Jeremy Scahill crouches on top of a tattered rooftop in Mogadishu, Somalia, and gunfire rings out.
“The men fired across the rooftops,” Scahill narrates. “But it didn’t make sense to me what we were doing here. Or what the Americans were doing here, arming this warlord turned general for what seemed like a senseless war.”
The next scene, the camera pans to a ditch. Scahill is asking the warlord a question.
“If you capture a foreigner alive,” asks Scahill, a US journalist, “you execute them on the battlefield?”
Captions spell out the response of the warlord, known there as “White Eyes.”
“Yes,” replies the bearded man whose eyes were obscured by sunglasses. “So that other foreigners expect no mercy.”
Mogadishu is just one of the places where Scahill takes viewers in his documentary, Dirty Wars, directed by Richard Rowley. An Oct. 30 lecture featuring Scahill and Tom Englehardt at the Lensic—presented by the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom Series—is already sold out. Scahill will attend a 6 pm screening at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Oct. 31.
The film asserts that the United States is engaging in a new, unchecked method of warfare through the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) the black ops force whose members killed Osama Bin Laden in a pre-dawn invasion on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May, 2011.
Scahill, a Wisconsin native, has been reporting in warzones since the late ‘90s for outlets like Democracy Now! and The Nation, where he now works as a national security correspondent. A writing fellow at The Nation Institute—“established to extend the reach of progressive ideas and strengthen the independent press”—Scahill made a name for himself with his 2007 book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. This time around, Scahill probes the foreign policy of the Obama administration, which he found has “solidified and sought to legitimatize many of the very policies that a lot of people in the US and around the world have grown very tired of or angry over when Bush was implementing them.”
“It’s a myth of American politics that the Democrats are somehow the peace party,” he tells SFR.
In the film, Scahill expresses surprise that JSOC was a front-page headline following Bin Laden’s death. For about two years, he had been attempting to investigate the shadowy military unit responsible for similar lethal raids. The documentary begins with Scahill in the dark streets of Afghanistan. The journalist and his team take a dangerous trip to the eastern city of Gardez, where a February 2010 JSOC raid led to the death of five people, including a US-trained Afghan security official and two pregnant women.
And if the strike on Bin Laden was successful, the documentary wonders who else is on the government’s kill list. Following the shoe-leather tradition of Vietnam war correspondents like Seymour Hersh—the reporters who seek to put the claims of the military PR machine up to actual scrutiny by investigating those claims—Scahill answers that question by interviewing, among others, the father of the Las Cruces, New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki. The Obama administration assassinated al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who moved to Yemen after 9/11, in a drone strike while he was still a US citizen. Later, a US drone strike killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman. Scahill reported in his book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, that Obama was “surprised” and “upset” about the killing of Abdurahman. But Scahill shows in the documentary that the emotional trauma on the boy’s grandparents has already been delivered.
And impact on Scahill has been delivered, too. The documentary parts from the old-school journalistic practice of keeping the reporter out of the story. In Dirty Wars, Scahill’s own emotional journey, as he investigates this new form of warfare, is as much a part of the storyline as the physical journey that brings him to places like Capitol Hill where he testified about special force operations, and the mean streets of Somalia, where he shows the US is outsourcing its kill list to brutal warlords. Scenes of Scahill typing, putting pins on a global map or emotionally reacting to his discoveries have been criticized as being contrived. Scahill tells SFR that he’s not entirely comfortable as being the emotional vehicle in the film, but that the team wanted to find a way to make its message accessible to people who don’t follow every detail of US foreign policy. Scahill says he thought of people like his aunts and uncles who are “involved in the daily grind of supporting their families.”
“I want to make a film that they can go and watch for 90 minutes and come away feeling like they understand the issues, and that they, you know, got something out of it,” he says, “not that it was like homework.”
The documentary suggests that perhaps US officials—and the public—should do more homework about the collateral damage of this new method of warfare, and whether it’s creating more enemies across the globe than it’s killing.
“America was trying to kill its way to victory,” Scahill says in the film, “How does a war like that ever end?”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Oct. 30 Lannan Foundation event as a screening. The event is a part of Lannan's In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom lecture series.