“Dirty Wars”: An Immensely Powerful Anti-War Film, Uncovering Obama’s Global “War on Terror”


On May 13, I was privileged to be invited to a London preview of “Dirty Wars,” the new documentary film, directed by Richard Rowley and focusing on the journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigations into America’s global “war on terrorism” — not historically, but right here, right now under President Obama.

In particular, the film, which opens in the US this weekend, and is accurately described by the New York Times as “pessimistic, grimly outraged and utterly riveting,” follows Scahill, who wrote it with David Riker, and is also the narrator, as he uncovers the existence of the shadowy organization JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, established by 1980, which is at the heart of the “dirty wars” being waged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

I had seen rushes with representatives of the Center for Constitutional Rights at the London base of the Bertha Foundation, one of the backers of the film, last year, and I remembered the powerful sequences in Afghanistan, where Scahill found out about JSOC after meeting the survivors of a raid in Gardez by US forces in 2010 in which two pregnant women had been killed, and there had then been a cover-up.This involved US soldiers returning to the scene of their crime to remove bullets from the corpses — something difficult to forget once informed about.

The Afghan sequences — although involving JSOC rather than the military or other Special Forces — reminded me of the numerous similar raids based on chronically unreliable information, which have persistently led to the slaughter of civilians throughout the entire Afghan occupation — now nearing 12 years — or have led to the capture of people unrelated to insurgency, who ended up in Bagram, or, in the early years of the occupation, were sent to Guantánamo. Shockingly, Scahill discovers, during the course of his investigations that, in just one week in Afghanistan, there were 1,700 night raids similar to the one noted above.

The trailer for the film is below:

The powerful sequences in Afghanistan that I saw last year remain in the film, and are followed by visits to Yemen, where Scahill delves into the chilling story of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen killed in a drone attack, and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman, killed in another attack — “not for who he was, but for who he might one day become,” as Scahill notes — and spends time with Anwar al-Awlaki’s distraught father.

In Yemen, it is disturbing to note how provocative and counterproductive US actions have been, in a troublingly undeclared war in which, as in Afghanistan, their every action appears to be counter-productive, either involving the slaughter of civilians, through attacks based on woefully inadequate intelligence, or the inflammatory and cold-blooded murder of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son.

Once Scahill reaches Somalia, and the chaos of permanent war and warlords, in which US involvement is even more inexplicable, it becomes horribly apparent, as he says at the conclusion of the film, “The world has become America’s battlefield, and we can go everywhere.”

As the New York Times explained in its review of the film, we learn that JSOC “operates not only in Afghanistan but also in countries on which no war has been declared. Algeria, Indonesia, Jordan and Thailand are mentioned.”

Disturbingly, we also see JSOC emerge from the shadows, as their commander, Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, discovered by Scahill involved in paying hush money to the family of the pregnant women who died in Gardez, later is praised as a national hero as JSOC lead the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

I urge you, if you can, to see “Dirty Wars”, which, as I noted above, opens in US cinemas this weekend (and in the UK later this year), and or even to organize a screening yourself.

This is how it is described on the website:

“Dirty Wars” follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, author of the international bestseller Blackwater, into the heart of America’s covert wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

Part political thriller 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 into a US night raid gone terribly wrong 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 US citizens.

Drawn into the stories and lives of the people he meets along the way, Scahill is forced to confront the painful consequences of a war spinning out of control, as well as his own role as a journalist.

We encounter two parallel casts of characters. The CIA agents, Special Forces operators, military generals, and US-backed warlords who populate the dark side of American wars go on camera and on the record, some for the first time. We also see and hear directly from survivors of night raids and drone strikes, including the family of the first American citizen marked for death and being hunted by his own government.

“Dirty Wars” takes viewers to remote corners of the globe to see first-hand wars fought in their name and offers a behind-the-scenes look at a high-stakes investigation. We are left with haunting questions about freedom and democracy, war and justice.

“Haunting questions about freedom and democracy, war and justice” is one way of putting it. Personally, after seeing familiar examples of homicidally inept operations in Afghanistan, and then seeing how America has created an enemy in Yemen, in drone strikes that have killed civilians and have also involved assassinating US citizens, and are engaged in alliances with extremely dubious warlords in Somalia, I reacted with genuine horror when Jeremy explained how, for JSOC, the entire world is now a battlefield, and the inept, unaccountable and counter-productive operations that are now America’s way of waging war are taking place in an unknown number of countries.

At that point, I realized that, to deal with everything that is going on, the film would last for days, and would have to take us to places where, unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, few journalists, if any, have yet uncovered the full extent of what is going on.

Most of all, the horror I felt at this point was a profound opposition to war — not a novel feeling for me, as a lifelong pacifist, but a powerful indictment of how, under President Obama, being opposed to war — modern, dirty wars conducted in a senseless manner below the radar — is imperative for anyone with a modicum of common sense and humanity.

Note: Jeremy Scahill is also the author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Harriet Harmon wrote:

    Playing at the Westside Landmark theatre in L.A. this weekend! (Pico & Westwood)

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Ric Steinberger wrote:

    I wish I could see this movie in Reno, NV, but I don’t think the distribution company will bring it anywhere not known to be liberal

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a full list of US screenings. Lots next Friday (June 14) and on through June and into July: http://dirtywars.org/screenings/filtered/theatre/upcoming

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Harriet, and Ric, you can ask the distributors about screenings here: http://dirtywars.org/screenings/demand/
    They’re also encouraging people to put on their own screenings! http://dirtywars.org/screenings/organise_a_screening

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Frances Madeson wrote:

    Dirty Wars will be shown in Santa Fe beginning June 28th at the CCA Cinemateque.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Fred Davis wrote:

    When did it become Obama’s “War on Terror”? I mean he is complicit no doubt.. but to distill it all into the responsibility of one man is irresponsible and unproductive, no?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Frances and Fred. Obama’s the President, Fred, so it’s all taking place under his watch, and he’s either briefed as to what’s happening, which is worrying, or he’s not, which is also worrying. To my mind, he should be the one telling the American people that it’s time to reduce the scale, cost and reach of America’s insane war machine.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Ric Steinberger wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. I have made the “demand”. I would like to organize a screening, but I would need a DVD, as I don’t know of any movie theater I could possibly afford to rent. I would try to use the local small college or a nearby building devoted to non-profits. As you may surmise, it’s very difficult to get movies like this in relatively small towns.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good luck with that, Ric. I hope the distributors are sensitive to the different requirements of large and small places. I would hope they are. Sadly, this film isn’t going to get the same kind of massive distribution that the dreadful pro-torture film “Zero Dark Thirty” received, so I hope the distributors will be trying to make it available to every interested audience, however large or small.

  10. Anna says...

    The film’s subject is extremely relevant and very close to my heart, in particular the Gardez tragedy which I have myself quoted in press articles as a blatant example of US/NATO murders and subsequent cover-ups. One of several which British journalist Jerome Starkey uncovered, the bravery of which should not be underestimated in a country where US/NATO rule, and un-embedded independent press is not appreciated, to put it mildly. I quote from the then (NATO) public accusation, which incidentally -to my best knowledge- never was revoked after they finally had acknowledged the truth :

    ‘The allegation made by Times UK reporter Jerome Starkey that NATO “covered up” an incident that was conducted outside Gardez in Paktia province is categorically false.’ Additionally, Starkey incorrectly quoted Rear Adm. Greg Smith of ISAF when he did not include the word “armed” in the following sentence: “If you have got an [armed] individual stepping out of a compound, and if your assault force is there, that is often the trigger to neutralize the individual. You don’t have to be fired upon to fire back.” [Sic]

    Maybe the definition of the word ‘back’ should be redefined in all dictionaries … (as well as ‘incident’ and ‘neutralize’) ?
    In other words, here’s the ‘war on terror’ parlance of ‘pre-emptive self defense’ in action, butchering women and children. This apart from the fact, that when you hear suspicious noises at 02:00 at night outside your compound in rural Afghanistan, you might want to go and check with a gun in your hand, just in case. Rather odd that Americans -of all nations- would question the right to carry guns …

    Jerome later added in another article : “No one has claimed responsibility for the killings. A US official in Kabul refused to identify the force involved, citing “utmost national and strategic security interests”. …

    Having translated and toured Outside the Law and recently Doctors of the Dark Side, I could do the same for this one, unless it will get official distribution for general cinema screenings, which of course would be much better. In spite of Dirty Wars’ bloody irritating web-site with moving overlays obstructing reading (or is it my computer? :-)), I’ll contact them on this issue.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Great to hear from you, as ever, and thanks for highlighting the work of Jerome Starkey. Sadly, as Times’ writers’ work is generally hidden behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall, I imagine that far too many people haven’t come across it.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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