“We call them the American Taliban,” says a grim faced Afghani elder to investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill. The man is speaking of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an arm of the military that lead a night raid on his village killing his daughter in law and her children. The United States had claimed that his village harbored terrorists but, as the Afghani man decries, “if children are terrorists then we are all terrorists.” Such is the bleak world presented in Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars – a world which many would rather avoid seeing. But with the unflinching gaze of Scahill and director Rick Rowley in a mere 87 minutes what was once hidden becomes painfully clear. The film, which is based on Scahill’s book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield released last April, chronicles Scahill’s attempts to peer beyond the world the US Military wants him to see and into the shifty realm of US counter terrorism operations. Scahill begins in small villages in Afghanistan trying to figure out the source of the constant night raids – NATO reports often blame the Taliban yet his own findings suggest something else – and slowly expands his investigation into the world as a whole traveling to Yemen and southern Africa.
The story unfolds with speed of a Hollywood thriller but much of the information that Scahill uncovers becomes public knowledge in the course of his investigation. JSOC, the once shadowy administration, received accommodation from no less than President Obama himself when they successfully found and assassinated Osama Bin Laden, and the assassination of US citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi and his son was well covered by the media back in 2011. Thus, exciting though the investigation may be, the film’s strengths come not in uncovering new information but in humanizing the subject matter and forcing its American viewers to take a long look at the crimes committed in their names.
In one of the most chilling sequences Scahill visits southern African where the US has hired warlords to try to kill Al-Queda affiliated leaders. “America are war masters,” explains an old droopy eyed warlord, “They are better, even, than me.” Then, most chillingly of all he adds, “And, they are great teachers.”
It is these horrific interviews coupled with the Rowley’s haunting cinematography that makes Dirty Wars so effective. Crisp clear shots of towering mountains or dark tunnels with bright lights at the end loom over the audience. So naturally and seamlessly are these images captured and edited together that were it not for the constant – sometimes annoying – narration of Scahill the film might even play as fictional drama.
But, in the end, the pathos of the film, which aided it so wonderfully to begin with, comes back to haunt it. Realizing that he will come to no satisfying conclusion over what has been happening and why, Scahill instead turns to emotions to make his point and in the end things feel a little bit overdone. One can only endure so many shots of Scahill brooding in the darkness or people crying over loved ones before the gambit wears thin.
That said, the movie a whole stands strong. Its images and the story it tells are a haunting one and reporter Jeremy Scahill and Director Rick Rowley have left their viewers with much to think about. National security is important, they agree, but surely there is a way to keep us safe that doesn’t involve backing Warlords and assassinating sixteen-year-old sons of US Citizens. As to how this can be done, however, they have no answers, but they at least begin by asking the right questions.