Dirty Wars (2013)

Jeremy Scahill gets out of the tank and walks with the locals 

Richard Rowley makes a good documentary – well shot, well narrated,  good storytelling – but there was something that kept nagging me throughout the showing. I finally put my finger on it near the end, when Jeremy Scahill was going over his revelations, his horror at how largely evil the world has become in the last 10 years. I remember being a bit of a smug huff at his crawling out of a tank in Afghanistan to explore the surroundings on his own, his anguish in facing a “boring” life back in Park Slope, all pretty normal for a documentary. Even the bloodied Somali corpses as props for Scahill to express appropriate disgust and horror is pretty par for course in an American documentary against an imperial backdrop. But what really had me was – really? What’s changed? Targeted assassinations,  kill lists, death squads, shadow proxy wars.. none of this is particularly new. Not even the part about extrajudically killing American citizens, either at home or abroad. I even asked the question to the panel at the end, maybe is the change something to do with the executive branch having more concentrated power? But this question was glazed over. Instead, we learn about how Scahill’s book (available for purchase by the concession stand) and this documentary were “piercing the veil” and how the New York Times calls it “riveting”. At one point, it was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also credited with starting the Civil War, which is not only strange but a weird way of reading history.

But then, the scope was rather small. Even though the film describes 75 countries as suffering JSOC invasions and drone strikes, we are only presented with the theaters we understand a bit about already: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. It was strange to me how Pakistan – being the main focus of these attacks – was somehow left out of the story. But either way, we are given “Islamic terrorism” and “drug cartels” as being the main reasons behind these attacks, with no broader scope as to the United State’s geopolitical and strategic capital interests. We get the feeling from the film that America needs to be doing something about these terrorist Muslims and drug lords, but perhaps it could be in a more humane way. After all, there is no dialectical relationship between the Taliban and the women and children slaughtered by Hellfire missiles. The link cannot exist because then we must see it also exists between Scahill, the Hellfire missiles being used to kill, and ourselves safe and sound in the IFC theater.

The finest part of the film is where a Somali general tells Scahill how Americans are the “masters of war” and “great teachers”. But the point is given in such a way where Americans watching have the chance to immediately settle back into the comfortable dichotomy of the Taliban vs. innocent Afghanis. Black and white, good guys and bad guys. No relationship, no history, just the sort of hogwash George Bush would hoot about on the radio. After all, we too must scramble to separate ourselves from responsibility. We too must be able, as Americans, to separate ourselves from our government – after all, we voted for Kerry in 2004 and did our part. In this film, there is no dialectical relationship between the people and power.  Surely there can be no connection between our relatively comfortable lives in the United States and children born without limbs in Fallujah – otherwise we really could do something about the violence done in our names.

It was a good documentary, as I said. It’s important that people know what’s going on, how the United States’s endless lust for war affects human beings all over the world. However it should not be understood as “groundbreaking” or something that will change the tide of politics forever in this country. Whipping out my checkbook or signing a petition is not going to stop America’s ravenous appetite for blood and gold. These sorts of things have always happened in American history, maybe not with so much executive power and technological gadgets, but the idea has remained the same for hundreds of years. The question elicited from the film shouldn’t be “what can I do?” but rather, “how does this happen?” Once we understand how the machine works, we can properly throw a wrench in the gears.

The other questions during the Q&A session were mainly concerned with calls to action, what is it that we can do? The questions sounded rather like the “we” meant a crowd of individuals as opposed to “we” the people. They brought up a journalist jailed in Yemen, petitions for his release as he was arrested while covering this story. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well-off citizens nestled on the island of Manhattan, is there nothing more you can do than sign a petition? On your own? I guess not. In the theater, many of those watching the horrific catalog of violence wrecked by the American government probably voted for Barack Obama, the man whose voice on the phone actually demanded the Yemeni journalist’s imprisonment, the man whose order slaughters thousands of unnamed innocents. The viewer does not trust their own ability because she is limited by their view of the world where all one can do is sign a petition and vote the lesser of two villainous warmongers.

One response to “Dirty Wars (2013)

  1. So this comment is long overdue – sorry! On re-reading your post, I disagree much less than I thought I did. In fact, I agree with the criticisms. I’m reading the book which is much stronger – raises bigger questions about imperialism and loses the Jeremy as detective hero which I thought was weakest part of film.

    I would say this:
    1. I thought some of the footage was incredibly powerful and it’s a good thing if as many people as possible see that footage.
    2. The filmmakers clearly calculated that making a film about Ryan Gossling, I mean Jeremy searching for answers, would have much more chance to be seen by a lot of people. Had they made the film you and I really want to see, it would have been seen by less. I truly don’t know how to evaluate the pros and cons of that calculation/tradeoff.
    3. The post-film discussion sounds very troubling indeed, but I don’t lay that at the feet of the filmmakers. Sounds like symptom of much deeper problems.

    Also, as an aside, I read Scahill is banned from Pakistan which is why it wasn’t featured in the film

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