BEIRUT: For some time now, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has been preoccupied with the story of how the American state has responded to the opportunities afforded by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
An often-unspoken premise of many mainstream news stories over the past dozen years has been the challenge of how to conduct a successful war against a hostile nonstate force – “Al-Qaeda,” the preferred shorthand for anti-U.S. Salafi militancy. Elements of the state’s intelligence and military apparatus have treated this challenge as an opportunity to retool the delivery system of U.S. coercive power overseas.
The institutions emerging from this sort of deep-state opportunism are of shadowy origin. One of them is the Joint Special Operations Command, a well (and secretly) funded team of “elite” troops whose work ranges from drone, cruise missile and bombing strikes to on-the-ground assassination (“targeted killings”) and kidnapping (“snatch and grab”) operations. JSOC has operated both in states where the U.S. is at war (Iraq and Afghanistan) and not (Somalia and Yemen).
Scahill’s 2013 book “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield” documents his investigation of JSOC. The book charts how the journalist uncovered traces of JSOC action in Afghanistan, only to discover that the force first metastasized during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
A black-ops outfit whose existence the state strenuously denied as the stuff of conspiracy theory, JSOC catapulted into public consciousness when it was credited with the execution of Osama bin Laden – famously live-streamed to the White House – and came to be feted as a legitimate wing of the U.S. military-intelligence complex.
Scahill’s work is important on multiple levels – sketching JSOC’s dodgy prehistory, shining a light on the human toll of U.S. paramilitary impunity and, as acknowledged by the special ops veterans who cooperated with the journalist’s inquiries, pointing out that a foreign policy based on kill lists and assassination tends to create still more enemies.
The book has been applauded both by Anglophone investigative journalists – Seymour Hersh and Glenn Greenwald, for instance – and by academic critics of post 9/11 U.S. foreign policy, a healthy number of whom are themselves U.S. citizens.
It’s a story that clearly deserves to be widely read – not only by Scahill’s organic audience in the U.S., but by non-Americans whose lives could be affected by both an adeptly misrepresented foreign policy and an Al-Qaeda-inspired militancy that that policy, inadvertently perhaps, abets.
The diffusion of this story is so important that the written word could not be trusted to do it alone. So it is that when Scahill officially commenced work on his book (in 2010, according to an interview in The Guardian late last year) he collaborated with director Richard Rowley to shoot a documentary film version as well.
Rowley’s “Dirty Wars” had its world premiere at Sundance in early 2013, where it won the Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary. It will have its Middle East debut Wednesday evening at AUB’s Hostler Auditorium.
There is ample overlap between the book and the film. Audiences should remember, however, that book-length investigative journalism and film (even documentary film) are different beasts. Rowley’s doc makes certain concessions to its assumed audience that will likely annoy some who would enjoy Scahill’s book.
Rowley’s version of “Dirty Wars” makes self-conscious use of several film noir conventions. The details of Scahill’s investigation are unfolded in a manner meant to accentuate suspense and the action is closely narrated by Scahill’s voice-over.
“Kabul Afghanistan,” Scahill intones at the start of the movie. “Four in the morning.” Journalists filing television reports to the U.S. are often up and working at this hour, he notes, and it’s normal to wait while his technicians set up the flood lamps needed to illuminate the nighttime landscape for the camera.
“This is a story of the seen and the unseen,” Scahill says at the end of his introduction, “and about things hidden in plain sight.”
Though he was supposed to be covering NATO’s war on the Taliban insurgency, the journalist knew there was more to this story than that of U.S. combat farmers winning Afghan farmers’ hearts and minds with farm implements.
It was when he began to look into NATO’s night raids in the Afghan countryside that he first encountered the traces of JSOC’s war. The case that hooked him was that of a nighttime massacre in the village of Gardez, perpetrated early on the morning of Feb. 12, 2010.
Villagers told Scahill that the extended family was in the midst of a wedding celebration when a team of bearded un-uniformed American fighters turned up. They murdered several members of the wedding party, including two pregnant young women, then used knives to prise the bullets out of their bodies. First killed was Mohammad Daoud, a regional police official who had himself been trained by U.S. occupation forces.
A guest had a video camera in his mobile phone, used first to record the celebrations then the soldiers’ efforts to corroborate a story of what transpired that night, a story the villagers say is fictitious.
U.S. officials were uninterested in the Gardez killings, and occupation forces attempted to intimidate Times journalist Jerome Starkey, who first broke the story, into silence. Soldiers then materialized one day in Gardez, apologized for killing so many innocent people and offered to slaughter a goat in compensation.
A mysterious U.S. officer in fatigues officiated over the goat offering. The Times was on hand to photograph him, and provided Scahill his first glimpse of JSOC commander Adm. William McRaven.
Scahill goes on to speak with various U.S. intelligence and military officials and veterans – pro-regime and whistleblowers – who either stonewall his inquires or aid them. The story takes him to Yemen, Somalia and the U.S.
En route, he notes the human wreckage marking JSOC’s rise. None of the stories is more compassionately told than that of Yemeni-American Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. A prominent moderate in the U.S. Muslim community in the wake of 9/11, Awlaki was progressively alienated from his government’s policies toward Muslims and ultimately left America to become a Salafi cheerleader. The U.S. eventually killed him for it.
Rowley’s “Dirty Wars” is most successful in distilling the human stories Scahill uncovered and repackaging them for movie and television audiences. More problematic – particularly for any hard-nosed U.S. policy critics – are certain facets of Rowley’s film language.
It’s standard practice for the informative and emotionally affecting bits of a documentary to be bridged by more decorative bits. The most successful of these are Rowley’s series of time-lapse shots of landscapes, capturing clouds as they gather over various U.S. governmental structures.
Others are more impressionistic. As Scahill expresses his trepidation about heading up country from Kabul to Gardez, deep within the insecure parts of the country, the camera follows him to a souq. There the glowering Scahill appears to be buying black cloth. Journalists shop too, of course, but there is an unintended incongruity here that’s almost comic.
The most constant criticism the film has got over the past year is that – between voice-over and constant screen presence – Scahill never leaves the frame, and owns the film far more than his subjects. The journalist has said he was reluctant to be such a prominent part of Rowley’s work, explaining that he conceded only when it was obvious that earlier, more impersonal versions of the film didn’t gel.
It is indeed difficult to find a home for documentary films that don’t emulate fiction film’s fondness for good guys and bad guys. This shortcoming in translating journalism to cinema is unfortunate indeed, since the effect is to inadvertently subvert the author’s labor to bring a more nuanced reading to Washington’s foreign policy ambit.
It replaces the black-and-white narrative put forth by the regime and replaces it with another of heroes, victims and villains.
“Dirty Wars” will screen at AUB’s Hostler Auditorium Wednesday afternoon, immediately following the Nadim Makdisi Memorial Lecture at 6 p.m., delivered by journalist Jeremy Scahill.