Film review: Dirty Wars (2013)

The excellent book Dirty Wars that I reviewed yesterday is about 530 pages but is so well written that it was not hard to get through. What made it hard to take were the things the book described. For those who do not have the time to read it, the documentary of the same name covers the main points. But even those who have read the book will find the film well worth watching. It is one thing to read about the people and events described in the book, it is quite another to actually see the people and places involved and to hear from them first hand.

The film is shaped as a quasi-detective story as Scahill investigates the deaths of people around the world at the hands of US sophisticated weaponry (such as cruise missiles and drones) and uncovers the existence of a mindset in which the US is at ‘war with terror’ and that sees the whole world as a battlefield and thus anyone anywhere can be treated as an enemy combatant and summarily ‘taken out’ (if one likes to use euphemisms) or simply murdered if one prefers plain speaking.

Of course, such actions are not taken in places where the people or nations have the capacity to retaliate or kick up a fuss and so the full impact is borne by people living in remote and dirt-poor regions of the world, such as the rural areas of Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan.

Scahill’s story begins with a visit to Gardez, Afghanistan which is the site of an infamous massacre on February 12, 2010 by American forces carried out while a party was taking place at the home of Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, a respected police officer, trained by the US. who had just been given an important promotion as head of intelligence in one of the districts in Paktia province. The party was for the naming ceremony of his newborn son and many people crowded into his home and cell phone videos show the host and others dancing and having a good time. But in the middle of the night the party was invaded by mysterious large bearded men who shot things up, killing seven people in all, including Dauod, his son, and three women, two of them pregnant. The dead women had sixteen children among them.

What happened next was macabre. The invading men then tried to retrieve all evidence of their presence, even going to the extent of using knives to dig into the bodies of the dead in order to retrieve the bullets.

I wrote about this story back in April 2010 when it was first reported by Jerome Starkey of the London Times, but it was something else to hear the events recounted by the villagers who had been present and to see and hear the little children who had been witness to the attacks on their mothers, fathers, and other relatives and to see the grisly photos of the dead. Is it any wonder that some of the witnesses of such atrocities refer to the US as the ‘American Taliban’ and are seething with anger and vowing revenge?

When I see things like that, I wonder about the depraved mentality of those who minimize with clichés like ‘war is hell’ the very real suffering of people caught in a war they did not invite nor do they wish to participate in. In my experience, those who so glibly dismiss such atrocities are usually armchair warriors who have never seen war up close. I doubt that they would have such a blase reaction if they or their loved ones were at the receiving end of such acts or that they would have the nerve to say such a thing to the faces of the survivors. It is the kind of casual attitude towards the deaths of the poor and powerless that one finds in the world of the comfortable, safely far away from the ugliness and horror of actual war.

The US military first denied any involvement in the Gardez massacre, blaming it on the Taliban, and singled out Starkey for attack saying that he was reporting falsehoods. But the truth is stubborn and it slowly emerged, and the US was forced to acknowledge the killings and make a peace offering to the village, though they tried to hide even that from the press by ordering Starkey to leave. But the villagers insisted that he stay which is why there is photographic evidence of US acknowledgment of their responsibility for the massacre.

The other massacre reported in the film was in the remote village of Al Majalah in the southern region of Yemen, a barren and remote place which on December 17, 2009 suddenly received a direct hit from a US cruise missile that killed 46 people, including 21 children and 14 women, five of whom were pregnant. The cell phone photos of the dead children are harrowing. The anger of the surviving adults was palpable.

The Yemeni president government Ali Abdullah Saleh, fearing public anger, had denied that he had allowed the US to carry out attacks in his country and had been claiming that such bombings were by his own government in the cause of fighting terrorists. But an intrepid Yemeni reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye went to the village and found cruise missile fragments that had markings that clearly implicated the US. This made US culpability impossible to ignore and the US response was two-fold.

One was to say that the village was the home and training ground of al Qaeda, something the villagers hotly denied saying, “If they kill innocent children and call them al Qaeda, then we are all al Qaeda”.

The second response was to have the Yemeni government arrest Shaye and torture him in prison to deter any other reporter who might also get ideas about reporting the truth. But Shaye was an immensely popular reporter because he was seen as one of the few that spoke the truth even against his own government so his arrest sparked protests in the street. The Yemeni president eventually decided to release him in 2011 but on the eve of doing so, he received a phone call from president Obama asking him to keep him in jail, where he was held without charge until July of this year. Obama’s viciousness against those who expose his and US criminal acts extends all over the globe.

Investigating these events is what led Scahill to learn about the global reach of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), first created as a small group in 1980, that has become almost the private army of the president and the main arm of a global strike force that now acts quickly and secretly and lethally in over 75 countries around the globe, the scope of its activities hidden behind an alphabet soup of acronyms for its various subdivisions.

A secret informant who had served under JSOC leaders Stanley McCrystal and William McRaven and had a ringside seat on how it became the behemoth it now is and was aware of Scahill’s previous work exposing the mercenary company Blackwater came forward to give Scahill inside information about the activities of JSOC. Scahill identifies him in the book by the code name ‘Hunter’ and his voice is disguised in the film. In chapter 17 of the book, ‘Hunter’ said that he is a firm believer and supporter of the war on terror but felt that it was in serious danger of going too far. He describes the mindset of the people at the top as, “The world is a battlefield and we are at war. Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.” He also says “What we have essentially done is create one hell of a hammer and for the rest of our generation this force will be continuously searching for a nail.”

The atrocities committed by the US are now so glaring that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports yesterday that stopped just short of directly accusing the US of violating international law, killing civilians indiscriminately, and hiding extrajudicial killings (which are war crimes) behind a wall of secrecy. The abuses are so bad that even mainstream US media such as NPR and the BBC are tiptoeing towards accusing the US government of war crimes, such as the deadly ‘double tap’ strikes where the US sends in a missile that causes mayhem and then when many people rush in aid the wounded it sends in another strike, killing even more. This is a tactic the US seems to have learned from al Qaeda and the Taliban.

According to the Washington Post:

In Yemen, Human Rights Watch investigated six selected airstrikes since 2009 and concluded that at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians, including a pregnant woman and three children who perished in a September 2012 attack.

In Pakistan, Amnesty International investigated nine suspected U.S. drone strikes that occurred between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan. The group said it found strong evidence that more than 30 civilians were killed in four of the attacks.

The groups’ findings coincide with a report released Friday by a U.N. human rights investigator, who estimated that 2,200 people have been killed in drone strikes over the past decade in Pakistan.

Of those casualties, at least 400 were civilians and 200 others were “probable noncombatants,” according to the U.N. official, Ben Emmerson. He said the statistics were provided by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.

The film ends with Scahill in Somalia getting word of the death of Anwar al Awlaki and then more shockingly two weeks later of the killing of his son Abdulrahman. He returns to Sana’a to the home of Abdulrahman’s grandfather Nasser Al Awlaki and they watch home videos of the young boy as he grows up both in the US and in Yemen, being playful and doing the usual things that boys do. We are left with the haunting and yet unanswered question: What has the US become when it murders in a distant land a 16-year old boy who has never done anything wrong?

Here’s the trailer for Dirty Wars. See the film if you get the opportunity.


  1. trucreep says

    Your paragraph about those who dismiss this as “war is hell” is particularly spot-on. This was a very disturbing movie that gave a great visual element to the book.

  2. says

    The atrocities committed by the US are now so glaring that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports yesterday that stopped just short of directly accusing the US of violating international law, killing civilians indiscriminately, and hiding extrajudicial killings (which are war crimes) behind a wall of secrecy.

    Why aren’t they telling the truth?

    The !*$&!@&!^ media is all onboard with the game of using the washington vocabulary – “extreme rendition” instead of “torture” and “enhanced interrogation” instead of “torture”, “drone strikes” instead of “assassination” – “extrajudicial killing” (which allows the fig-leaf of a classified death panel) instead of “assassination” I guess the international community learned absolutely NOTHING from WWII and Rwanda and Kosovo and Gaza, huh?

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Huh? What happened to my comments on here before?

  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Ah, this is a different thread here than the one I thought it was. Okay, never mind. That’s a relief. (Wipes brow.)

    Film of the new book already? That was quick.


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