Dirty Wars focuses on the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command, a US military task force responsible for thousands of covert operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Journalist Tim Scahill’s argument – and it’s a persuasive one – is that the lack of oversight given to JSOC has led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, and that JSOC’s operations are contributing to Islamic radicalisation, not checking it. Accountable only to the US president, the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden in a JSOC operation has given them even freer reign than before.
Scahill’s story begins as he investigates the death of four civilian Afghans, members of the Daoud family, in Gardez in Afghanistan in 2010. He follows a trail of JSOC operations around the Middle East and South Asia, uncovering a string of poorly planned and deadly raids targetting innocent people.
After more than a decade of western intervention in the Middle East and South Asia, we’ve become numbed to news reports of civilian casualties; the strength of this compact, focused film is Scahill’s interviews with the survivors of JSOC raids. By telling their stories, the film humanises the headlines we’ve been seeing since 2001. The survivors’ matter-of-fact testimony is haunting – the Daoud family in Afghanistan; the Anbour clan in Yemen; and the father of assassinated US extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. The Daouds talk of bearded US troops digging bullets out of the corpses of their victims with knives. “We call them American Taliban,” says one member of the family. After the raid Afghan army personnel and a mysterious US admiral visit the family to apologise. They bring a sheep as a gift. The admiral is William McRaven, JSOC’s commander.
…“perverted far outside its mandate”…
Forty-six innocent Bedouins of the Anbour clan are killed in southern Yemen by a cruise missile strike. Unlike the raid against the Daoud family, JSOC makes no attempt to cover its tracks. When Scahill visits, the clan’s land is still littered with US-made cruise missile parts. A Yemeni journalist investigating the incident is detained by the Yemeni government and tortured; his lawyer’s office is shelled. President Obama calls President Hadi to personally request the journalist’s continued detention.
Scahill’s investigation builds towards the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, killed extra-judicially in Yemen in September 2011. His sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman died in another attack two weeks later. Al-Awlaki’s father wonders how a US citizen could be killed by his own government without a trial. An anonymous JSOC operative says the group has been allowed to “run wild” under Obama’s presidency; its mission has been “perverted far outside its mandate”. The death of Osama has re-energised the war on terror.
…The effect approaches a dramatic reconstruction and is slightly cheap…
US forces now operate extra-legally in Indonesia, Thailand, Mali and Panama. In the final segment of the film Scahill visits Somalia and meets Inda’ Ade, “White Eyes”, a Mogadishu warlord sub-contracted by the US to kill al-Qaeda targets. Ade is chilling: “if we capture foreign fighters alive, we bury them,” he says.
Dirty Wars isn’t perfect. It’s very much a documentary film, with a portentuous soundtrack and some overly dramatic narration. The editing is needlessly slick – while the Daouds discuss the JSOC raid on their family home, footage is intercut of US troops on night patrol. The effect approaches a dramatic reconstruction and is slightly cheap. Yet the film as whole is utterly compelling, at once shocking and totally unsurprising. Scahill is an intriguing figure, nervy and doggedly determined, unflinchingly confronting dismissive conservative TV pundits and stonewalling government spokespeople. He listens to his interviewee’s stories with obvious compassion. During a Tonight Show appearance Jay Leno asks him: “how come you’re not dead yet? With all this stuff you know?” The audience and Leno laugh; Scahill doesn’t. He receives intimidating phonecalls from highly-ranked military officers. His computer is hacked.
Scahill’s conclusions are ones you can probably guess at: the danger of unchecked administrative expansion, and a perverse disregard by the US government for the precepts of western democracy which are supposedly being defended. “We’ve created one hell of a hammer,” says Scahill’s anonymous JSOC interviewee, “and for the rest of our lives it will be searching for a nail.”