“We were told that the battle for hearts and minds was being won, as soldiers dug wells or drank tea with tribal elders – but I knew I was missing the story.” These are the words of warzone correspondent Jeremy Scahill to describe the niggle that prompted him to take a dangerous trip into rural Afghanistan, the product of which is Dirty Wars (2013). The documentary and its subject matter have rightly caused a stir as they follow the journalist’s investigation into the covert war being waged by the United States. It’s like a 1970s conspiracy thriller fronted by a voracious gumshoe – only in place of laconic wit lies moral indignation.
Scahill’s journey leads him to a bereaved family in a provincial area – the kind of place that warrants staying inside after dark. There he is told of a midnight raid by American forces, murdered innocents, unwarranted detention and a cover-up claiming the deaths as Taliban honour killings. It doesn’t sound feasible but looking into the eyes of the men, women and children left behind, he believes their story. Scahill is soon discovering that hundreds of such covert raids are being carried out by bearded troops referred to by the locals as ‘American Taliban’, with men, women and children being slaughtered. These are just the beginnings of his exploration, however, that ultimately lead to presidential sanctions and horrifying ‘kill lists’.
It’s explosive subject matter that points fingers all the way up to POTUS himself in attempting to expose the secret actions of military branch JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Command), which Scahill characterises as President Obama’s own private paramilitary unit. Extending far beyond the geographical theatre of conflict, Dirty Wars follows the reporter from the employment of militia in Somalia, to missile strikes in Yemen. It’s this attack which strikes the most fear into Scahill’s heart; he already knows the astronomical scale of the hit list, but he soon discovers that American citizens are on it. “The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home,” said James Madison over 200 years ago – it’s chilling how keenly they echo through history.
Critics of the film cite Scahill’s self-indulgence and the vigour shown in discussing the roles of agencies like the CIA in America’s historical “dirty wars”. The focus helps the piece, though, along with director Rick Rowley’s decision to embrace slick cinematography and thriller-like qualities. Too often, urgent documentaries rely on the importance of their cause and delivery their arguments in a dry, uncinematic style, but in this instance the story grips right from the first scene. The visuals and generic trappings may alienate certain viewers, but if they can push through it they’ll find Scahill a persuasive narrator and the style central to emotional investment and the provocation of seething rage. His Dirty Wars is a riveting, unsettling and upsetting watch.