The title of Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars suggests not one, but two, covert wars. This 2013 documentary has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and it is based on the book by Jeremy Scahill.
Adopting the role of investigator, Scahill sets out to find out more about the “dirty wars” — the secret attacks on people carried out by night raids and drone attacks happening more and more frequently throughout the world.
Scahill uncovers information about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a covert unit started in 1980 that reports to the White House and is run by William McRaven. He notices the increase in the unit’s activities as the target list grows longer and longer, but he wonders about the chosen targets and their locations.
In addition to interviewing people who know a little about the unit and the covert attacks, Scahill interviews victims and surviving families of night raids and drone strikes, which happen in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and others. The United States has no war declared with Yemen, so why the strikes there? Scahill wonders.
His interviews with surviving family members reveal the traumas and losses from the raids and strikes. They share their photos, videos, and memories of the events. The pictures show the bloodied dead, including pregnant women and children. The videos show the fear and confusion over what is happening and why. The memories show the same, along with the grief for their losses.
“The world is now a battlefield,” Scahill observes in his contemplative voiceover. As he continues looking for information, he asks, “What was hidden in the shadows right now? What was I missing?”
This voiceover, along with the visual style and premise, make this documentary feel like a dramatic spy thriller, maybe even film noir. The style creates an interesting framework for what is otherwise shocking information. While some might prefer a more straightforward presentation, I found the style and the Kronos Quartet performance of David Harrington’s music quite compelling.
The other covert war is on journalism and information. Scahill repeatedly faces stonewalls when trying to get more information from official sources. Through archival footage, we see mainstream media reporters deny the validity of his claims though they offer no grounds on which to critique him. Freedom of Information Act requests stall. Scahill mentions getting threats as well. A reporter who uncovered the raid in Afghanistan was discredited. A journalist who covered the events in Yemen was jailed.
For me, this documentary (along with the book) demonstrates why long-term investigative journalism is important and requires more support. Mainstream news frequently present one perspective, and separating the facts from the perspective can prove difficult. Even then, the perspectives often remain firmly rooted in the present, the recent. Long-term, in-depth reporting gets to the bigger picture, finds the larger patterns, just as many documentaries such as this one do.