REVIEW: Dirty Wars [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: June 7th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: IFC Films / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Rick Rowley
Writer(s): David Riker & Jeremy Scahill

“We call them the American Taliban”

The Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars is a powerful, eye-opening exposé on the covert operations of the United States government abroad in war zones both declared and not. You’ll find yourself at the edge of your seat as it progresses forward; riveted to every word and newly discovered evidence explaining how far up the chain of command these whispered secrets go. From covered up night raids in Afghanistan killing an American trained police commander and two pregnant family members to an unconscionable drone strike massacre in Al Majalah, Yemen despite no war for us to be there to bankrolled Somali warlords freelancing as hired assassins cleaning up our international kill lists, Jeremy Scahill‘s fearlessness as an investigative journalist brings us a truth all American citizens wish could be reversed whether the bloodshed helped prevent domestic tragedy or not.

What’s unfortunate about the project, however, is that it was shot and directed by Rick Rowley as a companion piece to Scahill’s novel of the same name. The author is therefore credited as co-screenwriter with David Riker while also narrating its entirety with internal thoughts polished alongside footage of his search that do little to prevent us from seeing through the artifice to wonder why staged set-ups have been kept as filler around the captivating interviews and main thesis. At one point—with the same monotone severity as the rest of the film—Scahill says, “I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t.” It’s as though he desires a pat on the back in a moment of fabricated self-glorification I couldn’t help but snort at. Luckily his mission may deserve one despite these star-making missteps Rowley unintentionally provides.

It all starts as a follow-up to Scahill’s work on Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army as a way to insert himself in the War on Terror once more to hold our military accountable for their actions. Stuck in Kabul and other “green/safe” areas of Afghanistan, he couldn’t help himself from traveling deeper into Taliban-controlled areas to learn the details behind the more-or-less generic daily reports of raids declaring nothing more than numbers of people killed. This journey led him to Gardez and an attack backed by faulty intelligence that ended in the deaths of five innocents in the midst of a late night celebration for the birth of a new baby. From here Scahill sees a military cover-up firsthand, watches as leaked information leads to an apology, and gets a glimpse of Admiral William McRaven.

In come details about his JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), its steadily rising power as an autonomous extension of the President, and its worldwide reach carrying out the evil deeds men and women in Congress would rather not know. This is the special forces outfit that would soon become popular with SEAL Team 6’s ambush of Osama Bin Laden years before popularity allowed the spotlight to shine and provide glowing press to manipulate the majority of Americans clueless about what else they had been up to in the shadows. Here is Scahill and Rowley following their bloody trail of assassinations, ill-advised missile attacks, and carte blanch attitude all while receiving threats from government officials as a result of their research and now the world saw JSOC as heroes in a way that nothing they revealed could reverse.

How head-scratchingly crazy is that? It’s unreal to fathom something this ruthless could be going on for so long (JSOC formed in the 80s after the Iranian hostage crisis) only to become the toast of the town. No one should forget they’ve been doing good all these decades too—most Americans could never comprehend the debt owed in regards to these operatives and what they’ve done to secure our safety—but at a certain point the botched jobs, bad intel, and abundance of lies can no longer be blindly forgiven. Scahill rightfully focuses on the evil because it’s what the mainstream media ignores, but it’s still one side of the story albeit crucially important. For every Bin Laden takedown there’s a General Indha Adde: a Somalian gangster transformed from enemy of the state to its “employee” abroad.

And this is the message Scahill and Rowley express, that a never-ending cycle of aggressive maneuvering by our military continues in large part to its methods creating more enemies to stay relevant. A large portion of the film concerns just this topic thanks to the tragic evolution of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki from go-to American Muslim interviewee after 9/11 to public enemy number one. Here is a citizen preaching to his flock that no attack on innocent civilians could ever be condoned—a man who rallied all those who listened to re-elect George W. Bush as a stronger leader than his liberal opponent—pushed to the other side by his country’s own tactics for retribution. His rights were revoked, his name found on a Yemeni kill list, and his saga closed as a synonym to Bin Laden.

All the while Scahill’s former CIA contacts, military generals, and current government officials deflect questions under confidentiality and a survival instinct to stay away from the potential fall-out. Only a current member of JSOC masking his identity is willing to speak details the others gloss over with vagaries, his own trepidation towards the outfit’s actions a stunning wake-up call. Scahill visits the frontlines, risks his life as gunfire erupts, and refuses to back down when families of victims ask for his help relaying the truth. I can’t deny the impact Dirty Wars has on the soul no matter how cheesy or fabricated some moments seem. This is our world for better or worse—one ruled by our hubris as de facto policemen. And the continued threat of carnage against us? Well, we bring a lot onto ourselves.

Jeremy Scahill in Somalia. Photo by Richard Rowley. Courtesy of IFC Films.

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