‘Dirty Wars’: A Stunning Film Tracks Covert US Military Units

June 10th, 2013 - by admin

Pam Grady / The San Francisco Chronicle – 2013-06-10 01:44:17


Jeremy Scahill on America’s “Dirty War”:
Drone strikes and other unsavoury things

The Economist

LONDON (May 29, 2013) – The author of “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield” argues that the emerging American reliance on covert, extra-judicial killings is less productive than a legal approach

‘Dirty Wars’ Tracks Covert Military Unit
Pam Grady / The San Francisco Chronicle

(June 9, 2013) — “Dirty Wars,” Richard Rowley’s documentary charting journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command, the covert military unit that operates both within the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq and far afield in places such as Yemen and Somalia, is framed almost like a thriller.

The story brings Scahill into hot spots where violence could break out at any moment and into the homes of survivors feeling the loss of loved ones who are often “collateral damage” — children and innocent men and women — not enemy combatants or terrorists. It is dangerous, emotionally wrenching work. Why does Scahill do it?

“I think, for me, the idea that our nation can be in multiple wars at the same time and the only people who are ever forced to think about it are military families just sort of feels profoundly wrong,” he says during a recent phone conversation.

“This is why I got into journalism. I think we as Americans have an obligation to go to the other side of the barrel of the gun of our foreign policy that’s pointed at other countries and talk to the people who are looking back at us and humanize them and try to tell their stories as part of a broader story. If we dehumanize people, it makes war so easy.”

Scahill, 38, is Nation magazine’s national security correspondent and the author of the 2007 book “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” He made his first trip to a war zone during the Clinton administration, when he traveled to Iraq in 1998 to cover Operation Desert Fox. He has spent much of his time since in one embattled nation or another.

“To me, there’s something profoundly fulfilling about being embedded with ordinary people in war zones,” he says. “I’ve been so profoundly moved by the people I’ve met in my 15 years or so of doing this kind of work. It’s where I feel most alive and where I feel my life matters the most, when I’m in these countries.

“I think about people in a variety of countries every day of my life,” he adds. “I still think about people I met in Iraq in the ’90s as a young reporter. If I ever stop carrying those stories around, then I’ll need to get out of this. That’ll mean I’ve become numb to the experiences of the people that have made me the person that I am, and a lot of those people live in faraway places that are really sad, tragic hellscapes.”

“Dirty Wars” began simply as a desire shared between old friends to work together. Scahill and Rowley first met in 1999 when both covered the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. More recently, Rowley had spent time covering the war in Afghanistan, and Scahill had started looking at special forces and their role within covert warfare.

“We decided to take an exploratory trip to Afghanistan together,” Scahill says. “The original idea of the film was that we were going to do a story about the war within the war. You have these forces, these special operations forces that were doing these night raids and taking down high-value targets.

“We started to investigate a series of raids. When we realized that the unit that was doing these raids was this ultra-secretive military force, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, then we were like, ‘Wow! This is much bigger than the war in Afghanistan.’ ”

Dirty Wars (not rated) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.
To watch a trailer, go to imdb.com/video/imdb/vi657040921.

Bearing Witness
Scahill would have liked to have gotten an interview with William McRaven, the admiral who led the command from 2008 to 2011, is now the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and headed the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Scahill didn’t get it does not diminish the power of the film. “Dirty Wars” takes its strength from those civilians who bear witness to the human cost of war. The accounts also underline the danger of drone attacks and raids that take war far away from the field of battle, and not just to those affected directly.

“If you kill children and call them terrorists, then we’re all terrorists. If you kill children and call them al Qaeda, then we’re all al Qaeda,” Muqbal al Kazemi, a Yemeni tribal leader, tells Scahill in the film, as he displays cell-phone pictures of women and children killed in a drone attack.

“For me, as an American, hearing that from someone while looking through his phone of dead loved ones, what he’s saying is, ‘You’re going to drive us into the fold of the very people you claim you’re trying to defeat,’ ” Scahill says.

“Juxtapose that interview with what the man in Afghanistan whose pregnant wife had been killed in a botched night raid said to me: ‘When this happened, I wanted to put a suicide vest on and blow myself up among the Americans.’ These people were collaborating with the American military in Afghanistan, and in an instant, we turn them into enemies who all of the sudden have an affinity for the Taliban, their lifelong enemies.”

Scahill thinks that if he and Rowley had made “Dirty Wars” a decade ago, it would have ended with a plea to contact Congress. Now with Congress drowning in dysfunction, the film ends on a series of questions. If anything is going to change, Scahill feels, it is going to start at the grassroots, and he hopes that “Dirty Wars” will start people talking.

A Just Policy
“We’ve never had an actual conversation in this country about what a just national security policy would look like and would actually keep us safe,” he says. “Twelve years into this seemingly never-ending war on terror, I hope we finally have that discussion in this country.

“I feel like if ordinary folks start talking about this in bars and restaurants and their places of work, then there is some hope. The only people having this conversation right now are military families. That’s just not right. We’re all paying for it, financially and morally and potentially with our security.” {sbox}

Pam Grady is a freelance writer. E-mail: sadolphson@sfchronicle.com

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