The “War on Terror,” Starring an American Journalist

The victims shown in Dirty Wars never become more than victims. Jeremy Scahill is the star here.

The US government kills a lot of Muslims. With its war against Afghanistan, its sanctions on and wars against Iraq, its drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, it’s probably killed more than a million Muslims in the last quarter century. Let’s say a million. That’s more than a 9/11’s worth of corpses every month. And that doesn’t include the killing done by governments the United States props up and arms. Nor does it account for torture, maiming, poisoning, and terrorization. The brutalization of Muslims might be the defining feature of US foreign policy in the post–Cold War era.

Not many Americans care. Their — our — indifference is both cause and effect of the dominant tenor of antiwar advocacy in the United States. Pundits and politicians tell Americans that we should oppose this or that American war or this or that involvement in another country’s war because it would hurt . . . Americans. It would cost “us” money. Or put “our” soldiers “in harm’s way.” Or threaten our safety. Or subvert our democracy. Or tarnish our reputation. Or violate our constitution. Rarely mentioned are the bodies ripped apart by the US military monster. Rachel Maddow wrote an entire book opposing US war-making and made only fleeting references to non-American victims.

During the debate over the proposed US bombing of Syria, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni set out to remind us of the human toll of war. Justly taking aim at the expression “boots on the ground,” he pointed out that there would be people in those boots — so far, so good — but didn’t think to mention that Syrian footwear would be similarly inhabited. He went on to say that “the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions” in Iraq and Afghanistan are thousands of dead, injured, and traumatized Americans.

Of the tens of millions of Iraqi and Afghan victims he wrote not a word. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Americans wars have given entire populations PTSD.

While the overwhelming opposition of Americans to (further) US military intervention in Syria’s civil war was heartening, the rhetoric of some leading opponents was sickening. Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL), warning against intervention from the ostensible left, kept saying that the suffering of Syrians was “none of our business.” In an interview on Democracy Now he wandered into truly dark territory when he seconded the stateswoman from Alaska: “. . . Palin actually has this right: Let Allah sort it out.”

I’m not suggesting that opponents of war should use only moral arguments; they’re wise to try to appeal to people’s self-interest, and nationalism in pursuit of peace is, if not a virtue, nonetheless preferable to nationalism in pursuit of war. Likewise, antiwar advocates on the Left can’t afford to be finicky about allies: I’d team up with the ideological descendants of Charles Lindberg to try to stop a US military intervention. But nowadays, to listen to the rhetoric of mainstream war opponents is to hear a story in which foreign victims of American wars — almost always people of color — do not appear. The popular way of opposing war draws on the very chauvinism and racism that produce war.

I hoped that the documentary Dirty Wars, filmmaker Richard Rowley’s collaboration with war correspondent Jeremy Scahill, would be different, a righteous rebuke to those who don’t see the victims of our wars. It is, but not as much as I wished it were — not as much, I’d bet, as Rowley and Scahill intended it to be.

Dirty Wars will be familiar to Scahill readers. It’s a video version of some of his extraordinary reports from battle zones in the War on (of) Terror, which is actually a web of related wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, plus more limited violence in dozens of other countries. Watching the film, you realize, or remember, that the mainstream discussion of ours war is disgustingly antiseptic.

No talk in this film of “surgical” and “signature” strikes, or of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which supposedly makes legal all this horror. Here, instead, is an Afghan man in the village of Khataba joyously dancing at a baby-naming ceremony hours before US forces would kill him in a night-raid along with four of his family members, including two pregnant women and a child. Here is a survivor of the raid who had to watch US soldiers dig bullets out of his dead wife as part of an attempted cover-up. Here are dead Yemeni children, some of the 41 Bedouin victims killed in 2009 by an American cruise missile outfitted with cluster munitions. Here in Somalia is the American enemy turned ally “General” Indha Adde casually acknowledging that he executes prisoners — commits war crimes — for the United States in the name of fighting “terror.”

The filmmakers make no effort to explain how we got to this bad place. The bloody cycle is ignored. As are US dirty wars in Central America in the eighties, which were also antecedents. Some reviewers have charged Rowley and Scahill with ignorance, criticizing the film’s wide-eyed I-can’t-believe-this tone. Yet today’s wars are no less horrible for being consistent with US foreign policy over the decades. Rowley and Scahill’s outrage is a virtue, and the lack of context in the film is obviously by design. The killing speaks for itself. You need not know history to know it’s wrong.

Yet the victims shown in the film never become more than victims. Scahill is the star here. In what seems to be an effort to attract a wide mainstream audience, the filmmakers turn Dirty Wars into a thriller featuring Scahill’s efforts to uncover the truth about the secret military force doing much of the dirtiest work in the War on Terror. Later, the killing of Bin Laden would focus (uniformly positive) attention on the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), but at the time covered in Dirty Wars (2009–2010), the public knew next to nothing about this renegade army-within-an-army. Scahill traces JSOC’s bloody fingerprints from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia.

Scahill is certainly star material. With his palpable intensity and toughness, he comes across not just as a war correspondent but as a warrior correspondent. In an age of Pentagon stenographers and liberal ironists, the oppositional and earnest Scahill stands out in flattering relief. And unlike lefty key-tappers (like me), he’s seen war up close. Furthermore, the choice to put him center-stage is artistically reasonable in that it ties the film together. But it deprives victims of airtime in which they could have become what they deserve to be: stars of their own stories. Whatever Scahill’s considerable achievements, these wars aren’t about him. I’m surprised he allowed himself to become the film’s hero.

Similarly problematic is the choice to focus on the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki. The film provides a compelling account of how the formerly moderate cleric whom George W. Bush once welcomed to the White House transformed into a member and alleged “operational” leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Documenting how the War on Terror and a stay in solitary confinement in a Yemeni prison radicalized him, the al-Alwaki segment reveals the insanity (or wisdom, if you want it to continue) of fighting violence with violence. Rowley and Scahill see the “targeted” killing of an American as a turning point, and it was, but its significance is political and symbolic, not moral or legal. The same goes for the killing of al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who died in a separate US drone attack. Neither the Bill of Rights nor any coherent standard of morality distinguishes between the killing of Americans and the killing of non-Americans and to fixate on the former at the expense of the latter is to play to prejudices in a manner best left to TV talking heads and members of Congress.

When in early 2013, the debate over drones finally seized Washington thanks to Senator’s Rand Paul filibuster of the John Brennan nomination, it centered on the killing of Americans. At issue was not only the killing of al-Awlaki and his son but also the potential killing of an American on US soil. You don’t have to think that this scenario is likely, or that it would be uniquely horrific, to see the value of using it to compel the Obama administration to explain the limits on the power it has claimed — to begin to identify whom it believes it has the authority to kill.

And the political potency of this approach is undeniable. It was impossible to argue with Senator Ron Wyden when, joining Paul’s filibuster, he said, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them.”

But the nationalistic bent of the debate obscures more than it clarifies, and it’s not lost on people around the world. In response to a proposed “drone court” that would oversee the killing of only Americans, Desmond Tutu wrote:

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are?

Although Scahill has done as much as anyone recently to show Americans what our wars do to people overseas, the film in which he stars doesn’t quite challenge the notion that our lives are worth more.

I’m perhaps vulnerable to the charge that I’ve committed that cardinal reviewing sin: not judging the film on its own terms, blaming it for not being a different film. But there’s ample evidence that Rowley and Scahill wanted to make a work that showed us the human cost of our wars — indeed, the film does that — but it dilutes its own moral force by putting two Americans at the center of the story.