Last week was the official opening weekend of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill's first documentary and an abridged version of his new book by the same name. This diary is not going to be a review or critique in the traditional sense. Because I believe most of the of people who will be reading this diary either have seen many of Mr. Scahill's recent interviews or might have already purchased and begun reading the book, there is little need to do a blow by blow detail of the plot. Since I am fortunate to live a brief train ride from NYC, I was able to see the film on opening weekend. It opened in 4 theatres: one in LA; one in DC and two in Manhattan.
For very brief synopsis, the documentary is done in a chronological sequence beginning with Scahill's investigation into the killing of 7 people including Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, a police captain, and two pregnant women in Gardez, Afghanistan on February 12, 2010 (U.S. Admits Role in February Killing of Afghan Women) through the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki on October 14, 2011 via drone strike. The film could seemingly be broken into Scahill's two focuses, the Al-Awlaki family and his investigations into the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
As for the technical aspects of the movie, overall I give it good marks. The editing allows the film to emphasize the important scenes but not slow the pace of the film to a crawl. The narration puts most scenes in context to the overall story and provides both background and Scahill's analysis of the scenes you are viewing. The score I could have done without. The film itself provides powerful emotional responses and doesn't really need to hammer the point home with needless somber or suspenseful music in the background. For those who played detective video games in the 80's and 90's, like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, will be reminded of those games with the way some of the figures in the movie are introduced. Usually after first being seen, there is a black and white screen freeze and their name and title appear letter by letter with the sound of a dot matrix printer or typewriter. It makes the film seem more nefarious as if these people are villains in a sniper mission.
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What I'd like to do is focus on some parts of the film that were especially eye-opening for me.
First, a little background. I have been reading Scahill's reporting since his first book, Blackwater, was published when I first became aware of him. I devoured everything and read many of the people he recommended including many correspondents and reporters writing for non-American audiences. He seemed to be well-versed in US national security affairs and war reporting. In my little knowledge of these themes, I thought if Scahill didn't know about it, there was nothing to know. My naiveté would become apparent quickly during the course of watching the film.
After the opening scenes in Gardez, Scahill sets out to uncover who or what was behind the attack in Gardez. After looking at some of the photos taken during the US forces bringing sheep as an apology for committing the killings (U.S. Vice Admiral Apologizes for Afghan Deaths) (some of these photos where never supposed to have seen light), Scahill notices the name of the commander, Admiral William McRaven, and sets out to uncover more about him. Through his investigations including a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Scahill finds out about a program called the Joint Special Operations Commend (JSOC).
This was the first bombshell in the movie for me. I had always figured Scahill already knew of JSOC after his investigative reporting of Blackwater. Blackwater had hired many former members of the different elite forces of the military such as the Navy SEALs, the Delta Force, Army Rangers, among others. The fact that Scahill had never heard of them prior to his investigations is incomprehensible to me in light of the celebration of JSOC following the Bin Laden killing. If this part of military operations was so secret that Scahill hadn't even known about it, why would the government unilaterally expose it itself? For all this talk about helping the terrorists evade our security measures, it is beyond me to see how this was in anyway helpful to our national security. I could easily rant about official leaking vis-à-vis the almost bloodthirsty way government officials have gone after whistleblowers in the last decade-plus, but I will save that diary for a different day.
Another eye-opening moment in the movie was when the crew went to Medina Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. I always knew how behind third World countries are in terms of many modern aspects of First World life especially healthcare systems. Watching how tried to treat a gunshot victim reminded me of watching a hospital scene of Boardwalk Empire. You never really get a true sense of these places until you see actual footage of it.
In continuation of policies going back an untold number decades, the US continues to fund (money and weapons) and support former enemies and other warlords especially in Somalia. This was very much what happened with Osama bin Laden in the 80's as we supported him and the Taliban in Afghanistan against Russia. One warlord, Indha Adde (also a former Al Qaeda ally), says he likes the support from the US because "there is no one better to learn war from than the US." Scahill interviews Malcolm Nance, former U.S. Navy Senior Chief, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) instructor, and expert in prisoners of war and terrorist hostage survival techniques (wikipedia), who says the US's policies in Africa are "mind-boggling." Nance says rather than arming these rebels, we could drop subtle intelligence about Al Qaeda easily ruining their reputation which would quickly diminish their support and crumble their infrastructure.
In the movie Scahill interviews Matthew Hoh, the former Senior Civilian Representative in Zabul Province in Afghanistan. (You can read Matthew Hoh's resignation letter here.) In the interview, Mr. Hoh talks about much of why he resigned his position. He fails to understand why the US continues to pour blood and treasure into what amounts to a 35-year civil war in Afghanistan that seems to have no end. The US is but one more supporting character in a cast of many that have come before to support any number of governments that the people of the country have never wanted. It is only through graft and bribery that these governments stand for however long whatever outside force keeps them propped up. Hoh also questioned why the US was using an elite force to fight against what was quickly becoming a popular uprising against a foreign occupier. Hoh also stated that many times the US would shoot itself in the foot by killing someone who was working with us, such as Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin. This not only set back the progress we were making but easily blow up in our faces by creating new enemies from supporters.
After the film, Scahill and Democracy Now's Amy Goodman held a short Q&A session with the audience.
One question that was posed to Scahill was why he thinks President Obama has continued and escalated the Bush era policies regarding drone strikes and targeted killings. Scahill points to Obama's lack of foreign policy experience and the pressure from the military and intelligence apparatus. Scahill feels that Obama could have been overwhelmed by said pressure because he was inclined to believe what he was being told insofar that this is the best way to keep Americans safe from terrorism.
He was also asked a question why Congress is silent on the secret wars. Schaill replied that silence from Americans is what breeds silence from Congress. If we, as Americans, are not speaking out in large numbers against these policies, why would our representatives?
The film has so far received mostly positive reviews with most of the negative comments referring to the abundance of Scahill himself being on camera so much especially during interview segments. They feel, and I agree, the interviews would be more powerful without constantly seeing Scahill's expressions. Still the film is powerful, and now even more so in light of the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, since the film itself is exposé of secret government actions.
This weekend the film has expanded to both the metro NYC and LA areas, the Bay area of CA, Chicago and Canada. Next week begins the first openings in Middle American cities as well as further reaches into the areas surrounding the currently places the film is playing. For a listing of all current and future theatres, click this link: http://dirtywars.org/... Some showings may have talk-backs; please refer to the site for information on those. I encourage anyone who is interesting in seeing or hearing the first hand accounts of those involved in these incidents to see the movie no matter your opinion on this issue. As Americans we all have to be fully informed if we are to make decisions on how we, as a country, want to move forward.
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