Monday, June 24, 2013

Are We War Masters? A Review of "Dirty Wars"

I recently got the chance to watch the new documentary Dirty Wars and thought I'd review it here, especially since it bears on many of the issues we've been talking about recently. The film, directed by Richard Rowley, follows Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation, as he (with mounting horror) attempts to understand the role of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive branch of the U.S. military that reports directly to the White House, in the Obama administration's anti-terrorism strategy. The focus is on the administration's by now exhaustively covered policy of killing suspected terrorists outside of countries in which the U.S. is officially at war, using drones and other methods (including so-called "signature strikes," in which individuals whose identities may not be known are targeted not on the basis of specific allegations against them but rather because they've displayed "suspicious" patterns of behavior), which JSOC is central to.
We tag along as Scahill interviews a variety of figures within the U.S. and travels to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to observe the effects of our actions directly and see him narrate and re-enact his gradual piecing together of the shadow war's scope and intensity. Scahill has long been a forceful left-wing critic of the counter-terrorism policies of Presidents Bush and Obama and makes no secret of his politics in the film, but it largely consists of reporting and raw footage rather than polemic. Dirty Wars is obviously not a pleasant movie but it is, I think, essential viewing for any American citizen or person concerned about how the most powerful nation on earth uses violence in pursuit of its goals.

Much of the film simply provides a basic factual overview of Obama-era lethal counterterrorism operations via its reconstruction of Scahill's journalistic process. While most of these facts have now been widely reported (though they unfortunately haven't really entered the mainstream media narrative), Dirty Wars does provide a quick and accessible way to become familiar with several key points. However, the movie is a companion to his recently released book of the same title, which I hope to read in order to assess the more controversial claims he makes and will review here when I do.

What I found most valuable about Dirty Wars, though, was Scahill's effort to humanize the victims of U.S. counter-terrorism policy in general, and the victims of three specific attacks in particular: an Afghan family which lost several members, including two pregnant women, to a JSOC night raid; the survivors of a cruise missile attack on the Yemeni town of al-Majalah which killed 41 civilians; and (most controversially) Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric (and American citizen) who was killed by a drone in Yemen and his son Abdulrahman, who was killed in a separate strike which the U.S. government claims was aimed at an unrelated target. This involves interviews with the former two groups as well as Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar's father, as well as other material I'll get to shortly. Much of what deserves praise here is obvious and can't be captured well in text, but three specific elements of this part of the film really stood out to me and I want to comment on them in detail.

First, two of the people who appear in the Afghanistan and al-Majalah interviews are very young girls (no older than 8 or 9) who have recently lost family members to American strikes. I tensed up when they came on screen because I expected their tears and anguish to be especially sad, but I was even more disturbed by what actually happened; they seemed calm and even happy as they casually told Scahill (through a translator) what they had experienced. All human death and suffering is of course tragic, but somehow it seems especially awful to me that my country is making it necessary for two small children to artificially suppress the memories of losing loved ones in front of a stranger, or taking their relatives away before they can know them well enough to mourn, or whatever the explanation for their apparent normalcy is. Set against that horrifying calm, whatever miniscule security a country that lost 50 times as many citizens to drunk driving as it did to terrorism in the decade that included the 9/11 attacks derives from these policies seems to me to be impossible to justify. (To anyone who wishes to write off these deaths as unfortunate but inevitable side-effects of a necessary war, I would argue that precisely because war inevitably kills innocents, the use of military force is only justifiable in the face of especially grave and serious threats).

Second, Scahill painted a very interesting portrait of Anwar al-Awlaki's slide toward advocacy for killing Americans. I had been vaguely aware that Awlaki had been much more pro-American in the past, but the film includes clips of him explicitly condemning the idea that American violence against Muslims justifies the killing of innocent Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that really drove this point home. This point is significant because Scahill goes on to use a mix of photos, narration, and video clips to give the viewer an acute sense of what it must have been like to live through the past decade as a Muslim-American, to witness your fellow citizens' general indifference to(and, in some cases, actual enthusiasm for) violations of civil liberties and human rights routinely committed against people like you at home and abroad.

I actually think he goes too far in this direction by not following the segment with a robust condemnation of Awlaki's defenses of killing civilians. I certainly don't want to accuse Scahill of sympathy for terrorism but I think people discussing issues like this do have an important obligation to make it clear that murder can never justify murder. That being said,  though, I think he makes it possible for us to view Awlaki's descent into violent radicalism as an awful but understandable response to  his experiences.

Third and somewhat oddly, I found the movie's depiction of Scahill's own reaction to the events he witnesses profoundly moving. At least as portrayed in the film, a significant part of his motivation to find out more about JSOC came from the anxiety and depression he experienced when he returned from reporting on an Afghan night raid by its operatives and was unable to get the video of the killing and his encounters with the victims' family members out of his head. Later on, when he learned about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki's death, he returned to the boy's grandfather out of what he comes to realize is a sort of obligation he feels to understand and experience the dead teenager as a person with a life of his own, and spends some time watching old home videos which move him to the verge of tears.

These and other features of Scahill's response to what happens in the film left me full of admiration for him but also ashamed of both myself and my fellow citizens. While I obviously hope his health has improved, I somehow felt as though he was modeling the proper moral response to our ongoing shadow war on terror, that knowing that one's country is killing innocent people as part of an effort to deal with an extremely minor threat should disrupt one's life in a significant way. This feeling was only made more acute by my confident awareness that apart from writing this review and blathering on about similar issues here from time to time, I was likely to never lift a finger for any of the people featured in the movie or the various other victims of U.S. counter-terrorism policy (I hope this is false but suspect it isn't).

I want to conclude with another scene from the film which perhaps affected me more than it was meant to. At one point, Scahill interviews a Somali warlord who collaborates with American officials on counter-terrorism operations, and in response to a question about tactics he wants to avoid the warlord says, with  evident respect: "America knows war. They are war masters." The fact that a figure like this, who presumably (and rightly) inspires revulsion in every American, would speak admiringly about our war machine and identify with it (though he has likely done far worse things than we have, of course), encapsulated for me the movie's message about how deeply flawed our approach to counter-terrorism really is. Perhaps I'm overreading, but it also seemed as though the line conveyed something about how central force and violence have become to the way we interact with the rest of the world, to the extent that we're willing to deploy our military on this scale to deal with a problem as comparatively minor as Islamist terrorism. I truly hope that Dirty Wars will make more Americans realize, in a deep and visceral way that traditional reporting cannot, that we're becoming the type of people who a Somali warlord would (again, not entirely accurately) laud as "war masters," and that we need to stop.

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