It’s rare to hear the voices and see the faces of people who are the victims of US terror. A gripping new film, Dirty Wars, aims to change that.
US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill set out to make a documentary on the “war on terror”. But after collecting hours of footage that was simply a “catalogue of horrors” his team made it a story about Jeremy’s investigation instead.
Jeremy explained that he was uncomfortable about putting himself at the centre of the film. “I don’t write articles about myself in the first person,” he said.
“But when we tried to tell the story in a non-personal way it just became catalogue of horrors. The main thing Rick Rowely, the director, and I wanted to do was to put a human face on the war.”
The film tracks Scahill as he investigates US killing from Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia—and discovers the shadowy JSOC unit.
“We wanted to make the faces and stories of people being killed real so that people can’t simply write them off as terrorists,” said Jeremy. “I hate the term collateral damage. It makes me cringe. What I thought about a lot when making the film was school shootings in the US.
“The media coverage of them is phenomenal. We know the name of every kid. We see their drawings. We hear about their dreams of what they wanted to do—‘He wanted to be a firefighter,’ or ‘She wanted to be an astronaut’.
“It creates a sense of intense empathy for the families of those who have been killed. That never happens with victims of war, except soldiers, particularly in the American media.”
Jeremy highlighted an example from Al-Majalah, a village in Yemen that he visits as part of the film. US forces killed 14 women and 21 children in an attack there—but Jeremy said the incident “wasn’t known in the US at all”.
“What were the dreams of those children?” he asked. “Where are their paintings? I wanted people to look into the eyes of children that they are being told are the enemy.”
The desire to get the impact of the war on ordinary people across to a wider audience shaped how the film turned out.Jeremy said he wanted to make sure the film was accessible.
“I’m from a working class family,” he said. “Both my parents are nurses and almost all of my relatives are blue collar workers. I wanted my uncle in East Chicago to see it and not feel like he was being preached at or that he was at school.”
Some of the most powerful scenes in the film come when Jeremy meets the families of people murdered by US forces. He described it as a “humbling” experience.
“When we meet a family of people killed we send an emissary and explain a little about who we are and what we would like to do,” he explained.
“In Afghanistan we arrived in the home of people who had a horrifying act of violence committed against their families. It happened on a night they were celebrating the birth of a child, it was a naming ceremony.
“A man described how he watched his pregnant wife killed in front of him. Then he watched as bearded American commandos dug the bullets out of her dead body.”
The man was then handcuffed, flown to another province and questioned for three days over whether he was a member of the Taliban.
He and his family suffered tremendous violence at the hands of the US government—but he still welcomed a US journalist into his home.
Jeremy said, “I look like the soldiers who killed his wife—a six foot tall white guy with a beard. Why didn’t he hack me to pieces? He might not meet another American again.
“Yet the family welcomed us into their home and shared the most painful story. They did it on the minuscule chance there would be some justice out of it.”
This is what matters for Jeremy. He doesn’t see making the film as simply a process of recording events. He wants to make a difference for those who have suffered because of the US war machine.
“I don’t think as a journalist you can just walk away saying I’ve got a great story,” he said. “You owe those people.
“I have a great affinity for the anti-war movement. I’m not going to pretend I work for the National Geographic magazine telling you about the great rare gazelle. I believe in the stories I report on.
“We want justice for those people. I don’t make any secret of that. That’s why we made this film. We want justice.”
An American on the kill list
Jeremy discovered that the US military crossed new boundaries when it put a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, on a “kill list”. He visited al-Alwaki’s family to ask about his life and background.
“Al Awlaki was very much a product of US foreign policy,” said Jeremy. “He started off very moderate and was quite pro-war.
“He agreed about the US going into Afghanistan. He was invited to speak at the Pentagon after 9/11 and he spoke in the US Congress.
“Then he saw Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and he became radicalised.
“The US is sending a message to a generation of young Muslims that Western society is at war with their religion. I think there will be a serious price to pay.”
A US drone strike killed Al-Awaki in Yemen in September 2011. US drones killed his 16 year old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, two weeks later.
The ‘cruise missile liberals’ who make excuses for war
Dirty Wars shows the impact of the drone warfare that Barack Obama has made his own since the first days of his presidency.
“Obama claimed he was going to radically change America’s relationship with the world and abolish torture apparatus,” said Jeremy. “But he has continued some of Dick Cheney and George Bush’s worst policies and has put a stamp of legitimacy on them.
“Obama has convinced liberals that the Democratic Party can wage a cleaner sort of war. I call them cruise missile liberals.”
Jeremy’s previous books include a study of the Blackwater firm which has huge military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said such firms are “making a killing out of killing” and have huge political power.
“Corporations are able to buy members of congress,” said Jeremy. “It’s a legalised form of bribery and corruption.
“No leader is going to emerge in the current set-up who will stand up in any effective way to the military industrial complex. We are in a perpetual state of war.”
The bloody history of Western intervention has made Jeremy, like many others, sceptical of Western motives for intervening in Syria. He said the US and Britain have “been on the wrong side of the Arab revolutions from the beginning”.
“I believe Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal,” said Jeremy. “But I don’t think the US or the West has a right to overthrow governments.
“The philosophy of some on the left is that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. It’s a bankrupt philosophy that leads people to endorse human rights abuses.”