Film Review: Dirty Wars

Journalist Jeremy Scahill investigates the hidden war against terrorism fought by the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command.

Persuasive and deeply troubling, Dirty Wars shows how the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been fighting a secret war against terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill digs out disturbing facts in a story that is still unfolding. Unfortunately, Dirty Wars will most likely be demonized or simply ignored by the people who need to see it the most.

Scahill, a veteran war correspondent who wrote the bestseller Blackwater, made Dirty Wars in conjunction with a nonfiction book of the same title. His story starts with nighttime raids that left several Afghanis dead, including pregnant women. Ostensibly the targets were Al Qaeda operatives. But the survivors give Scahill odd details, such as how soldiers dug their bullets out of their victims to eliminate forensic evidence.

The reporter traces the raids back to the JSOC, a top-secret military group that reports directly to the President. Formed in the aftermath of the failed attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980, the JSOC has grown so big that it can now conduct 700 raids in a three-month period. Since it has no accountability, the JSOC is the equivalent of a secret army for the President.

In an interview, a disguised JSOC soldier claims that the group's original goals have been perverted into what he calls "mandated killings." What's worse, Scahill shows how the JSOC has started to "outsource" its targeted killings to figures like Somali warlord Mohamed Qanyare.

Although we don't like to think of our leaders behaving this way, the facts of the story appear solid. General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits as much in an interview. Former Ranger Andrew Exum complains to Scahill that the JSOC target list keeps growing.

One of Scahill's saddest interviews is with Nasser al Aulaqi, a Fulbright scholar who taught at the University of Minnesota before becoming president of Sana'a University in Yemen. He is the father of Anwar Al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and proponent of terrorism killed in September 2011 in a drone attack. His grandson Abdrulrahman al Aulaqi was killed weeks later.

In an attempt to personalize the film, director Richard Rowley decided to include Scahill and his reactions in much of the footage. At times—when the journalist responds to the grieving al Aulaqi, for example—the tactic works well. But just as often the focus on Scahill feels false. Close-ups of the reporter musing in his Brooklyn office or riding a subway seem indulgent, as do his frequent exclamations about how worried he is.

But the overall impact of Dirty Wars is impossible to ignore. The film shows us what it means to wage a hidden war, one with no rules or consequences, one that kills American citizens as well as innocent Middle Easterners. Dirty Wars forces us to confront our leaders' choices and what they mean for our country.