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All words: Alan Pyke

When Dirty Wars opens, it’s with the blues and blacks of a Kabul night, with director Rick Rowley’s camera looking forward through the windshield of investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’s cab. Scahill’s headed to a rooftop for a live TV interview to tell a western TV audience about the war in Afghanistan. With a voiceover that gives the documentary its throughline, Scahill begins explaining what it’s like to be closer to the conflict than almost the entire world, yet certain that he’s insulated from its real story. “This is a story of things seen and unseen.”

Cut to a shot of desert highways, this time looking out the smudged, square rear window of a humvee. The visual reverse from Rowley’s opening shot isn’t the only striking bit filmmaking in Dirty Wars, but it’s the best, and it may well be the last you notice. The story Scahill and Rowley lay out over the next 80 minutes is of the brain-circuit-overloading what-the-fuck sort for anyone not already intimately familiar with its details. The shortest possible version: The pointy end of America’s war on terror now consists of highly skilled killers working off horrifyingly thin information and going to macabre extremes to preserve a fig leaf of deniability for the American government. But no matter how many targets they eliminate, and no matter how righteously or shamefully they do it, the list of targets only gets longer.


Scahill and Rowley opt to lay their story out in unconventional ways for a documentary. Where a typical treatment of such material would use Scahill only as connective tissue between interview footage, here he is both narrator and main character. The result is imperfect – the VO sometimes feels clunky or forced, and Rowley’s use of surveillance-style photos of Scahill as he heads into meetings with sources is cute but not helpful – but it renders a large, technical, hard-to-believe news story into digestible, narrative form.

That story carries from a night raid in the town of Gardez, Afghanistan, where American special forces dug bullets out of bodies in a legalistic, practically useless exercise in deniability, through Scahill’s discovery of the Joint Special Operations Command and JSOC’s new worldwide mandate to kill or capture suspected terrorists, to the application of the same battlefield earth anti-terror strategy using more impersonal means in Yemen and Somalia. Dirty Wars pulls on special forces veteran Andrew Exum, among other sources, to explain something that should chill even the most steadfast supporter of America’s war on terror: it’s not working, and the failure has nothing to do with drones or cruise missiles or JSOC raids. Those tools function very well – as often as 20 times each night in the case of Afghan night raids – but are being put in service of a self-defeating policy.

This isn’t a documentary intended to break news. Its interviews with Dr. Nasser Al Aulaqi provide unusual insights into his son Anwar, the first American the U.S. government has admitted to executing without due process, but Scahill’s published reporting based on his access to Al Aulaqi before. But if you’re a close enough follower of America’s dirty wars that you’re worried about being bored, odds are you’ve got friends who need to see Dirty Wars.