Film Festival Review: Dirty Wars
Directed by Richard Rowley
Jeremy Scahill, a war correspondent in the vein of our own heroic Jon Stephenson, uncovers an episode of innocent civilians killed by a US attack in Afghanistan. How did it happen? Who was responsible? He digs, and the trail leads him round the world and back to the US, and to the eventual discovery of the role of JSOC: the Joint Special Operations Group.
We know JSOC today as the organisation that sent in the Navy Seals to kill Osama Bin Laden. Heroes of the free world. But as Scahill reveals this is also the outfit, beholden in public to nobody, that runs America’s seek and destroy missions in the “war on terror”.
And it upsets him profoundly – so profoundly, he stumbles through his own movie as if he suffers from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. His perpetual glumness leaves you in no doubt about the seriousness of his quest, but it is also alienating. Scahill is a print journalist (for The Nation) who shouldn’t really be on screen, and this condemns the film to missing the wider audience it otherwise deserves.
Which is a shame, because the rest of the content is pretty astonishing. He gets in close – to warlords, to the fighting, to children and parents who suffer, to the blood and sweat and terror – and he records some remarkable moments. “The Americans are experts at warfare,” says one Somali warlord. “We learn from them.” Everybody uses terror.
Scahill follows the family of an American Muslim cleric, radicalised by the treatment of Muslims in the US after 9/11, who has been killed in a drone strike, and discovers the man’s teenage son has also been killed in another strike. The sins of the fathers, he is shocked to realise, are likely being visited very deliberately on the sons.
This opens up the heart of the movie. “How do we end a war like this?” Scahill asks. What he explores is not that things go wrong in war, but that the “war on terror” is an endless war. Endlessly creating more “enemies of freedom” than it kills, endlessly condemning whole populations of non-combatants to lives of fear – fear of the supposed defenders of freedom. We should all be shell shocked.