Review: Dirty Wars

In the new Sundance film Dirty Wars, Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill bring to light the brutal and often hidden reality of America’s “war on terror.” I saw the film on Monday night at a sold out showing.

Dirty Wars follows intrepid investigative war reporter Jeremy Scahill as he exposes covert military operations that are “hidden in plain sight.” Where many liberals and progressives stopped talking about the war after Obama’s election, Scahill illuminates the horrors of these wars that have escalated in secret under Obama.

The story begins in Afghanistan as Scahill travels into rural Afghanistan to interview a family that was terrorized by a night raid. This family had no connections to the Taliban, yet US troops flew into their home during a party and murdered several people, including an Afghan police officer and multiple pregnant women. The US government attempted to cover up these murders.

In his investigation Scahill discovers that this night raid, and others like it, were conducted by the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Scahill’s investigations find JSOC conducting covert warfare not just in Afghanistan, but around the globe. and particularly in Yemen and Somalia. Yet his reports garner indifference from Congress and the mainstream media and denials from the administration.

Even if you’ve never read Scahill’s work, you’ve probably heard of JSOC — because after JSOC killed Osama bin Laden, Congress and the mainstream press stopped ignoring JSOC and started praising them.

And that’s part of why this film is so important. It reveals the horrors associated with unaccountable violence that has been glorified in our culture. For example, while only one member of Congress listened to Jeremy Scahill testify on the horrors of night raids, a litany of members of Congress have praised JSOC since the bin Laden raid.

But another reason this film is incredibly important is that it tells a compelling and moving story. It may be easy to dismiss the killing of civilians when they are simply numbers or “collateral damage.” But the victims here are not just being talked about. Rather, Scahill meets with the families of the victims. Viewers see the corpses of children, and hear family members and friends describe what the wars have done to them.

The film features Scahill not just as a writer and researcher, but as narrator and main character. Scahill stated that this was not the original plan, and that he ordinarily does not like being featured in his stories. However, I am glad that this approach was taken. The specific tragedies, war crimes, and covert operations discussed in the film could all be discussed as distinct stories that are tied together as part of a broader social and political problem. But I suspect that this might be less interesting to those who do not care much about politics or imperialism. This film ties everything together into a story of Jeremy’s quest for the truth. And that makes an already powerful movie even more compelling and accessible.

Dirty Wars is a truly incredible movie. I am still awestruck at the quality of the footage the filmmakers managed to gather in truly dangerous war zones. The soundtrack was superb, with moving music by the Kronos Quartet. But most importantly, this film tells a story we all need to hear. If you want to understand what the US government is doing across the globe, you must watch Dirty Wars.

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