Movie Review - Dirty Wars

This is one of the best documentaries of the year. Director Richard Rowley profiles the work of Jeremy Scahill, a journalist and war reporter who has focused on the war on terror and the problems on the American side on how that war is being waged ten years after the attack on September 11, 2001. The two main incidents include a raid in Afghanistan that resulted in innocent men and women being murdered as well as a drone strike in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of innocent children.

The reason the documentary is great is because like with many recent, thrilling, nonfiction films, including The Imposter (2012) or Man on Wire (2008), the movie operates like a mystery and we follow Scahill's investigation to uncover the truth. Essentially, it's a murder mystery but because it's the murder of an Afghan and his family, and not an American, it's a murder that many in the United States don't know or care. Therefore, we truly have an opportunity to discover things.

Rowley and Scahill don't want to paint the military or specific soldiers as murderers. I don't think they want to paint President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama and their respective administrations as murderers, but clearly Scahill sees problems within and policies or procedures with regard to intelligence and then subsequent military actions that need rectifying.

If Scahill wants anything to be taken away from this movie and possibly his book on which this is based, he wants the following three things. The first is that not every Afghan or every man living in the Middle East is a terrorist nor guilty by association. The second is the war on terror as it currently stands might now be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Third is that killing shouldn't be something American forces easily do and it shouldn't be something Americans easily celebrate.

Through Scahill's investigation, it's revealed that not only were men killed who were innocent, family men but one was even actively helping U.S. troops. If that kind of mistake can happen, then truly something is wrong. One thing spotlighted is a plot point from the first season of Homeland. A drone strike might kill a terrorist or two, but those actions, especially if those strikes result in innocent children killed, can spark more terrorists to take their place.

A drone might strike down one terrorist but that will only create five more who want revenge for that one death. For example, even if they had nothing to do with terrorism, the Taliban or Al Qaeda, families are easily recruited after they've had to bury loved ones, killed at the hands of Americans. This in a way ensures the war on terror will never end because it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drone or airstrikes kill innocent people who we think are terrorists and that in turn makes family members want to become terrorists. The war on terror now creates the very terror it's trying to stop.

Scahill also spotlights the Joint Security Operations Command (JSOC) or what's referred to as Special Forces. A whistle-blower tells Scahill that JSOC has gotten worse under President Obama. It's bad enough that the JSOC has "kill lists" but an American not an Afghan can so easily be put on that list. One such American is the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki. His father might be a traitor or an evil guy, but the fact that an American teenager can easily be put in the cross-hairs when he's not a combatant is disturbing.

Scahill points out that Americans so easily go to killing as a solution or the celebration of killing, as evidenced in the wake of Osama Bin Laden's death, that it's starting to spill over into other countries. Scahill visits Somalia and sees how African warlords have adopted this culture. Through outsourcing, Americans have actually sold it to them.

Scahill is thoughtful and compassionate, as well as very, very smart. His journey here and his findings are at times shocking and at other times heartbreaking. By far, the best moment that Rowley's camera captures is when Scahill walks with a Middle Eastern man to the site and aftermath of a drone strike and the two men are holding hands. If it were in America, the image of two men holding hands and walking would have a different connotation than the more powerful one here.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.


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