United States commandos answerable directly to President Barack Obama are killing countless innocent civilians every night in dozens of countries around the world.
Rather than fighting terrorism, these missions to kill alleged militants often come before the intended targets have ever done anything violent or illegal. And even if soldiers are lucky enough to hit their target — and often they don’t — these attacks, by covert raid or submarine- or drone-launched missile, also kill and maim innocent bystanders, turning actual and potential American sympathizers and allies into blood-feud sworn enemies of the United States.
Under the George W. Bush administration, and vastly and secretly expanded under the Obama administration, the US has created a self-perpetuating cycle of secret worldwide combat, robbing families in this country and around the globe of loved ones, peaceful futures, and the numberless benefits of security at home and abroad.
These are the theses — and the undeniable conclusions — of Jeremy Scahill’s newest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield (Nation Books, $32.99) and its companion Dirty Wars film, directed by Richard Rowley, which SPACE Gallery is bringing to screen at the Portland Museum of Art four times this weekend.
In many ways the 83-minute film, distributed by indie-movie kingmakers IFC Films/Sundance Selects, is a trailer for the book. Taken on its own, the movie is a slow, dark procedural, following pieces of Scahill’s extensive multi-year investigation into how the Joint Special Operations Command, “the most covert unit in the military, and the only one that reports directly to the White House,” has taken charge in the fight against terrorism. In the process, JSOC has gotten Obama’s permission to kill anyone anywhere in the world — even US citizens — without specific allegations of wrongdoing, any functioning oversight or real spending limits, and in ways that only inflame international anti-American opinion, ensuring a steady supply of potential targets for a neverending war.
The film has compelling moments, to be sure. In the first ten minutes, for example, we meet a man who was at a party that was raided by US Special Forces, killing his wife and other family members, including an Afghan police commander who had extensively trained alongside the US military. The man tells of seeing the soldiers dig the bullets out of the bodies — even from people who were still alive — with their knives. Then the man himself was taken prisoner and held for several days. Upon his return to his village, he had been radicalized: “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans,” he tells Scahill.
The corresponding scene in the book is stronger, by far. Of course it lacks the visceral video of a man dancing with friends and family only hours before he is killed by US Special Forces. It doesn’t include the actual sobs of a grieving woman. And the text also doesn’t let you hear the sweet, high-pitched voice of a six-year-old Afghan girl as she recites the names of family members Americans killed that night.
What it offers instead is page after page of an organized, sequential play-by-play of the events, explained clearly and vividly (including the important detail that the bullets were dug out of the bodies to cover up evidence that American troops had been there). The movie was filmed during Scahill’s reporting, so some quotes appear in both places, but the book uses them in better and more complete context, making reading them more effective even than seeing and hearing the tearful voices of the survivors of the attack.
And that gets at the basic difference between the two, and the reason the film is only really powerful when viewed as a selective sampler of the book. The movie is about the life and experience of being a war reporter digging this stuff up, as opposed to the book’s focus on what Scahill uncovered. And without question, the latter is more important than the former.
It’s certainly interesting to hear the inner dialogue of an investigative reporter’s brain — to hear how such simple questions (“Who were these American soldiers?”) require so much hard work to answer and untangle into a cohesive story.
Yet it is much more useful to read in full the stunning mosaic Scahill is able to put together than to watch small bits of his experience of locating the tiny pieces of that whole.
Scahill’s reporting on these issues, like his previous best-selling bookBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army(Nation Books, 2007; excerpted in the Portland Phoenix March 23, 2007) and his reporting in the Nation, on Democracy Now!, and elsewhere is a call to action, if not to arms, for Americans who still believe their country should be governed by its people, for its people.
What the film blasts through but the book explores — and explains — in depth is possibly the most terrifying development in the war on terror: Obama’s decision, made by him personally, that it was legal and permissible to kill American citizens overseas without trial, in direct contravention of the Fifth Amendment, which says “no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
As Scahill notes, even John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who joined the Taliban and actually engaged in combat against US forces, was given a trial under the Bush administration after his capture in 2001. Anwar al Awlaki, who had never done anything but write and speak passionately about how he saw the world, was not given the same rights by the Obama administration before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011. (Nor was Samir Khan, another US citizen killed in the same strike that targeted Awlaki.)
And neither was Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, killed a few short weeks after his father, while having lunch with some teenage buddies.
The US explained away the teen’s killing, calling it “collateral damage” of a drone strike targeting someone else, but didn’t apologize for the death. And the government downplayed the facts that the attack failed to kill any actual confirmed terrorists, and that it happened in Yemen, a country not publicly acknowledged as an American war zone.
Scahill’s conclusion is chilling: Abdulrahman al Awlaki was killed not for what he had done, but “for what he might someday become.” Even today, the American attacks continue, and continue to turn people around the world — and at home — into opponents of US government’s World War Three.
Dirty Wars | directed by Richard Rowley | 83 minutes | at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | Aug 2 @ 7 pm, Aug 3 @ 2 and 7 pm, Aug 4 @ 2 pm | $7