Their battlefield is everywhere

June 13, 2013

Samuel Charles reviews a dramatic new film by independent journalist Jeremy Scahill.

THE RAGGED, 4 a.m. streets of Kabul, the worn buildings, the almost total absence of street lights. A camera crew sets up shop at a roadside in the city, and Jeremy Scahill begins another pre-dawn broadcast from Afghanistan.

The opening scene of Dirty Wars, Scahill's film accompanied by a book of the same name, is appropriately shadowy and wrapped in obscurity. Like much of the battle zones of the "war on terror," even Afghanistan, where a U.S.-led war continues to claim lives, debate surrounding this war, and much media attention has disappeared, leaving these regions shrouded in a kind of information blackout.

Cut to Khatabeh, Afghanistan, a parched-looking village half a day's drive through the mountains from Kabul. Amid the small earthen homes of Khatabeh, Scahill speaks to men who recount to him a night raid: bearded American soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter in darkness into the middle of a wedding the men were celebrating, killing villagers as they see them, including two pregnant women and an American-trained police chief.

Jeremy Scahill reporting in Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill reporting in Dirty Wars

They then blindfold a group of villagers and fly them off to another province to be interrogated, never letting them see where they've been taken. Sitting cross-legged in the sitting room of a home, another villager shows Scahill a cell-phone video of the bodies of the dead, with the voices of these faceless American soldiers coldly rehearsing their version of events, their pale hands pointing to bullet holes in the corpses.

Another man, face crumpled in anguish, describes to Scahill how the Americans used knives to dig the bullets out of the bodies to cover their tracks. "If the Americans do this again, we are ready to shed our blood fighting them," one villager tells Scahill and his crew.

DIRTY WARS is the brilliantly investigated and artfully produced story of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite military force established in 1980. Spread across multiple military branches, JSOC answers directly to the American president.

The force is so secret that Congress is kept in the dark about its operations, often unaware, for example, that at one point as many as 22 night raids were being conducted each night in Afghanistan, knocking off names on the ever-expanding "kill lists." Not at all confined to Afghanistan, former JSOC special operatives recount to Scahill how their units were used to get rid of insurgent leaders throughout the war in Iraq as well.

These kill lists are constantly growing with the names of those whom executive bodies deem enemies. Supposedly under congressional oversight, these lists can only be seen by certain congressmen and cannot be documented. "There are at least three separate sets of kill lists," Scahill said in an interview on Democracy Now! "There's the kill list that the CIA has, there's the Joint Special Operations Command, and there's the National Security Council list that contains certain high value individuals that the U.S. wants taken out."

In one especially chilling scene, a former JSOC operative reaches out to Scahill. He is interviewed in the dark, his voice distorted to conceal his identity. The anonymous source calls these secret teams of assassins, who do not operate by the conventions of international law, a "hammer," saying, "For the rest of our generation, this force will be continually searching for a nail."

This, the film tells us, is the logic of a publicly unaccountable death squad that operates outside the jurisdiction of any law except that of the White House.

There is a broader point to be made here that I don't think always comes through in the film. Though Dirty Wars describes how forces like JSOC are the result of the American "war on terror" allowed to run wild, the problem isn't a war machine out of the control of its master.

Indeed, cruise missile attacks wiping out whole communities of civilians in Yemen, the outsourcing of U.S. dirty work against Somali insurgents to warlords in Mogadishu and night raids in Afghanistan--mostly under the aegis of JSOC--are deliberate efforts by the American ruling class to gain control of geostrategic area like the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.

Conventional wars of occupation like Iraq had become hugely unpopular as the death toll continued to rise long after "victory" was declared--in a 2010 CBS News poll, 72 percent of respondents said the war was not worth it. Further, with tremendous financial burdens making it impossible to continue empire building this way, the U.S. military shifted tack.

JSOC'S special teams of assassins, drones and allied warlords have been employed to kill anyone the government supposes "a threat." With less danger of American lives being lost in battle and smaller forces to fund, the U.S. ruling class believes it can now expand the frontiers of its economic and political control without running the risk of becoming overstretched or provoking widespread popular resistance to its campaigns. And by way of the constant threat of violence from drone strikes or commando teams, it is attempting to terrorize into submission would-be resisters in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

DIRTY WARS does a great service to the public discussion on American foreign policy in the "war on terror." Mainstream news media in the U.S. rarely, if ever, critically discuss the changing face of American wars abroad and their human impact, particularly those undeclared by White House.

More importantly, few media outlets or journalists connect the dots between drones, U.S.-allied warlords and oppressive legislation at home. Dirty Wars does this, particularly in its look at the life of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Muslim imam of Yemeni descent.

Al-Awlaki, raised in New Mexico, at first preached nonviolence to his congregations in the wake of 9/11 and the repression of Muslims that followed. Over time, however, al-Awlaki grew more radical, and he came to top the government's kill lists. With there is no evidence that al-Awlaki ever committed an attack against Americans, the U.S. government began to hunt him after he moved to Yemen.

In September 2011, after several botched attempts, al-Awlaki was killed in an American drone strike, with no charges against him or due process of law. Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was also incinerated in a drone strike while eating with his friends. Abdulrahman had gone traveling through Yemen to search for his father. He was condemned to death, it appears, for being the son of an anti-American preacher.

Executing American citizens without charges or due process of law, or formal explanations for their targeting (in the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) sets a terrifying precedent in the U.S. legal system and how it fights its wars. Dirty Wars takes a look at this issue too, through Scahill's interviews with Congress members in the quiet halls of the Capitol, who, though nearly gagged by confidentiality orders, stridently object to the secret powers to kill with which the president has been endowed.

Most importantly, perhaps, Dirty Wars shows us how the "war on terror" is anything but that. Not only is terror from drones, warlord militias and commandos being rained down upon Afghanis, Yemenis and Somalis, but this war is driving more and more desperate people to take up arms against the U.S.

If the purpose of these dirty wars abroad is to stop terrorism, then they are a failure. But if the logic of these wars is something else--like spreading the power of the ruling elite and creating more violence only to justify their own existence--then, as the scenes in Dirty Wars confirm, they are rapidly succeeding. A film like this one, however, can help bring these wars into the light of day, and give energy to the movement needed to end them.

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