Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter for The Nation and the author of an acclaimed exposé on the mercenary outfit Blackwater, ventures well outside the green zone to Gardez, Afghanistan—“the sort of place where journalists never show up to ask questions.” There, he digs into the case of a seemingly innocent police chief and three women killed in a night raid for which the U.S. eventually admitted responsibility. The incident prompts Scahill to launch a broader inquiry into the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive military group that gained a brief spot in the limelight after the death of Osama Bin Laden. Scahill argues that Gardez and Abbottabad were just the tip of the iceberg, and that these hits were part of a much larger, ongoing, hush-hush offensive waged against an ever-growing list of targets.
Filmed as Scahill was researching and writing his new book of the same title, Dirty Wars essentially proffers a real-world version of the conspiracy theory Oliver Stone advanced in JFK, suggesting that military operations are now not so much a means of achieving national security but an end in themselves. As an anonymous interviewee suggests, with JSOC, the U.S. government has created a hammer that’s constantly searching for a nail to hit. Seeking the group’s footprint in Yemen and Somalia, Scahill presents covert strikes as tantamount to unclaimed wars, carried out with a lack of diligence and certainly no respect for due process.
As a polemic, Dirty Wars is provocative and productively depressing, raising doubts about the effectiveness of military missions that have the potential to create ideological enemies, as well as the degree to which elected officials can—or are willing to—place checks on secret ops. (Obama gets no more points than Bush in any of the matters discussed.) As filmmaking, the movie seems overly focused on Scahill himself, who not only narrates but also serves as an onscreen guide. Terrifying footage of the author venturing into “denied areas” provides an essential reminder of the risks faced by reporters in combat zones; shots of him nodding sagely while conducting interviews or piecing together a story back in Brooklyn come across as filler. Then again, with the state of journalism being what it is, Dirty Wars’ reminders that newsgathering is hard work may be more urgent than ever.