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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
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill was on Real Time With Bill Maher a few months ago and when he was explaining to Maher how baffled he was that President Barack Obama could "sell" conservative ideas of drones to liberals is when I knew I wanted to know more about his methods and his thinking. He perfectly articulates a point that is worth questioning on why Obama would claim to want the people to have a transparent government when methods and legislation on things like drones are so shady and gray. But Scahill's documentary Dirty Wars doesn't explore this idea but puts a magnifying glass on the ambiguous term the "War on Terror," which Americans are constantly told is the third war they are fighting. It's hard to follow the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the abundance of confusion, misinformation, and disorganization that has come in the way of reporting them, so how difficult is it to follow one that really doesn't have a specific enemy.
A little footnote: my generation has lived two-thirds where war, conflict, and high-level recruitment are prominent aspects of our society. With the War on Terror, however, Scahill illustrates how the United States has effectively worked themselves into a war that may never end. It has gotten to the point where there is no such thing as "declaring war" anymore, at least for the United States. We simply act with impunity, utilize unmanned drones to spy and attack suspicious countries, and act with a deplorable sense of recklessness. The War on Terror element of American foreign policy is the equivalent of a knee-jerk reaction and placing a lever that can launch bombs, deploy drones, and attack countries in the hand of someone with a violent and unpredictable arm-spasm.
What happened? How did it get like this? How did the United States, the country that believes it should be looked up to by other countries, get like this and become this controlling and involved? Scahill attempts to provide not really answers but temporary responses to these questions as he explores the land of Kabul, Afghanistan, investigating a raid in a village known as Khataba where five innocent civilians, two of them pregnant women, were killed by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Scahill talks with JSOC, who have been given an immense amount of power under Obama, and is even lucky enough to speak with a specific member of the command who's voice and image is disguised to obviously protect identity. When Scahill asks if they were given more power Obama, for confirmation of his beliefs, the man replies, "we were permitted to attack harder, faster, and quicker with the full support of the White House." Also attempted to piece together is the reason President Obama authorized the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, which also prompted attacks on a poor village in Yemen, as if skipping the step of declaring and diving right in to the act of war.
Dirty Wars is only eighty-two minutes long, but stuffs so much information, details, and insider information into its time-frame that it could almost be an hour longer. In efforts to try and coherently illustrate how the War on Terror effects other countries, Scahill sort of takes us on the exhausting and tireless journey of what it means to be an investigative journalists. Not only is it about asking tough questions, but it's about piecing the information together yourself. We see long stretches of day and night are spent with Scahill, by himself, drawing a cohesive timeline of events and piecing together exactly what it means to be on the frontlines of danger.
Because of this, Dirty Wars is edited together to be reminiscent of an espionage or a large-scale thriller, with familiar music cues, scenes capturing the intensity of a certain situations, and the globe-trotting aspect conducted with dramatic effect. This would be an issue if working in Afghanistan and traveling to countries like Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen weren't so similar to that of a thriller. The slickness of the editing and the espionage-undertones work in the films favor because they are only making the sequences out to be a bit more suspenseful than they already are. The scenes are inherently suspenseful and to capture them in this way doesn't seem so much as an attempt to sensationalize that but just provide a touch of emphasis on their behalf. Even early on, Scahill tells us through narration that the roads in Afghanistan are marked by color. Green is a safe zone, red is a danger zone, and with black, "don't even try it," he states. Going on to say how "the Taliban rule the night in Afghanistan," you tell me, is it so bad that Dirty Wars plays itself a bit like a thriller? Dirty Wars is a strong work of investigative journalism not because it focuses on a person with the title but because in addition to shedding light (or at least trying to erase some of the grayness) on the War on Terror aspect of American foreign policy it shows the methods investigative journalists take in order to get their information released to the public. It's a constant grind from beginning-to-end, that comes with the soul-crushing and frustrating conclusion that you can work for years and still never get a clear answer or even an explanation as to why this kind of thing happens.
Starring: Jeremy Scahill. Directed by: Richard Rowley.
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