On May 23, in a speech that promised new restrictions on his counterterrorism policy, President Barack Obama finally acknowledged that Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, both American citizens, had been killed by American drone strikes in 2011. Journalist Jeremy Scahill, the co-writer, narrator, and driving force behind Dirty Wars, deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the drones issue in the public eye over the years (Dirty Wars is also the name of his new book about the issue). Surely he would celebrate if Obama’s speech meant we had to tell you that the film, which builds largely to tell the story of al-Awlaki and his son, is now irrelevant. Unfortunately, our president’s new admissions and policy changes make Dirty Wars no less necessary viewing, particularly since the doc connects to decades of similar American behavior as much as to recent events in the war on terror.
Directed by fellow journalist Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars follows Scahill over two years of reporting. Beginning in Afghanistan, Scahill investigates secretive night raids carried out by the U.S. military, which in turn lead him to uncover the murder of Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police commander, and from there to discover equally secretive killings committed in Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries. Enmeshed in all this is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a paramilitary force now famous for carrying out the mission that killed Osama bin Laden and which has become the government’s go-to counterterrorism force. For Scahill, JSOC’s actions represent the main example of how the current administration has extended the scope of its power not only geographically (JSOC’s missions occur in countless countries where the U.S. hasn’t officially declared war), but legally, since by allowing al-Awlaki to be killed, the president gave himself the questionable and dangerous right to carry out extra-judicial killings of American citizens.
Dirty Wars ably leads us through its extensive investigation, faltering only when the camera lingers on Scahill for a touch too long at the expense of his interview subjects; his brief reflections on the difficulty of returning to normal life in Brooklyn after spending time in a war zone seem out of place in a film that also touches on the persecution and detention faced by local journalists in Afghanistan and Yemen. But these are minor distractions in an engrossing doc that manages to provide shocking revelations without coming off conspiratorial, a feat certainly aided by the fact that the C.I.A., which runs the drone program, has never shied from controversial methods to advance American interests around the world.
The documentary doesn’t address this history head on, but it’s certainly present in the background when Scahill argues that, from the Afghan night raids to the murder of al-Awlaki, the American government’s attempt to “kill [its] way to victory” is only helping to create more enemies. Even al-Awlaki, who, as Scahill shows, turned from a moderate Muslim cleric into a supporter of jihad in the decade after 9/11, is a case in point of the failure of American policies. This shouldn’t surprise us. As Steve Coll points out in his review of Scahill’s book in The New Yorker, historically the C.I.A.’s “interventions have delivered short-term advantages to Washington, but in the long run they have usually sown deeper troubles.” And that means that, for all the ways Dirty Wars may seem like old news this week, if history is any indicator, its true relevance will only be felt several decades down the road.