“The world is a battlefield, and we are at war”
I recently wrote an article about the representation of the Iraq War in Hollywood fiction and how American filmmakers had failed to reflect the long drawn-out conflicts in enough of their cinema. For such a profoundly important subject matter, it surprises me how little fiction writers had explicitly written about it.
The opposite is true of documentary films – relying heavily on televisual broadcasting conventions, a huge number of non-fiction films were made to show ‘the realities’ of war that in fact did nothing more than over-saturate the audience with scenes of conflict and horror. Dirty Wars is a work that combines Rick Rowley’s artful cinematography with Jeremy Scahill’s relentless determination to tell a story to create a harrowing, yet personal film about the last 10 years of American history.
The story that Scahill is trying to tell starts with a nighttime raid conducted by the United States army on a house in Gardez where an extended Afghan family is having a celebration. That night, 7 people were killed including one man’s wife, sister and niece. He later describes how the soldiers dug the bullets out of the bodies and disappeared back into the night – later a NATO press release would inaccurately described the fatalities as ‘honour killings’ carried out by the family on their own women. Scahill testifies about this incident to the US congress but none of the congressman bother to show up…
This incident leads Scahill deeper into the conflict to uncover a special-forces unit called JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) who are given increasingly more power to hunt ‘Taliban’ operatives across the Middle East. Years later they would achieve legitimacy and notoriety for being the tem that killed Osama Bin Laden, yet they were also the team that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and later his 16 year old son – both United States citizens.
There is a moment early on in film that seems to summarise the mission statement of the rest of the narrative: to highlight the dangers of cause-and-effect in geopolitics. One of the survivors of the Gardez killings claims that he refers to the US special-forces team as “The American Taliban.” Another survivor, the man who lost his wife, then claims that he wanted to attach a bomb to his chest and kill Americans, until his remaining family talks him out of it. This theme is revisited over and over again – that the war on terror is making the world less safe by increasing the number of potential enemies, through the indiscriminate killing of civilians, as opposed to the opposite.
Scahill and Rowley then venture into Somalia to see the extent of the JSOC operational perimeter and meet up with a number of warlords who have been enlisted to help find and eliminate people on the US kill list. One of them freely admits to the filmmakers that, “America knows how to fund a war… They are the great teachers.”
The expanding scope and resulting mission creep of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are a nightmare to behold and films like this manage to shock and disgust before eventually leaving you ashamed and hopeless at the situation. But they are a valuable document with a noble cause – to bring a narrative to the lives that are affected by the tragedy, without sensationalising the process of presenting the information.
Documentaries are constructions of reality and never objective, but they are often moral exercises. Where most American news media repackages statements from the government or ignores the humanity on the ground during wartime, Dirty Wars is an important counterbalance to the deficit of investigative journalism that has appeared onscreen in the last decade. Let’s hope that it wins the Academy Award of which it has just been nominated…