Fearful Symmetries

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12 September, 2013

Dirty Wars Starring Jeremy Scahill

I wish I had been at either of the screenings of Dirty Wars that Jeremy Scahill had attended here in Madison because I would have loved to have asked him who he felt the movie's audience was. On a substantive level, the film followed Scahill, an investigative reporter, from Afghanistan to Somalia and points in between as he looks at the covert wars carried out by the U.S. government. Stylistically, however, Dirty Wars made me feel like I was watching Tony Scott's Enemy of the State. Was this thing aimed at aging anti-war lefties or younger apolitical folks who might be drawn into examining American foreign policy a bit closer?

Scahill is no stranger to war zones. He eschews military escorts, green zones, etc. and instead heads out onto the battlefield where the news is. He reported from Iraq both before and after the U.S. invasion in 2003 as well as from Serbia as NATO bombs fell and the movie begins in Afghanistan with the aftermath of an assault by U.S. forces on the home of an Afghan family. Scahill takes a journey into a part of the country that is not under the control of NATO forces and is especially unsafe after dark.

There he meets the family who was the victim of US aggression. As they sang and danced at a family gathering, American troops raided the home. The family's patriarch, a local police chief who had worked with American forces, was dead as were others including three women, two of whom were pregnant. Scahill talks with survivors of that deadly night and watches cell phone footage of the party and the aftermath. A man claims that American soldiers dug their bullets out of the men and women they shot. Anti-American sentiment was running high along side the pain of lost loved ones. But who exactly raided their home?

Scahill found the beginning of his answer with the work done by an English war correspondent named Jerome Starkey. Starkey took photos of one General McRaven at a ceremony in apology for the raid which involved presenting the family with a sheep. McRaven, it turns out, worked for JSOC – Joint Special Operations Command. Scahill doesn't recognize the group and redirects his search to find out more about them.

There are many scenes showing Scahill at home scouring Internet results and shuffling through paperwork as he traces the origins of JSOC and their ever-expanding role in the projection of American power around the globe. He eventually continues his travels to see how our “war on terror” proceeds out of the limelight.

In an all-too brief sequence in Somalia, our intrepid reporter meets a warlord named Mohamed Afrah Qanyare who is happy to take our tax dollars to be an American proxy in fighting terrorists. He chillingly says of we Americans, “They are the war masters.” Scahill also travels to Yemen where he meets with Anwar al-Awlaki's father. Al-Awlaki, you may recall, was an American citizen killed by drone sans due process. The same fate befell his teenaged son. Immediately after 9/11 al-Awlaki preached peace and was a minor media figure. But, as Bush II's wars dragged on, he witnessed his fellow Muslims suffering and dying at the hands of America. The anti-American sentiment expressed by the Afghani man early in the movie returns as we learn that al-Awlaki became vehemently anti-American and promoted attacks on Americans.

Dirty Wars left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Scahill and director Rick Rowley do a great service here by illuminating how the United States fights terrorism now that we've left Iraq, are winding down operations in Afghanistan, and have generally pushed the War on Terror out of our minds. It seems that Breaking Bad garners more public attention than does the fact that America is still at war with soldiers killing and dying. Dirty Wars is also important for showing us the victims of American aggression. In the wake of 9/11 President Bush asked no shared sacrifice from the American public. The rich got tax breaks and the middle class was asked to keep going to Disneyland. The mainstream media and government made sure that we never got to see dead American soldiers; all we saw were caskets with American flags draped over them. Ever further from view were the dead innocents who perished at American hands. Apparently we cannot have the American sense of moral superiority challenged.

While Dirty Wars is important for not letting the War on Terror slip down the memory hole and for giving a faces and names to people that we kill, much of the impact is dulled by aesthetic choices that turn the movie into a half-baked spy thriller. For instance, people are introduced by freezing the frame as if it were a surveillance photo. Plus there's too much focus given to Scahill as the tireless seeker of truth and, furthermore, he comes across almost as a parody. In Blade Runner Harrison Ford's voiceover narration sounds incredibly disinterested. Here, the opposite holds. Scahill comes across as being overly earnest. When I've heard interviews with him, he sounds like a normal guy who is sincere and very passionate about his job. His narration comes across as being so fake that it's melodramatic. In real life he seems humble which is in stark contrast to the braggadocio that comes across in his description of his decent into that dangerous region in Afghanistan.

The focus on Scahill and his quest to uncover JSOC gets in the way of presenting a broad picture of the nefarious methods our government employs to carry out its foreign policy objectives. Dirty Wars comes across as being a series of portraits rather than an overview. Scahill's interviews are revealing but the focus remains on individuals at the expense of showing large-scale patterns of dirty wars. I think it would have been more effective to reveal more raids resulting in the deaths of civilians, for example, to establish a pattern of behavior. The movie makes it feel that the incident in Afghanistan at the beginning was unique instead of being part and parcel of our policy. It's not uncommon to hear reports of terrorists being killed and then to hear that many civilians also died. NATO and the US deny the civilian deaths until the likes of Scahill and Starkey reveal the truth. This is an established pattern. We are told as much but this is a visual medium we're dealing with. An anonymous man saying so just doesn't cut it. Similarly, the fact that American policy and actions generates anti-American sentiment is something that got lost in the shuffle.

Dirty Wars has an important message to tell but it gets muddled along the way by a weird desire to emulate Tony Scott.

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|| Palmer, 9:09 PM


Thank you for this great review. I'm really desperate to see the film but haven't had the chance because I live in Turkey. I'm looking forward to read the book though. Thanks again.

My Blog : tinyurl.com/no8k9wg
Blogger Julian De Medeiros, at 1:26 PM  
I hope you'll get a chance to see it for yourself soon. I too am looking forward to reading the book.
Blogger Palmer, at 9:00 AM  

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