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Film Review: Dirty Wars

25th November 2013

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“The world has become America’s battlefield. And we can go anywhere and everywhere we want.”

The conclusion of Jeremy Scahill’s gripping, unsettling and at times terrifying documentary may seem initially preposterous, but after 90 minutes of clinical evidence, his assertion that the US government is engaged in hidden wars across the globe seems brutally clear. The War on Terror goes on. And it’s getting worse.

Dirty Wars focuses on journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into America’s covert operations around the world. A veteran of wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Scahill is a hard-nosed investigative journalist who is fiercely independent and the narrative focus of the film.

The film starts with Scahill investigating a US night raid on a village in Afghanistan that goes badly wrong. Far from targeting Taliban insurgents, the American’s kill two pregnant women and Mohammed Daoud, an American trained Afghan police commander.

Dirty Wars doesn’t shy away from gruesome images, and footage shot by the Afghan family shows American soldiers talking over the dead bodies, with witnesses claiming to have seen the Americans digging bullets out of the bodies. Despite this, the official American explanation of the shooting is that the family was the victim of a Taliban honour killing.


Haunted by the image of the bodies and voices of the American soldiers, Scahill begins investigating the night time raids in Afghanistan, uncovering more than 1,500 attacks in one week alone. His investigation leads him to uncover the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a covert military unit unknown to the public who report directly to President Obama.

With the ability to operate independently and without recourse in almost any country, JSOC are extremely powerful. Scahill’s investigation takes him across the world, finding JSOCs footprint in drone attacks in Yemen and uprisings in Somalia. Operations in Mali, Thailand and Algeria are also mentioned, with one common factor – the US is not at war with any of these countries.

Scahill’s credentials as a journalist offer him unprecedented access to key witnesses. He speaks to Somali warlords – “America knows war. They are war masters”, says one – Yemeni tribal leaders, military commanders and a heavily disguised former member of JSOC.

He also interviews Nasser Al Awlaki, father of Anwar Al Awlaki, a Muslim preacher who receives special attention in the film. Anwar Al Awlaki was an American citizen and former moderate (he was invited to the Pentagon in the wake of the September 11th attacks), who, Scahill claims, became radicalised as part of the ongoing War on Terror.

Al Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2011, becoming the first American citizen to be killed in such a strike without due process or facing a legal trial. Two weeks later, his 16 year old son Abdulrahman – also an American citizen – was killed in a separate drone attack.

Dirty Wars is a powerful, shocking film about the hidden wars around us that are played out in plain sight. Unlike most conventional documentaries, the film has a Jason Bourne thriller style feel, with Scahill cast as the hero hunting around for clues. While stylistically impressive, whether this is needed is debatable. Scahill’s discoveries are so incendiary that the hard sell is unnecessary – indeed, the most emotional and uncomfortable scenes in the film need no embellishment, like dead children killed by a drone strike in Yemen.

The message seems to be a simple one: killing leads to more killing. However, with drone strikes on the rise and JSOC riding a wave of publicity after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Dirty Wars paints a pessimistic picture of our future.

Dirty Wars is released on 29th November.

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