Mark Reviews Movies

Dirty Wars


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Rowley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 6/7/13 (limited); 6/14/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 13, 2013

There comes a moment in Dirty Wars, which documents the rise of special operations forces in the War on Terror, when the film cuts to the introduction of the Executive Branch of the United States government that's behind the escalation of "kill lists," strikes in countries where no official conflict has been announced, night raids throughout Afghanistan that leave bodies of suspected terrorists and apparent innocents alike riddled with bullets, and all sorts of shadowy military procedures.

After so much time hearing about the excesses of the George W. Bush administration in attempting to curtail terrorism at home and fighting it abroad, the assumption is that we're about to see the man or one of his cohorts on screen. Needless to say, that's not the case.

No, it's a black-and-white image of President Barack Obama, the man who campaigned on ending the shady dealings and ways of his predecessor, that appears. Obviously, we know these things are happening; after all, Osama bin Laden might still be alive and in hiding in that compound in Pakistan or somewhere else without such operations.

There are two wars being fought, the film says: one on the surface and serving as the public face to "win the hearts and minds" of the local people and the second to fight in the shadows against an ever-growing list of enemies. The frequency of these operations is startling, and they've only become more prevalent. How did this happen?

The film offers no answers. It certainly names the people in charge, and we can assume their motivations are as pure as can be expected in a time of conflict—namely, to win. The problem, the film argues, is that there can be no victory in such a war. When night raids and drone strikes leave civilian casualties, such as the women and children whose bodies lay lifeless in some of the film's most shocking footage, the end result is more and more people, who may have been passive beforehand, becoming active in the fight against the United States.

The result is that the world is the new battlefield. If we assume the worst about some of those in charge, this is the goal—to maintain a cycle of conflict to ensure the need for those who run said battles.

We see examples of this as journalist Jeremy Scahill, the film's central subject, travels to the places where journalists do not dare to tread, lest they become victims of Taliban violence that still erupts in certain areas of Afghanistan. One man, whose pregnant wife was killed in one of those nighttime raids, says he wants to take up arms against the people who did this; the only thing stopping him is his surviving family.

Then there's the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric and American citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, a country where no conflict has been official declared. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he spoke out against Islamic extremism. According to his father, he supported George W. Bush in the 2000 election, believing a conservative Republican would be better for Muslims than a liberal Democrat. He was a visitor at the Pentagon.

Something changed. He was stopped in airports and placed under surveillance. By 2010, he was on a kill list. The film doesn't argue that al-Awlaki wasn't what the government believed him to be—a recruiter for al-Qaeda. It does suggest that whatever evidence the government might have had against him was kept classified in a catch-22 that basically guaranteed there was no chance he would ever receive a trial (The film does de-emphasize some information to make its case in this instance).

Whatever attention he received is more than that bestowed upon his teenage son, who was also killed in a drone strike. A new policy classifies any male between the ages of 15 and 70 as potential enemy combatants, no matter what their circumstances may be. Scahill sees the killing of al-Awlaki's son as something ancient—killing the son to ensure that he does not grow up to become the father.

There's plenty here about which to be outraged, but that's too simple for director Richard Rowley. Instead, the film is confounded and, primarily, haunted by these developments. The confusion, it seems, is over the shift in Obama as a candidate and Obama as President, who has issued executive orders for such operations and killings. It's even more mystified by the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), who work for "whichever administration is power." The film shows the famous photograph of the White House Situation Room during the raid on the bin Laden compound and points out that the man at the head of the table is the JSOC commander's assistant. The most lingering question, after all is said and done here, is a basic and potentially frightening one: Who exactly is running this show?

The implications of either presumable answer—the President or his military advisers—are staggering. Dirty Wars realizes this and reacts in the only sane way possible: with skepticism and sadness.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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