The NSA surveillance scandal has, in a short term, made a lot of people feel depressed and/or worried about the state of governance in America. This is both good and bad for Jeremy Scahill’s new documentary, Dirty Wars, which is directed by Richard Rowley and is also the title of a simultaneously released book by Scahill. Good because it casts all of the revelations in the movie in a now easily believable light. Bad because most people don’t want to spend their Friday nights falling even deeper into depression. Currently playing in select theaters across the country, Dirty Wars will wring you of whatever wide-eyed, wholehearted faith you may have had left in President Obama.
The movie follows Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, on his many-year investigation into hundreds of mysterious raids, killings, and drone strikes happening in countries around the world. Scahill uncovers the existence of an elite US military unit called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that travels around the world taking out people on the “kill list” and answers pretty much only to the President. This is by now fairly public knowledge; JSOC was, after all, responsible for the generally celebrated killing of Osama bin Laden. But it wasn’t when he started, and what continues to go undiscussed even today are JSOC’s mistakes, its accidental killings, its scarily wide, uninhibited reach. Scahill tracks operations happening in 75 countries around the world; he travels to Somalia to meet warlords who are on the US payroll, doing JSOC’s and the President’s bidding. In this context, it’s impossible to watch the footage in the movie of President Obama announcing the death of Osama bin Laden without former relief being replaced by tangible weight. Sure, we got the bad guy, but how many innocent people did we kill along the way (and since)?
Scahill’s quest begins in the village of Gardez, Afghanistan, where he goes to investigate the UN report of a nighttime raid in which several people were killed. What he finds there, contrary to the official information disseminated, is a family without connections to terrorist groups that was in the midst of celebrating a wedding when American soldiers swooped in and shot to death three people: two pregnant women and a man, a US-trained Afghan police chief.
The US at first denied any part in the raid and the deaths, only confirming it later, but one suspects the soldiers knew pretty quickly they had made a mistake because not long after they shot and killed the Afghanis, they used their knives to dig the bullets out of the bodies. Yes, you read that right: they dug out the bullets that they had just shot into innocent civilians. It would be unbelievable — or at least pretty impossible to corroborate — if it weren’t for the cell phone video one of the family members took of the scene. The footage doesn’t show the Americans doing the grizzly work, but it does capture their hovering hands and uncomfortably familiar voices while showing us a dead body complete with wounds where the bullets were removed.
It takes a few seconds to process what you’re seeing, and once you do, it’s unbelievably painful to keep looking. But the cell phone video is also remarkable, because it proves quite clearly that these actions have taken place — actions that, without such footage, could be much more easily denied (by the government, the reporter, and by us).
Gardez isn’t the only place where Scahill makes use of his interviewees’ firsthand footage: he visits the mountain community of al-Majalah in Abyan province, Yemen, where in December 2009 40 people were wiped out by an American cruise missile, the majority of them women and children. JSOC didn’t even bother to remove the remnants of the missile; Scahill and his team walk right up and film the massive pieces left behind. But the photos of the dead bodies come from villagers who witnessed the destruction, and once again, they show us those pictures on their cell phones. Once again, they can readily prove the damage the Americans have wrought.
A conversation has been happening for some time now about how cell phones have turned everyone into a citizen reporter and how social media has changed the way we experience world events and news. In fact those statements might already be truisms. But every once in a while, something comes along to remind you of just how potent and subversive new technologies can be. Dirty Wars does that. In particular, it’s striking that the cell phone images are not of large-scale protests happening in the moment, which is what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing lately. These are small, intimate tragedies, so oddly suited to the cell phone camera, which is meant to capture what’s going on in our lives. For some people, what’s going on in their lives is arbitrary death at the hands of American special forces. Dirty Wars has it flaws, including a color wash that makes it look like motion-picture Instagram and too much playing up of Scahill as a bad boy, but in its ability to make personal President Obama’s political “war on terror,” it’s devastating.