Dirty Wars is a 2013 documentary from Richard Rowley starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. The two men have been friends for over a decade after meeting in Iraq whilst reporting on the Iraq war. ‘The Global War on Terror is the most important story of a generation,’ Rowley said at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, ‘…but it is unfolding in the shadows.’ To enlighten us they have made a film about covert US operations around the world and their country’s use of drones and kill lists. It is a chilling look at the unseen power that the US is wielding without any of the checks and balances that a democracy is supposed to have.
Way outside the safe green zone in Afghanistan Rowley and Scahill visited a house in Gardez knowing that the last Americans to visit had arrived in the middle of the night, kicked the door down and killed half the family inside. As military age Americans they were taking a risk, especially as one of the men they subsequently interviewed said that the experience had almost driven him to launch jihad against Americans. But the family wanted the world to hear their story and Scahill and Rowley believed their version of events. American soldiers had arrived in the middle of the night and killed, for reason or reasons unclear. ‘We call them American Taliban,’ said one man, describing their beards. The US denied involvement, even when the filmmakers found a photograph showing an American admiral present at what appeared to be a ceremony to apologise for the attack.
This admiral was easily identified as he had made the basic error of sticking his name on his shirt front. With this information the filmmakers were able to dig into the files and discovered that he was the the head of JSOC, a secretive paramilitary organisation that reports directly to the President.
Eventually a mobile phone recording from the death scene at Gardez appeared, on which unseen US soldiers were heard speaking. They were looking over the dead bodies of the people they had killed and were inventing a story about what had happened. They claimed they had fought Taliban; in fact it was a family party. Pregnant women and children were killed, as was the local US-friendly police commander. This was a JSOC attack and the Americans had gone so far as to dig their bullets out of the victims with knives, in order to be able to deny that they had been involved.
The film has washed out colours, and uses a lot of close ups, particularly of Scahill, listening to and asking questions of people in countries from the USA to Yemen. When a film is covering such explosive territory, making such accusations against the US government then there is no need for more than telling the facts. The film does play out like gruesome fiction, and two screenwriters are mentioned in the credits. Rowley said that the screenwriters had been brought in to develop Jeremy’s character to better allow Western audiences to relate to him. At the beginning he was just to have been a ‘tour guide to this archipelago of violence,’ now he develops on an arc through the film. I don’t think this was necessary. The story is strong enough without any Hollywood tweaks.
Dirty Wars does an important job bringing attention to what are basically off-the-record wars that the US is running in countries around the world – including those where there is no declared war at all.
Dirty wars is highly recommended, but you’ll find it hard to watch a Hollywood war film for entertainment again. Maybe that’s a good thing.