In the introduction to his film “Dirty Wars,” Jeremy Scahill — a war correspondent and journalist for The Nation — remarked that his film was “a story about the seen and the unseen and about things hidden in plain sight.”
The film — a documentary covering Scahill’s investigation of the unreported aspects of America’s global presence in the “war on terror” — forces uncomfortable questions to be addressed: Is the Obama administration inadvertently proliferating the war it is trying to win? Are crimes being hidden from the American people after they were carried out in their name? And has the “war on terror” become self-perpetuating?
Structured as a mix of personal narrative and detective story, the film — narrated by Scahill, co-written by Scahill and David Riker, and directed by Rick Rowley — takes viewers to the non-NATO-controlled “gray zone” of Afghanistan, where Scahill interviewed the family of an American-trained police chief killed in a clandestine night raid; to Yemen, where he inspected the unclaimed wreckage of an American drone and interviewed the father of slain American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki; and to Somalia, where he rode with American-supported warlords that boast of their inhumanity and brutality as they fight.
Limits of authority
The movie offers a sense of a president that meant well but that — with no military experience, no foreign relations experience and almost no large-scale organizational leadership experience — was vastly outclassed by the job he was elected to do and delegated too much authority to individuals with their own vested interests at heart. There is a feeling in the flow of the movie that the war on terror is now self-actuating; it continuously creates the enemies it seeks to destroy only to create more enemies in the act of destruction, and not even the president can stop it at this point.
“This war and this story is bigger than the Office of the President, and it is bigger than a political party at this point,” Rowley told Mint Press News in an interview to mark the nationwide theatrical release of the film, which began June 7 in selected theaters. “This is not a partisan issue anymore. These programs began with the Republican administration and have continued and intensified under the Democrat administration. It’s fair to look at the way these wars take on a logic of their own and a momentum of their own; like flywheels spinning, it would take decisive political actions to stop them. That’s would be a difficult thing for anyone to do, even for a president.”
Scahill, speaking to the Huffington Post, does not doubt the president’s sincerity and concern. “Well, look, I think that Dick Cheney was sort of this cartoonish villain,” Scahill said. “I really do imagine him sort of sitting in the bunker, plotting the destruction of the world for the benefit of Halliburton’s stock. But I don’t see President Obama that way at all. I think he’s a sincere, deliberative guy who believes that what he’s doing is the best way available to him as the commander-in-chief to keep the country safe. I disagree that that’s what he’s doing, but I don’t question his sincerity.
“But look at it from his perspective. He comes into office after campaigning on the idea that he was going to push back the Bush-era excesses and end the war in Iraq. A lot of liberals projected onto him this idea that he was the anti-war candidate, even though he’d never claimed to be the anti-war candidate — he claimed to be the anti-Iraq War candidate. So he comes into office, he has no military experience, very limited foreign policy experience based on his couple of years in the Senate, and he’s briefed by General David Petraeus, Admiral William McRaven, General Stanley McChrystal, the director of the CIA. And they paint a picture for him of a world where there are hundreds and hundreds of concurrent plots being organized to try to blow up U.S. airplanes, poison American water supplies, attack U.S. embassies. And they say to him, ‘If you don’t continue with the Bush-era authorizations for us to strike in countries where we see any threat pop up, then the American homeland is going to be at great risk.’”
Under such circumstances, Scahill pointed out, Obama would be less than likely to make a stand against status-quo policies, especially in light of the possibility of a terrorism attack. Under political consideration, the president made a compromise: to actively engage in the hunting and destroying of terrorist operations without the need to commit soldiers. In doing this, he leaned on the intelligence community and the Joint Special Operations Command. In doing so, the administration has been successful in taking out many high-profile terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. But at the same time, the U.S. sacrificed precision, leading to massive swaths of civilians killed.
It is in this lack of precision and in the innocent bloodshed that new terrorists are forged, according to Scahill. An example of this is the case of Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was an American citizen, born in New Mexico in 1971. While he praised some of the attacks on the United States, as argued in the film, there was no tangible proof that he was actually involved in any attacks. As a popular imam, he was — at one time — considered to be a voice of the Islamic community in America.
In April 2010, President Obama placed al-Awlaki on a list of people the CIA was authorized to kill for terrorist activities. Such an order is known as a “bill of attainder,” and it is specifically banned under Article I of the U.S. Constitution. Despite this, and in part due to Yemeni leaders’ allegation that al-Awlaki was involved in the killing of a French national, al-Awlaki was killed by a Hellfire missile from a drone in 2011. The frustration and anger abroad stems from the American government’s apparent lack of concern for its own laws.
Most concerning, though, is the lack of empathy from the administration. Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, was killed by a separate Hellfire missile in October 2011. The White House confirmed that Abdulrahman was not a target, as the actual target was Egyptian Ibrahim al-Banna. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, when questioned about the drone strike, indicated that Abdulrahman should have “had a more responsible father.”
These contrasting notions — that the U.S. must fight the “war on terror” and that the “war on terror” itself is creating terrorists — are not accepted by all. Some feel that the key to peace is dialogue.
“The use of drone strikes may be appealing as a way of killing particularly dangerous terrorists. But, because it is felt as an invasion by otherwise neutral or less hostile people in the nations where the strikes are conducted, it risks alienating more people and creating more enemies of the US in the long run,” said John Davenport, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University. “Unfortunately, the roots of these problems are cultural, and that means that we need to change the cultures that produce religious extremism that sees terrorist attacks on civilians as an acceptable means of conducting war.”
“We can’t do that through just by promoting trade ties, cultural exchanges, and other uses of soft power,” Davenport continued. “We have to change the way medias in the Arab world portray us, and the way some Islamic schools teach their children. These are deep and long-term problems. But it would certainly help a lot in the medium term if we could (a) start putting serious and visible pressure on the Likud party in Israel to stop its territorial aggressions and come to a final two-state peace settlement; (b) organize NATO allies to stop Assad from slaughtering Sunni Muslims by the thousands in Syria; and (c) organize a broad league of democratic nations to take control of issues like Syria, getting us out from under the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council. Such a broad democratic league would have far more power than the US alone to press for cultural changes that would undermine the power of radical jihadist doctrine in parts of the Islamic world, and stop the US from being the main lightening rod for Wahabi hatred.”
Despite one’s particular take of the “war on terror,” one point made by the film is absolutely true and undeniable about the intelligence apparatus created to fight the war: “What we have essentially done is created one hell of a hammer. And for the rest of our generation, for the rest of my lifetime, this force will be continually searching for a nail.”
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