When Will the Dirty Wars End?

Director Rick Rowley and journalist Jeremy Scahill’s much talked about docu-thriller “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” opened on Friday to strong reviews. It details the growing use of extrajudicial assassinations by the U.S. executive branch to strike at targets around the planet, without any declaration of war or meaningful congressional oversight and documents the human toll of such unchecked power, featuring some of the innocent victims of this global war.

The film is anchored by several key stories that will be quite familiar to regular Democracy Now! viewers and followers of Scahill’s reporting, though each episode is presented here in extended, intimate detail. We meet surviving family members and see on the ground footage that conveys a sense of place amidst scenes that are often by turns touching or grisly.

Viewers learn of the innumerable unaccountable night-time raids upon homes conducted in Afghanistan by U.S. and allied forces. NATO provides virtually zero information about these operations. Journalists are habitually restricted from investigating the aftermath of these raids terrorizing proud farming villages in the middle of the night.

We meet a family in Gardez, where five innocent civilians – all related, including two pregnant women – were shot and killed by U.S. forces in February 2010. The soldiers, who had crashed a familial celebration to mark the birth of a child, then acted to cover up the unprovoked attack by removing bullets from the bodies and carefully rehearsing their cover story.


The family had no links to the Taliban, let alone machinations to attack the U.S. The very idea that peasants in a remote province in the Hindu Kush pose a threat to U.S. shores is sufficiently absurd that it gives the lie to Washington’s motivations for the U.S. occupation. Recall that the obvious response to 9/11 would have been a focused police action, eminently feasible but never pursued, to apprehend the responsible figures in al-Qaeda. Instead we got a military invasion and a war against the Taliban.

The reason for targeting the family was difficult to fathom and presumably the result of false information. Who is accountable for this fatal error? So far as can be determined, no one. Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), is pictured arriving to make amends with Afghan forces and sheep to sacrifice. The apology was made only after the cover up proved impossible to sustain. The family asked McRaven to turn over the source of the false intelligence to the Afghan government. There is no indication that anyone has ever faced a judicial system as a consequence of the quintuple homicide.

McRaven in Gardez

McRaven in Gardez

The journalist who broke the story, Jerome Starkey, subsequently faced reprisals from NATO for his deviation from the usual practice of loyal party journalists content to take dictation from military press briefings in Kabul.

If not for Starkey’s investigation the murders would have likely never been known much beyond the family’s village. Thousands upon thousands of these night raids have occurred in Afghanistan with no outside oversight or investigation. Thus there is no way to know how many similar incidents have occurred.

The story continues well beyond Afghanistan. As the film’s subtitle indicates, much of the world is now part of the battlefield in Pentagon eyes. In southern Yemen, as the most powerful tribal leader in the region Saleh bin Fareed informs us, the presence of al-Qaeda was undetectable until after a bloody strike in al-Majalah by U.S. Tomahawk missiles slaughtered dozens of people in December 2009. In the years since the attack, al-Qaeda has been on the rise. The victims of the al-Majala attack were from one of the poorest tribes in all of southern Yemen.

Though dozens of people were killed in this one incident, were it not for the work of the only local journalist to investigate the al-Majala attack, the world would never have learned of it. For his efforts Abdulelah Haider Shaye was imprisoned by Yemen and kept in his torture dungeon upon the personal request of Obama himself.

al-Majala in the Abyan region of Yemen

al-Majala in the Abyan region of Yemen

JSOC, which functions as the paramilitary arm of the White House, was responsible for both attacks.

Then there is the drone killing of the U.S. citizen (with a childhood family photo of him standing in front of Disneyland to prove it) Anwar al-Awlaki. Since due process does not exist on the battlefield, now expanded to encompass a good portion of the globe, Awlaki was never charged with a crime. Nor is there publicly available evidence to indicate that he was guilty of much beyond posing a political threat, owing to the internet following his speeches had attracted.

Shortly after he was killed, a U.S. drone subsequently executed his innocent son. His family provides video and photos of his childhood and of the sweet-looking 16-year-old he had become before his untimely death. The circumstances leading to his targeting remain opaque.

In Somalia, where Washington’s extrajudicial lethality has also been active, the U.S.-backed warlord Mohamed Qanyare provides the money quote of the film: “America knows war. They are war masters. …. They are teachers, great teachers.” It is hard to imagine grimmer tidings for Somalia’s future. The past has been bad enough – the legacy of decades of U.S. intervention in Somalia is evident in the rubble and bullet pocked streets of an utterly devastated Mogadishu seen in the film.

Throughout, “Dirty Wars” conveys a clear impression of the sinister, unaccountable, and deadly power concentrated in the halls of Washington that now threatens the planet. While occupants of the White House have never been particularly concerned with legal restrictions, particularly in international arenas, drones subvert the law entirely, extending extrajudicial warfare to the open skies, reigning death upon whomsoever the president chooses from his kill list.

Why does Washington care so little about civilian deaths? Aside from moral concerns (and who believes politicians and military brass have many of those?), the blowback created by such killings would seem to pose a strategic challenge, undermining U.S. popularity. The movie does not attempt to answer this question. We may speculate though – unconstrained power demands absolute control over and passive obedience from its subjects – the entire world in this case. The globally extended militarism required to attempt to enforce such domination needs a rationale. Creating minor new enemies is therefore hardly the worst outcome from their perspective.

Those bored by talking heads will find “Dirty Wars” far more gripping than standard political documentaries. Edited in color desaturated gray hues, the film has a gritty ambiance and strong narrative presence unusual for a documentary. Though some may find the structuring of the story around Scahill to be a distraction, it is also clearly an effort to reach beyond audiences already informed about America’s quiet military operations in dozens of countries. As such, the release of “Dirty Wars” release presents an excellent opportunity for activism. At the screening I attended in D.C., a local high school Amnesty International group was in attendance to participate in a post-film discussion, while outside the theater Code Pink staged one of its large model drones. Purchasing tickets for friends and family near the cities where the film is showing would be an excellent way to introduce them to the threat facing all of us who fear unaccountable power.

“Dirty Wars” is currently screening in LA, NYC, and Washington DC, and will be opening in a number of other cities in the coming weeks.


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