Jeremy Scahill is an award winning American journalist and filmmaker; in the past he has been most notably known for his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, but has also, in the last year released a new two part investigation of the American War on Terror, but more specifically upon the subterfuge military methods employed by the US army within the war.
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield is the title of both the documentary film and book that were simultaneously released to American audiences in early 2013; more recently, Scahill’s film was released to British audiences with the intention of further extending awareness of the potential war crimes and illicit activities that have been carried out by the American government in the last decades. I attended a screening of Scahill’s Dirty Wars at the LSE that also included a Q and A session with Scahill himself, and the whole thing prompted me to take a look at his book, research and film, and how all of the events narrated within them have gone on to effect the current war, as well as the way that we, as people, relate to it and each other.
In the opening chapters of Dirty Wars, Scahill outlines, in some small part, the history of America’s wars and military organisation – with particular reference to America’s tactics in the Middle-East. Scahill also reveals, through a variety of documents and evidence, that the American concern with Iraq predated the events that occurred on September 11th, 2001; interestingly, prior to 9/11 and following the 90s Gulf War, the American government had no real reason, intention or legal motivation to be targeting Iraq or the Hussein regime. Scahill in fact revealed within the book that, predating 9/11, there were contingencies and outlined plans of how to best manipulate war and power in the Middle-East to further the unanimous and yet legally unrecognised American Empire. Scahill goes on to suggest that, following 9/11, American politicians like Dick Cheney were legally empowered into being able to move forward with their erstwhile yearned for intentions for the Middle-East.
…the Nobel committee lost all of its credibility by giving the Peace Prize to Obama…
When asked in the Q and A about Barack Obama and his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Scahill commented that, ‘I thought it was a prank call… I mean how on earth would he have deserved it at that point anyway. But also, on his third day in office, he had authorised air strikes that killed a tremendous number of civilians. And if you remember the speech that Obama gave at the Nobel ceremony, he used that platform to give this forceful defence of the American empire, but also of US militarism. You could say the Nobel committee lost all of its credibility by giving the Peace Prize to Obama, but let’s remember that they also gave it to Henry Kissinger, one of the greatest war criminals in history.’ American use of drone strikes, assassinations and grab operations are an on-going part of the war and practices that began under Bush’s 2001 government have continued on to take place in Obama’s second term in office despite his assurance at the beginning of his tenure that ‘We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.’. In his book and film, Scahill contends that, despite his being a supposed ‘figure of change’, Obama has been a president that has not only continued the earlier secret, or Dirty, wars, but has also extended and financed the departments that carry out the secret, and as already mentioned, potentially illegal, methods of counterterrorism. 9/11 was an event that was catalyst for a series of proceedings that, beginning late 2001, are still carrying on to this day.
In his book, Scahill outlines the legal methods by which the American government was able to sidestep and avoid laws set down by earlier presidents, especially following the Watergate Incident and the Reagan administration, that were meant to confer some level of accountability onto the President of the United States – in his book, Scahill also mentions how members of the American government – in particular he mentions Dick Cheney – looked down upon these laws as being detrimental to the authority and power of the Presidential position. Sidestepping these laws involved a great deal of legal terminology, purposeful misinterpretation, as well as the creation and instigation of a new military force that, as Scahill narrates and writes was to become key to carrying out the secret war that is still taking place all across the world: JSOC. Osama bin Laden, the founder and head of al-Qaeda, was killed in Pakistan on May 2nd, 2011 by a Navy SEALS team directed by a CIA-led operation with a directive group that included Barack Obama as well as CIA operatives, several members of congress and also JSOC commander, William H. McRaven – a man that, until Osama bin Laden’s death, was a veritable ghost at the head of an equally mysterious and hidden military force.
…he has been ‘regularly detained’…
By the end of the film and book, Jeremy Scahill’s contention is that, by beginning, carrying out and prolonging their War on Terror, the American government has in fact been a direct source of radicalisation within the territories that the American military perform their actions – as a case in point he cites Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born Muslim who, over a period of many years was transformed from, as his father, Nasser, described him, ‘an all-American boy’, into a radical Muslim preacher who openly condemned American actions and was, after fleeing to be hidden in Yemen, killed along with his 16 year old son, Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki – who was targeted just two weeks later. Despite the fact that there was no legal reason for his death, and despite the fact that his son had never been involved in any way in terrorist activity, each of the al-Awlakis was killed –both on the basis that they had potential to be a terrorist or incite terrorism, but also in attacks that were, according to Scahill, carried out under the jurisdiction of JSOC, the military organisation that answers to nobody but the American President, Barack Obama. Although Scahill’s book and film focus, primarily, upon the War on Terror and how it has taken place in America and the Middle-East, there is also a great scope for including the British population under the blanket of the War of Terror. Following 9/11, the British government, at the time led by Tony Blair, followed America into the Middle-East; since then we have been involved in on-going conflict and, as with Bush and Obama, the new British leaders, despite assurances of pulling out of the conflict, have, as yet, not put an end to our involvement in the war.
In the Q and A after the film, Scahill mentioned how, at times when he has been ‘regularly detained’ by airport customs and security, he has never ‘seen another white person in that room, it is always people of colour, mostly Arabs or people from Pakistan.’ This idea, in itself is interesting, but as has been made clear in the last 13 years, is a commonplace assumption in and across the Western world. Following the events of 9/11, the Islamic communities in both the US and UK became targets of a tirade of media inspired hate and distrust. The events that occurred on September 11th, 2001, despite being carried out by a very extreme group of individuals, became the grounds by which a great number of racial and cultural stereotyping and assumption were justified. Often in modern British society it is all too clear that certain members of communities have becomes automatically vilified by national assumptions that are, in no small part, promoted by an on-going War on Terror. In the past this war has made no secret of the Islamic traits fundamental to radically political sects, like bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, that exist within communities that are made up of, in the majority, not extremist Muslims at all, but instead primarily normal, and non-violent, civilians.
…berated, attacked, stereotyped, and ostracised…
Going forward, one of the issues at least, with the War on Terror is that, as Scahill has explicitly outlined and as I have hinted at in the preceding paragraph, by continuing to act so aggressively toward an unseen enemy, American forces, as well as we can assume British and general NATO forces, will be conducting acts that damage the civilian community and, in turn, instigate and promote a radicalisation of voices against the destructive force of nations that exist half the world away – America, Britain, and all of their Western allies.
If you were continuingly berated, attacked, stereotyped, and ostracised then would you not, also, turn against the people that have condemned you without proof? If we take the assertion of his son’s innocence from Nasser, Anwar al-Awlaki’s father, as true then we can assume that, unless there is some level of accountability and general awareness installed into the military organisations that conduct search, destroy and kill missions, the American and NATO military forces will continue to, rather than quelling or halting the rise of international terrorism, be the very group that create the next terrorist or organisation that seeks to wage war against their oppressors.
More recently I also interviewed Anthony Arnove, co-producer of Dirty Wars, and asked him a few questions about the film, the book and also the situation in the US and Middle-East overall.
So my first question: what was it that you, as a group, were aiming to do with Dirty Wars – not just in the film’s message, but also, as well as that, in the film itself and its aesthetic, cinematic and visual qualities?
From the very outset we wanted to make a very cinematic movie and something that took full advantage of the medium. That’s why it was very important to us to work with a cinematographer and the director, Rick Rowley who had such a strong visual aesthetic, and to work with Kronos Quartet whose music really brings out the emotion of the story, and also to work with David Riker who had experiences as a fiction script writer, who could help us craft the story, the arc of the narrative and Jeremy Scahill’s narration. At the end of it we wanted to make a film that was a movie, not something that felt like doing homework, which unfortunately some documentaries, including very important documentaries, end up being because of the limits of their productions values, the limits of their budgets, the limits of all the constraints that go into filmmaking – they’ve had to focus on information and fact over storytelling and we were from the outset trying to avoid those kind of pitfalls.
There was a girl at the screening at LSE who accused Jeremy and the film as being designed to profit off of other people’s grief. Is that something you, yourself have experienced?
A couple of Twitter cranks who’ve levelled those and other ill-informed charges. But it’s nothing serious. The reality is that, Jeremy I think in particular, has a long track record in his work that speaks for itself.
The backlash of the War on Terror has been massive, and I think in particular there have been Islamic people who have been victims and there have been certain negative connotations that have been plastered to people of that culture and that even have a Middle-Eastern appearance. So what do you think the future is there, and do you agree with Jeremy that if this kind of racial stereotyping prejudice were to continue, it could be the catalyst for people becoming radicalised by American military interference – through war – in the future.
I think there’s been widespread Islamophobia in the global War on Terror, propagated on the highest levels, certainly in the US culture and from what I’ve observed propagated in the UK culture as well – with politicians certainly whipping up Islamophobia. And the ideological bulwark of the global War on Terror has been a dehumanisation and a demonization of the Islamic faith and also of people in countries that are primarily Islamic. But of course it’s having much wider effect beyond just people of Islamic faith. Just in the United States for example, some of the main targets of hate crime have been Sikhs who have been targeted by racists ignorant of their culture who have assumed that they are Muslim. So that kind of racism and that kind of hatred and xenophobia, unfortunately, is widespread and it’s been accepted by large sections of liberal intellectual culture as well. It’s not just something coming from the far right – you have secularists and people who identify with the left who, in a number of countries – I think it’s a particularly widespread phenomenon in France – in the name of secularism and liberal values will propagate Islamophobia. So I think it’s absolutely something that has to be confronted, and the danger of course is that if it is allowed to continue it will not only have harmful effects on the people who are victims and targets of these policies, but yes, I think it will fuel some of the more reactionary currents that do exist; particularly in the Middle-East with people who represent the mirror image of the worst of those policies and who can recruit on the basis of very real results and consequences of these policies in their communities.
So whether you are British, American, French or German, it very clear that the War on Terror is an on-going event that will continue to reverberate throughout everyday civilian life; events like the Lee Rigby killings, and like the London bombings only work to inspire further fear that inevitably leads to an even higher likelihood of unwarranted prejudice and discrimination. As Anthony said within the interview, some sort of opposition needs to be raised against the blatant propaganda that is taking place. In total at the end of this article I must conclude that, as outlined in these words alone, there are at least three wars going on in the Middle-East right now: the War on Terror – the public image of American, British, French, German heroism that the government wants us to see; the Dirty Wars – the illicit and underhand acts that take place somewhere beneath the realms of legality; and then finally, the war that takes place on the spectrum of human consciousness – the war that tells us that, despite everything we know to be true, we must be always untrusting of anybody that we cannot relate to.