Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 1:28 pm 
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Going after America's secret conduct of global war

The focus of the forceful, densely narrated, frequently handsome-looking Dirty Wars is Jeremy Scahilll, a fearless and persistent investigative journalist for The Nation and contributor to the program Democracy Now!, and there is a book to go with this film subtitled The World Is a Battlefield. Scahill already delved with uncomfortable thoroughness into some of the darker and more dubious developments in America's war-making -- the topic again here -- in his 2008 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which he supplemented at the time, as he has this new report, by appearing on various TV programs. Whereas Alex Gibney's also hot and current political film We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks adopts a neutral, omniscient stance toward its main subjects and sketches out a broad picture, Dirty Wars, narrated in Scahill's own voice, is very specifically from his individual reportorial point of view. The film unfolds as the investigation of a conspiracy, a journalistic detective story. It does not delve into Scahill's personal life as Gibney explores Julian Assange's and Bradley Manning's, but focuses exclusively on Scahill's tracking down of a story. Though quick clips show Scahill has been on a raft of TV news-analysis shows about his current findings, he says "investigative reporting" is a field whose results are often ignored by the public. Dirty Wars may seem to have a narrow, noirish focus as documentaries go. It shows us a reporter who puts himself in harm's way to get the story, and leaves us to ponder conclusions. Not that Scahill doesn't have a very clearcut axe to grind and wariness about America's future, as we shall see.

Scahill begins with raids in Afghanistan unseen by embedded journalists or even NATO authorities. He focuses closely on an attack on one family in a place called Gardez in which a policeman, two pregnant women, and some children were killed. Visits with the survivors and locals indicate Americans did the killing, also that no justification -- links with the Taliban, for example -- can be found. It also turned out, locals tell Scahill (always, here, working through an interpreter) that these bearded Americans, as so described, who came and killed, and were not identified with any local unit or mission, also, with creepy thoroughness returned and pried out the American bullets from the bodies with knives.

Subsequent findings suggested this was done by JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, then headed by Navy Admiral William H. McRaven. There were denials that JSOC had anything to do with the Gardez killings, and then an acknowledgment and an apology came.

JSOC is an ultra-secret group operating virtually without oversight or Congressional knowledge and responsible for 1,700 operations and more. JSOC, Scahill finds, represents a key element of the new global warfare program of the US. Hence its operations can occur virtually anywhere, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, places where no US war was remotely declared or known of by Americans. Later in the film Scahill visits Somalia, where he shows the US has waged a "proxy war" using dangerous warlords, and were he finds a devastated, failed state.

An irony during the time of Scahilll's investigation was that JSOC was meant to be unknown, and then when it was responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, it became famous. And McRaven was promoted to higher commands, of European operations and NATO.

Scahill's continuing investigation showed that JSOC was closely involved with Obama's targeted drone assassination "kill list." In particular JSOC was responsible for the drone killing in September 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki (Arabic أنور العولقي‎ or Anwar al-‘Awlaqī) , a radical Muslim cleric and American citizen vilified on cable news as the “next bin Laden,” but never found responsible for criminal activity. This arbitrary and arguably illegal targeted assassination of an American citizen has emerged as symbolic of the Obama administration's overreaching beyond even Bush-era tactics. The film provides many details about this event.

Awlaki’s death in Yemen in a U.S. drone strike was quickly followed up with the drone killing of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, born and raised in Colorado and also a US citizen, along with some adolescent friends, also in Yemen. When confronted with these killings the Obama administration has had no clear response. Scahill twice interviews Anwar al-Awlaki's father, the boy's grandfather, who speaks eloquently (in English) about the wrongness of these killings and the future peril for US policy they indicate. The Awlaki deaths and deaths of whoever was nearby are examples that America's "clean," "surgical" conduct of war is, in fact, "dirty," and part of an American globalized warfare spinning out of control.

Scahill says the JSOC killings create more and more enemies, leading to more and more killings and more and more "blowback" in Chalmers Johnson's broad sense of the word, setting up the "global war on terror" to go on indefinitely. He includes interviews with government and military people that support this. But while it clearly outlines the big picture, Dirty Wars most excels in its intimate on-location reportage and enriched personal stories about victims, both the Gardez Afghanistan ones and the Yemen Al-Awlaki ones, and its equally intimate depiction of Jeremy Scahill's committed and tireless pursuit of his investigations.

Scahill's findings point to the conclusions that not only have US "counterterrorism" efforts in the field gone badly astray, but, still worse, the new US notion of being in a state of continuing global war represents overreaching beyond all imagining.

Rowley is the cinematographer, and though the footage has rough edits from being gathered on the spot in dangerous circumstances -- in Somalia Scahill had to wear a bullet-proof best and was surrounded by armed guards, rushed away from many settings - the images also show the benefits of state-of-the-art digital equipment in such conditions wielded by experienced hands: they are razor-sharp and sometimes beautiful, the shots well-lit. A quietly intense musical background is provided by the Kronos Quartet.

Dirty Wars, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2013 and opened in the US 7 June.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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