Dirty Wars is based on the investigative journalism of Jeremy Scahill, which has exposed murderous American foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia amongst other countries, spearheaded by JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). Having gained legitimacy in Washington following Operation Neptune Spear – the mission that killed Osama bin Laden – JSOC has effective carte blanche to conduct covert military operations on a worldwide basis with President Obama’s approval. As the documentary reveals, these operations are murderous in nature and deeply criminal.
The documentary begins with Jeremy Scahill discovering that JSOC was responsible for the murder of five members of a single Afghan family (all friendly to the US forces, three of whom were women, two pregnant) on bad intelligence as well as the subsequent cover-up. He follows the story into a series of other countries from 2010 onwards and discovers that JSOC is essentially running the war in Afghanistan and acting as a global paramilitary force that can kill at will. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, JSOC commander William H McRaven was honoured by Congress and given carte blanche for operations in the rest of the world. Revealing subsequent cases of American war crimes, Scahill presents a picture of American foreign policy as essentially criminal, with acts of criminal aggression heightened by the Obama administration.
Dirty Wars is a brave and powerful documentary, which highlights some horrible truths about American foreign policy and the conspiracy of silence that surrounds it. As such, it is worthwhile primarily for what it shows – it needs to be seen (or the accompanying book read) because the information it presents needs to be known. As a result, it is difficult to criticize Dirty Wars as a documentary since that would be to undermine in some ways it’s importance.
Nonetheless, Dirty Wars is far from a perfect documentary. It is highly contrived, with Jeremy Scahill barely off the screen. The documentary follows Scahill’s investigation, charting the journey from a story with unclear implications to a major expose on American foreign policy. Scahill is filmed as if he is the protagonist in a conspiracy thriller, making the documentary look like a less action packed, more believable Green Zone, but the fact remains that the documentary’s resemblance to genre cinema makes it less effective as a vehicle for real world investigative journalism. When Scahill meets an interviewee, the camera cuts to long shot with snapping shutters to suggest that Scahill may be unaware of the cameras around him and that we are watching footage of a surveillance team following him. Though this is obviously intended to recreate the very real paranoia that Scahill claims to have, it seems like a silly and unnecessary, if not blatantly misleading, device for a documentary of such seriousness. Scahill and his director Richard Rowley seem to feel the need to dress up their documentary, as if it’s revelations are incapable of sustaining an audience’s interest. As well as this, Scahill’s constant presence, coupled with his voiceover and frequent anecdotes about whims that always pay off, seem like egoism. Dirty Wars is about deeply sinister American foreign policy objectives, but the filmmakers seem to want to place Scahill centre stage as if he is the star.
Also, as a side note, Scahill apparent surprise at what he uncovers and his musings about America losing the moral high ground feel like themes added for dramatic effect, especially since American war crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Iran and Indonesia, to name only a few of the more well known cases, are no secret. A more worthwhile documentary would, hence, show that the actions of JSOC are hardly without precedent and that America’s actions abroad have been criminal for generations.
Dirty Wars is, nonetheless, a highly valuable documentary that ought to be seen by everyone. Powerfully countering the Zero Dark Thirty myth that American operations are well researched and light on collateral damage (the phrase concocted to make the reckless murders of innocent civilians by the state less repulsive to the public), Scahill show JSOC as a band of mercenaries willing and able to bomb a restaurant for the slimmest and most morally objectionable of motives. Although Scahill and Rowley seemed to feel that their documentary needed a bit more punch, it is a horrifying story and one that should lead to a lot of difficult questions being asked of the White House and the United States in general.