Dirty Wars (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“When I first visited Gardez, I had no idea where this story would lead me. I didn’t know just how much the world had changed. Or how much the journey would change me.”

This voice-over, coming from investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill towards the end of Dirty Wars, neatly summarises the process of discovery that both he, and hopefully we, have undergone during the course of the film. The documentary begins in 2010, with Scahill embedded in Afghanistan, fed up with the empty hearts-and-minds missions to which his military escorts restrict him, and wondering about the real war ‘hidden in plain sight’ by daily NATO press releases cataloguing the numbers of Taliban captured or killed in night raids. Venturing on an unembedded trip to the village of Gardez in Paktia province, Scahill finds an awful reality behind these statistics: for what on paper was recorded as intrafamilial honour killings by Taliban patriarchs turns out to have been the murder of five innocent non-Talibans (including two pregnant women) by US forces whose botched raid was then covered up.

In tracing the ‘Special Forces with beards’ – known tellingly to Afghan locals as ‘the American Taliban’ – who were responsible for this outrage, Scahill learns about the Joint Special Operations Command, established in 1980, functioning as ‘a paramilitary arm of the administration’ beyond any congressional oversight, and exporting its SOP of torture and extrajudicial killing (of foreigners and American citizens alike) to an ever-increasing number of undeclared war zones around the globe. Scahill’s investigations eventually take him to Somalia and Yemen, where he exposes numerous covert operations in America’s War on Terror, conducted seemingly without rules or indeed an endgame. Meanwhile, midway through production in 2011, JSOC unexpectedly steps out of the shadows with its well-publicised (and absurdly lionised) assassination of Osama Bin Laden – even as its many other operations (over 20,000, just in that year, and just in Afghanistan) remain highly secretive.

Made over two years by Rick Rowley with a visual elegance that belies the often dangerous conditions in which it was shot, Dirty Wars shows these events unfolding ‘live’, with Scahill serving as our cicerone through a murky, nightmarish world of gross injustice and growing disgruntlement. Scahill’s voiceover, co-written by David Riker (The City, 1998; The Girl, 2012), simultaneously offers geopolitical exposition and humanist perspective on a nation’s hidden and entirely unregulated foreign policy, seemingly designed to create ever more enemies for the US in an expanding global war that is kept out of view, with no end in sight.

Though ever present, Scahill never indulges in Michael Moore-style grandstanding. Rather, he pursues his leads with a dignified indignation, and connects the dots on a world map while suggesting that he might have gone to any other number of countries to illustrate the same broad thesis of criminal US adventurism gone unnoticed and unpunished. In the end, Rowley and Scahill show a world changing so rapidly that the American public in whose names the War on Terror is being waged has lost all sight of the facts on the ground. With any luck this documentary – and Scahill’s homonymous book (being published at the same time) – should help open some eyes.

Anton Bitel