Scahill digs deeper into the activities of JSOC, he is pulled into a world of covert operations unknown to the public and carried out across the globe by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress. In military jargon, JSOC teams "find, fix, and finish" their targets, who are selected through a secret process. No target is off limits for the "kill list," including U.S. citizens. Written by
"Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands." Robert F Kennedy
Although it seems America may be pulling out of Afghanistan next year, Special Operations units have been steadily and secretly increasing their deployments around the rest of the world in places like Yemen and Somalia. These "pinpoint" operations merely obfuscate the military's footprint and are thus a PR coup for the DOD but a disaster for public accountability. Consequently, today's wars are being fought in our name in foreign lands completely under the public radar. In light of recent revelations regarding the government's massive domestic surveillance program and the DOJ's record amount of prosecutions against whistleblowers, one might reasonably argue that this is the least transparent administration in our nation's history. The Obama administration's attempts to sanitize war by shrouding it behind a cloak of government secrecy ultimately serve to keep American citizens in the dark about what is really going on. War is by nature dirty, however, and it is the very knowledge that war comes with huge costs and sacrifices that acts as a check on our aggressive impulses. By bringing the hidden truths about these military night raids and drone strikes into the light, "Dirty Wars" makes a compelling argument about why you should care that we have been a nation at perpetual war since 9/11.
Originally, the film was supposed to focus solely on the story of the buildup of JSOC itself, but the filmmakers made a good decision to expand the scope of the documentary to include more about the man who helped to expose the story. Jeremy Scahill, a sedulous investigative reporter for The Intercept, is an interesting figure who stands apart in today's age of feckless news media and the increasingly moribund state of investigative journalism.
After watching the film, I thought of the late Roger Ebert's film review of a 2003 film about another intrepid investigative journalist, Veronica Guerin, who died while exposing a powerful syndicate of drug dealers in Dublin. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote rather disapprovingly, "Disturbed by the sight of gangs selling drugs to children and teenagers in the Dublin of the 1990s, she began a high-profile, even reckless campaign to expose them. Was she surprised when her campaign ended with her own murder? She must have been, or she would have gone about it differently. That she struck a great blow against the Irish drug traffic is without doubt, but perhaps she could have done so and still survived to raise her son."
I don't know how Ebert would have felt about Scahill, but there is a chilling scene in the movie where Jay Leno asks Scahill with surprising bluntness, "How are you still alive?" That we need people like Guerin and Scahill today is without question. But that our appreciation for their work is also balanced out of concern for their well-being is an even sadder reflection of the type of dangerous world we live in.
The most powerful aspect of the film is the way it humanizes the victims of American violence by giving us faces, names, and stories to connect with the dead. The term "collateral damage" is a military euphemism for civilian casualties. In the newspapers that report on these Special Operations night raids and drone strikes, which have been happening with increasing frequency the last few years, we are only told the number of dead. Even worse, we are told that all military age males who are killed in drone strikes, whether they were intended targets or not, are automatically categorized as militants. In a particularly lame performance of spin doctoring, a DoD spokesperson rationalizes the deaths of pregnant women and children by reassuring us that they COULD have been militants.
To those who respond, "Well this is war. This is what happens in war," the film poses an important question: What is the ultimate end goal of all this bloodshed? What have we accomplished in our last 10+ years at war if it has only engendered more enemies around the globe. In the film, it would be comic if it weren't so tragic when a former intelligence officer states that what started out as a kill list of 50 names at the beginning of the war has now grown several thousands long.
The film succeeds in presenting complex issues without moralizing, and finds the right balance between veracity and entertainment. The movie does seem to stretch and play up material sometimes for unnecessary film noir-ish effect. The changing nature of warfare is a compelling story even without the stylistic frills. But the film's greatest achievement is how it raises important questions about who we are and where we are headed as a nation.
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