On Movies: 'Dirty Wars' focuses on collateral damage | St. Louis Public Radio

On Movies: 'Dirty Wars' focuses on collateral damage

Jun 28, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "Dirty Wars" is a disturbing documentary about America's clandestine use of drones, long-range missiles and deadly midnight raids for what are called "targeted assassinations" in Africa and the Middle East. The attacks are theoretically directed at known terrorists, but sometimes -- often, the filmmakers contend -- innocent people are killed. In one case that drives veteran war correspondent Jeremy Scahill on an obsessive investigation deep into zones of death, two pregnant women are among the casualties of a raid.

Scahill reports for the Nation magazine and is the author of a book on the Blackwater security contractors. For “Dirty Wars,” he is followed by the cameras of director Richard Rowley as he penetrates war zones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The more Scahill digs, the more he unearths about the super-secret clandestine service -- the Joint Special Operations Command --  that operates virtually without control in countries across the globe. JSOP was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden, a death Scahill says he neither mourns nor celebrates, but the organization is also responsible for many unpublicized assassinations, often with "collateral damage."

Scahill interviews several men who formerly worked with JSOP. One of them suggests the agency, which he estimates operates in 75 countries, has "run wild." Another points out that “killing a woman and child can undo all you have done for 9 or 10 months" in winning the support of villagers in places like Afghanistan and Somalia.

"Dirty Wars" is notable for its tense war-zone footage and for its sense of narrative drive as Scahill doggedly pursues leads on raids or drone strikes that killed numerous innocent people. He learns that some Afghan villagers refer to members of SJOP as "the American Taliban." He seems particularly obsessed with the case of American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who became radicalized, the film maintains, after being thrown in jail in the United States for a year and a half without any charges being filed. The cleric is killed in Yemen by a drone strike. But, as we learn in a powerful moment near the end of the film, Anwar al-Awlaki was not the only American citizen in his family to be killed by a drone.

Some viewers may find the political stance of "Dirty Wars" to be too strenuously anti-American and too concerned about the rights of terrorists, but it would be difficult to argue that killing innocent villagers makes any sense either morally or strategically. The movie reflects the sense that we have entered a new and uncertain world where technology makes the unspeakable as easy as pressing a key. In Somalia, or in our backyards.

The day after I saw "Dirty Wars," a startling headline popped off the front page of the Post-Dispatch:

"Police Chief Envisions Drones for St. Louis."

City police chief Sam Dotson was quoted as saying he would seek donations and grants to pay for "miniature airplanes," unmanned drones, that could "circle Busch Stadium to watch for terrorists and or silently pursue a criminal who thought the chase was over."

Surely, the criminals would fight back. These days, apparently, you can pick up a drone for as little as $60,000, and the price is certain to drop as the orders increase. And, as we all know, the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a drone is a good guy with a drone.