There is a moment, near the start of the Oscar nomminated documentary ‘Dirty Wars’, where the film’s protagonist Jeremey Scahill is shown as a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show. Scahill is answering a question when another guest, American TV’s unoffensive everyman Jay Leno, chimes in. ‘Howcome you’re still alive?’ he asks, implying that if Scahill’s talk of military hit squads and CIA funded paramilitaries is the work of paranoia. The camera cuts to Scahill who sits there in silence, looking deeply unimpressed.
Perhaps its because, as the film goes on to show, Scahill did some very dangerous things during during the process that lead to both the book ‘Dirty Wars’ and the documentary that is based upon it. From visiting villages deep in Taliban controlled Afghanistan to touring the streets of Mogadishu with American backed warlords there seems little he won’t do in search of a story. In this case the story, that of America’s secret war against terrorism, fought far away from the Forward Operating Bases of the Helmand valley that have become the lens through which British viewers see the War on Terror, is of the upmost importance. It is important not just because it will show you how the American government has made vast swathes of the Middle-East its battleground but also because, despite what Jay Leno might belive, it is certainly not the product of a paranoid conspiracy theorist but of a brave, articulate and compassionate journalist.
Scahill’s book is subtitled ‘The world is a battlefield’ and while that might not strictly be true, most of the action appears to take place in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, there is no doubt that his reporting reveals the morbidly impressive extent of US military influence. Its not just air strikes from unmanned drones, some of them operated from bases in the UK, but also cruise missiles and nightime raids by US special forces. One of the issues that stymies any attempt to reliably report such a conflict is the chaos of the region. Afghanistan is at war, with NATO forces carrying out dozens of raids across the country on a nightly basis. The Yemeni government is struggling to contain al-Quaeda within its boarders and will happily take credit for any American action against suspected terrorist. In Somalia, where the US seems understandably nervous to putting troop on the ground after the chaos of the early nineties and ‘Black Hawk Down’, CIA backed militias (mobs appears to be a better description, judging by their appearance on film) do the fighting. To expect transparency under these circumstances is at best foolishly optimistic.
Even when raids are reported it is impossible, unless one visits the site, to asses the reliability of the official narrative of the war against al-Quaeda and its offshoot. The film’s first focal point is a raid by troops from the then shadowy Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC is now known widely as having been involved in the killing of Osama bin-Laden) on the Afghan village of Garesh. Scahill travels there after initial reports from a British newspaper journalist suggest that the raid hit a family of innocent Afghan civilians. Well outside the control of conventional US or Afghan forces, ??? was raided at night by helicopter bourn US soldiers. Scahill visits the compound they hit and finds that those killed were two women, one of them pregnant, and a man who was a local police commander. We are shown footage of the family gathered together mere hours before the raid, quickly followed by mobile phone video of three blood stained body bags and faceless American soldiers talking in the background. The survivors talk of the soldiers digging bullets from the walls and bodies of those killed. As Scahill leaves a little girl lists to the camera the members of her family killed.
The raid on Garesh was reported by NATO as a successful action against al-Quaeda. Yet it is very clear to the viewer that those killed were not active members of any insurgency. Photos of the dead man in his police uniform, the bewildered testimony of the survivors and later, after an investigation triggered in part by Scahill’s reporting, official NATO confirmation, all tell a story wildly different to that of a raid against a terrorist cell. If we are to wonder why some Afghans are willing to tear their country apart fighting NATO then the raid provides a case study of where hearts and minds are being lost.
Even if dozens of journalists were willing to drive into the Afghan badlands to investigate NATO raids the sheer volume of operations in Afghanistan would defy investigation. Scahil’sl narrative makes it very clear both how dangerous it was to travel to just one village raided by NATO and how many similar raids, presented to the world as a few cold sentences in a press release, occur in Afghanistan on a daily basis. Outside of the Afghan war, where the formal reporting of fighting lends at least some structure to events, things are worse. In Yemen the government claimed responsibility for a raid on a terrorist training camp, despite the site being littered with pieces of American cruise missile. The Yemeni journalist who first broke the story, and suggested that instead of a training camp the target had in fact been a gathering of poor tribal people, was subsequently imprisoned. His lawyer claims this was due, in part, to pressure from the American government.
Of course ‘Dirty Wars’ is, above all things, a film. The little girl talking to the camera about her dead relatives is designed to tug at ones heart strings, as is the focus in the latter part of the film on the killing of the fifteen year old son of a radical, Yemeni-American preacher. Scahill’s personal approach is both deeply engaging and highly subjective. However, where ‘Dirty Wars’ triumphs over many other attempts to expose the secrets of a superpower is how it choses to focus its subjectivity. While there is little mention of the night time raids that actually succeed in targeting terrorists or the possibility that the cases highlighted in the film are only an anomaly, there is also none of the wild, conspiracy fuelled guesswork that too often colours reporting on the shadowy corners of the world. Scahill clearly disproves, to put it mildly, of what he sees and wants to expose as much of the American military’s sins as possible. However he never presents the viewer with distorted facts or suppositions. Through courageous, dogged journalism he has uncovered evidence of things many could only suspect before. That is why ‘Dirty Wars’ should win the Oscar and, more importantly, that is why you should go and watch it.