For the tourist going overseas, a journey begins with boarding a plane. For Jeremy Scahill, his personal journey in the documentary Dirty Wars began in the remote hamlet of Khataba, near Gardez, the capital of Paktia, Afghanistan.
It was here, after a celebratory wedding turned into a night of sudden bloodshed and death for an extended family, that Scahill arrived as an investigative journalist. What he uncovered there in terms of the human toll of civilian women, men and children killed and wounded by US special forces (in one of perhaps thousands of such raids in Afghanistan under the cover of darkness) was a key turning point in his exhaustive journalistic inquiry. The result of Scahill’s research became the book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield – and a filmed version, an exploration of a secretive war that has killed untold numbers of non-combatants in the name of United States “security” told from a first person, engaged perspective.
The book Dirty Wars documents how the world came to be a battlefield defined by US rules of engagement, often formulated and carried out in secrecy. Scahill provides, with nearly 100 pages of citations alone, the historical context and inner circle decisions that led to the kind of ruthless warfare being waged across several continents by the American military, the CIA (and its paramilitary capabilities), the secret surveillance agencies, and many more members of what was first called by President Dwight Eisenhower the military-industrial complex.
In the documentary Dirty Wars, Scahill is the war journalist who came in from the cold, who could not, in good conscience, live any longer within the limits of detached reporting. Something horrifying has emerged in the US permanent war: death and assassinations for which there is no due process nor accountability, and all too often no “within the margin of error” justification except that the government and military are able to get away with their actions. There are no public checks and balances. Whistleblowers are prosecuted and jailed at a faster rate under the Obama administrations than under the George W. Bush administrations.
This is a film that is both a mystery of ghoulish proportions and a punch in the gut confirmation that perpetual war now exists regardless of which party is in power. Scahill pieces together the killing of innocents, connecting the dots with push pins on a makeshift map when he is on one of his visits back home to his New York apartment. The loved ones we meet of those innocents speak to the heart, to the common human empathy for uninvited horrors visited unexpectedly upon those we love.
There is a major player among the large group of institutional enforcers of US hegemony. That military force is called the Joint Security Operations Command (JSOC) and it is only accountable to the president. It was founded in 1980, becoming more powerful over time.
Scahill’s fear is that with a Democratic president taking the Bush administration footprint of executive branch war without public oversight and putting it on steroids, any objection to the continuation of such policies of empire under a Republican or succeeding Democratic president will fall on deaf ears.
In his book, Scahill exposes the history and many of the primary duties of JSOC; in the film, he exposes the command’s collateral damage by letting us see the carnage that it leaves in its wake.
Of the JSOC, the Washington Post reported in a 2011 article:
CIA operatives have imprisoned and interrogated nearly 100 suspected terrorists in their former secret prisons around the world, but troops from this other secret organization [JSOC] have imprisoned and interrogated 10 times as many, holding them in jails that it alone controls in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 9/11, this secretive group of men (and a few women) has grown tenfold while sustaining a level of obscurity that not even the CIA has managed. “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen,” a strapping Navy SEAL, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in describing his unit.
The SEALs are just part of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, known by the acronym JSOC, which has grown from a rarely used hostage rescue team into America’s secret army. When members of this elite force killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, JSOC leaders celebrated not just the success of the mission but also how few people knew their command, based in Fayetteville, N.C., even existed.
The Post went on to describe more of the ever-expanding role of the JSOC in covert activities and military actions:
Two presidents and three secretaries of defense routinely have asked JSOC to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States was not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria.
“The CIA doesn’t have the size or the authority to do some of the things we can do,” said one JSOC operator.
The president has given JSOC the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list — and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC’s list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar but shorter roster of names.
Created in 1980 but reinvented in recent years, JSOC has grown from 1,800 troops prior to 9/11 to as many as 25,000, a number that fluctuates according to its mission. It has its own intelligence division, its own drones and reconnaissance planes, even its own dedicated satellites. It also has its own cyberwarriors, who, on Sept. 11, 2008, shut down every jihadist Web site they knew.
Obscurity has been one of the unit’s hallmarks. When JSOC officers are working in civilian government agencies or U.S. embassies abroad, which they do often, they dispense with uniforms, unlike their other military comrades. In combat, they wear no name or rank identifiers.
In both his book and movie, Scahill convincingly reveals JSOC as a merciless operational force. Then there is the gray zone where the CIA and the military work jointly on operations. But the end result is the same: a policy of shoot or bomb first without any due process and don’t even bother straightforwardly answering questions later.
In a visually startling segment of the film, Scahill travels to rural Yemen to talk with Bedouins who survived a cruise missile attack, while others perished. On the ground are chunks of the missile with US markings, at a time when the Obama administration denied that such an attack by the US had even occurred. Yemen serves as an example of how even subsistence Bedouins with no apparent political interests can become murdered by cruise missiles for targeting “reasons” that still remain unknown.
Furthermore, Scahill provides evidence that President Obama is directly responsible for keeping a Yemeni reporter in jail in his nation simply because he exposed the US covert war in Yemen and its killing of civilians. It’s a stunning moment in understanding the extent of the US’s projection of power and the bi-partisan hypocrisy in DC on the alleged promotion of democracy, peace and freedom of the press abroad.
It is a murky world that Scahill shines a light upon, given that there are different chains of command depending upon the nation in which operations are being conducted.
As infamously leaked by the White House, President Obama, for example, has authorized the assassination of US citizens abroad (thus far by CIA drone strikes as far as we know). He serves as the judge and jury and also authorizes the executioner. Where does such an absolute power lead to?
One drone strike, for example led to the death in October of 2011 of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old US citizen. In Dirty Wars archival film footage, he appears as an all-American boy who had followed his father, Anwar al-Awlaki (also an American citizen) to Yemen. His father, a radical cleric accused by the US of inspiring terrorist attacks, was killed in an Obama-sanctioned drone strike just two weeks earlier.
Why target the adolescent son, Scahill ponders? Responses from his sources inside the intelligence community are vague and non-committal. But Scahill can’t help wondering if the son was targeted because he was considered bad seed. Or maybe it was a message to other “enemies” that their families would not escape death by drone strikes. Or maybe it was a mistake.
When there is no transparency in assassinations and special operations that kill countless civilians, there are rarely definitive answers. The power over who shall live and who shall die breeds contempt for those with consciences.
Yes, there are people who wish to kill Americans, but the machine that has been built to hunt down and kill those planning terrorist acts is a beast that needs to be fed, even when it runs low on those who would do us actual harm. At that point, to keep the beast well-funded and ever-expanding, the circle of those who need to die is enlarged, the night time special operation raids are perhaps expanded, a missile strike may almost randomly target any group that could fit the profiles of potential enemies…and who knows how many assassinations there are by gun or knife in the dead of night? Who even knows for certain who is the enemy? Who among the US public knows the answer to any of these questions?
The war machine needs continuing justification to grow, even if it means the murdering of those who are doing nothing more than enjoying a festive wedding party.
This is at the heart of Dirty Wars, that the life of non-Americans (unless they are Americans targeted by the White House, then they too can be given a death sentence) in dusty nations are considered less valuable, as Scahill notes, than ours.
As the documentary Dirty Wars so movingly and skillfully evidences, the tears and wailing of survivors of widespread and ongoing US covert actions are no different than those who lost loved ones in 9/11.
Moreover, as the film implies, this misguided, bloody policy of CIA paramilitary and JSOC killing and maiming may be creating the ultimate blowback: a new generation of terrorists seeking vengeance.
The film version of Dirty Wars is playing in movie theaters throughout the nation. To find a local screening, click here. For more background on the documentary is available on the web site dedicated to the film.