There’s a riveting moment in Dirty Wars – the new documentary about the War on Terror by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill – that calls to mind glimpses of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman’s masterful reflection on memory, consciousness, and identity.
Scahill has been on the trail of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (known as JSOC, the “paramilitary arm of the administration”) across the globe, uncovering the agency’s fingerprint in night raids, drone strikes, and targeted killings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and beyond. His reporting is, of necessity, retrospective – the opening sequence has him interviewing relatives of an Afghan police commander and two pregnant women killed in a night raid in Gardez.
The elusive “kill list”, for him, is always in his past, its members long since dead by the time he arrives on the scene. Then comes Anwar Al-Awlaki. Scahill discovers the name listed as one of the targets in a press release describing an unsuccessful raid in Yemen. And he’s off, in a race against the clock, to find with the radicalized American Muslim cleric, to tell his story before a drone flying at 60,000 feet extinguishes his life. The viewer, of course, already knows how this story ends.
Scahill wonders if the War on Terror has turned on itself, with him “investigating the planned assassination of a US citizen.” In a daring sequence, President Obama is portrayed as Al-Awlaki’s mirror image, each mimicking the other’s violent rhetoric about war, retribution, and justice, positioning themselves as the aggrieved party acting in self-defense. He never gets to meet Al-Awlaki – who is killed in 2011 along with his 16-year old Denver-born son, but there are two moving sequences with Al-Awlaki’s parents, both before and after the assassination.
If JSOC and Obama are the putative villains of the film, Scahill – the lone, investigative journalist patriotically risking life and limb to expose the reckless follies of his government – is the hero. Brooding and pensive, he says little when he’s on the screen, content to narrate his life story from behind the camera. We see him in Brooklyn, at his apartment, writing feverishly in a restaurant in Williamsburg, shopping at an over-priced grocery store, on the subway. At one point, he wonders if he can get used to New York after having experienced the thrill of the war front.
We are told time and time again that no one is asking these questions – in Gardez, in the desert in Manjalah, Yemen, where Scahill walks amidst used ordinance, bomb remnants that read “Made in Pennsylvania,” ever the lone hero, in Somalia, and in Washington, DC. This is not the life of a socialite – there are no girls in the film, not even any friends. The only calls he gets are from secretive JSOC operatives who either threaten him or agree to on-the-camera interviews with facial and vocal distortion. The talk show rounds are exposed with cruel realism, the entire exercise a farce of “free media,” with one heart-breaking moment when a joker with a late night show wonders aloud, “Why aren’t you dead yet? Like one day you might come home in a body bag.”
Notwithstanding David Brooks’ pseudo social psychological rantings about “the atomization of society,” Scahill’s experience conforms to the archetype of the solitary, isolated, modern anti-hero as hero. Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, even Rand Paul are all imagined as lone voices of reason in the wilderness, calling out against the madness of the self-fulfulling prophecy of the never-ending Global War on Terror – in Brooks’ words, “the solitary naked individual” against “the gigantic and menacing state.”
As a film-goer (and putative film critic), Dirty Wars is a bit like Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s 2004 antiwar documentary. In nine years, though, the scale of wrongdoing has increased exponentially – due process-less assassination of American citizens, warrantless wiretapping of millions (with the complicity of Silicon Valley’s tech giants), and undeclared JSOC activity in over 75 countries – while the antiwar movement has all but evaporated, the left having been completely emasculated, buying into the rhetoric of endless war, a handful of libertarians the only ones left to carry the banner of peace and prosperity.
“How does a war like this end?” asks Scahill, on multiple occasions. The war, by design, is self-propagating, a cancer that can only grow out of control until it infests the host itself, as the NSA scandal reveals so vividly. Every kill on the kill list creates more enemies, causes more kill lists to be generated, until there is no need even for a kill list and all males between 15 and 75 become legitimate, military targets. As Scahill observes upon returning from Yemen, “The whole world was a battlefield, I didn’t know where to go next.”
In Somalia, Scahill meets US-backed warlords engaged in vicious civil wars, one of whom he asks, “If you capture a fighter alive, do you execute him on the battlefield?” The man, Indha Adde, is unblinking. “We have to show the fighters that we have no mercy.” Another warlord praises the US. “America knows war,” he says. “They are war masters.” The film ends with the by now familiar refrain: “How does a war like this end? And “What do we do when we see what’s hiding in plain sight?”
The screening I attend – at the IFC Center in New York’s West Village – is followed by a panel discussion with Amy Goodman and two others. I ask the first question: “What do we do after watching a movie like this? Do we sigh and say, ‘we’re fucked’, and get on the train back to Brooklyn?” Amy is optimistic. “This might be the film that ends the war,” she says. “It entirely reframes the debate.” Anthony Arnove, one of the film’s producers, admits that “many progressives have placed a lot of illusions in this president” and expresses hope that the film would spark conversations and soul-searching.
I meet Angela, a twenty-something graduate student in anthropology, who reluctantly confesses to having voted for Obama – twice. She had recently moved to the city from the South and confessed that her anxieties about living in New York paled in comparison to the traumas inflicted upon the innocent victims of the Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, Christina, an activist and freelance journalist, films the police car parked across from the cinema. “Why aren’t you investigating the corporate crimes on Wall Street?” she shouts.
An odd sense of melancholy settles in as I stand amidst the bustling urban crowds on 6th Avenue.
How does a war like this end?
Hamdan Azhar is a New York based writer and data scientist. His writings have appeared in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.