After watching Jeremy Scahill’s film, Dirty Wars, and reading his book of the same name, my considered opinion is that he should be nominated for an Academy Award and considered for a Pulitzer Prize.
Scahill joins Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales and MIchael Moore in achieving the successful rise of the alternative media to mainstream impact in the past decade. Scahill casts himself as a character, part witness, part sleuth, who gradually stumbles into the hidden chambers of our contemporary Heart of Darkness. “The horror!,” as Kurtz exclaimed in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is unsparingly revealed in ways that will challenge the interested viewer on very personal levels. This is a story about the death of innocents willfully covered up at the highest levels, but also a piece-by-piece dismantling of the paradigm of the Global War on Terrorism itself.
Richard Rowley’s direction and cinema photography rank with the best in recent documentary films, bringing shock and light to a dense and complicated detective story with Scahill connecting dots which at first seem random. American bullets dug by hand out of villagers' bodies. The drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, then the drone killing of his son two weeks later. A warlord in Somalia who buries his prisoners alive. What do these events have to do with the Joint Special Operations Command and who is William McRaven? How deep does it go? Why does it take a reporter for The Nation to get the story?
There is a precedent for Scahill winning the Pulitzer Prize. The 38-year old Scahill is becoming the Seymour Hersh of his generation. Hersh was a University of Chicago graduate who could not find a job in the 1960s, then became an Associated Press stringer. He came under the influence of the radical investigative analyst, I. F. Stone, and soon began asking hard questions of the Pentagon. Hersh took a turn as press secretary in Senator Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign, then returned to freelance reporting covering Vietnam. After receiving a tip from a Village Voice reporter, Hersh uncovered the My Lai massacre and cover-up in 1969, and published his expose through Pacific News Service. Though on the edge of the mainstream, his articles won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Public opinion was shaken by the images and revelations from My Lai, the war-making establishment never recovered from the cover-up, and the “underground press” merged into the mainstream. Hersh enjoyed a long career with the New York Times, and has written frequently on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal for the New Yorker in recent years.
The combination of mainstream media exposure, mass public protests and electoral candidacies like McCarthy’s, Robert Kennedy’s and George McGovern’s all interacted to end the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Scahill has the sharp eye and radical anger of the outsider, unsullied by the compromises and complications that accompany fame and success. He succeeds most when sublimating the rage he must feel, and for the most part serving as Everyman asking questions, which permits the audience to participate in what he is discovering. He is not issuing a correct line here. This non-preachy approach is most successful perhaps in his reporting on Anwar al-Awlaki, which includes stunning footage of the American-born Islamic cleric as a moderate family man at the time of 9/11, his transformation into militancy after the secret assault on Yemen, footage of his Western-educated father and mother before and after his killing, and the childhood videos of al-Awlaki’s son before his death in a drone strike, only recently acknowledged by President Barack Obama. The story tells itself, only needing Scahill to give us entry into the homes and families of those demonized as terrorists. These scenes should leave American viewers deeply shaken, which is all a reporter can do.
Cultivated by patient and experienced editors like Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Betsy Reid, Scahill began as an intern at The Nation magazine. He could be a stormy handful. There is no question that he suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder after 10 years prowling through the mad labyrinths of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia – I have not met a reporter who has returned from those battlefields who has not experienced PTSD. Scahill differs from other war correspondents, not in his levels of obsession and addiction so much as his driven, essentially spiritual commitment to telling the story of so many people in the Islamic world who somehow entrusted this foreigner to tell it with care. It is as if the people he meets believe, despite their being demonized and targeted, that there is a world conscience that can be awakened if the simplest facts are known. They trust Scahill, complete with his camera and crew, with the mission.
Scahill the Narrator
Writers on a mission can be fanatic, drawn toward semi- suicidal danger. That is because they are obsessed with a revealed truth they alone have discovered and which the rest of the world is oblivious to. Many can be put off by what Boston Globe reviewer Mark Feeney calls Scahill’s "maddening mix of nobility and narcissism." Feeney is offended by Scahill’s assuming the role of narrator in his film. Scahill's constant presence on camera is “obscuring the view.” If Scahill was an important figure, Feeney adds, that would make a difference, “but he’s not.” In his lowest cut, Feeney makes the bizarre accusation that Scahill looks like Paul Krugman’s younger brother. It is for the reader to judge whose personality interferes with their analysis, Feeney’s or Scahill’s.
Putting aside Feeney’s subjective feelings, it is a reasonable question whether the film should center so much on Scahill himself. The cult of personality is a crime on the left. Personally, I would cut a few of the scenes of Scahill nodding intently at those he interviews. But the crucial point is that this winding tale definitely needs a connecting narrator and Scahill is that narrator. Without his questioning, probing, and wandering presence, the documentary would never be able to connect the threads.
I do wish Scahill had included the stories of David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal and the coterie of “defense intellectuals” who constructed the quasi-official doctrine of the “Long War” in their Pentagon offices and think tanks a decade ago.
I wish Scahill had interviewed someone like David Kilcullen, the top adviser to Petraeus in Iraq, who fancied there could be an “armed social science” approach to suppressing insurgency, or Derek Harvey who helped develop the original “kill list” for Iraq and bragged that he had “orgasms” when targeted assassinations succeeded. But those are minor issues, ones that will be taken up by other historians.
Ending the Forever War
Perhaps my only difference with Scahill is a generational one. There was a time – 1966 until 1973 – when I and others undertook to humanize the “faceless Vietcong,” who were depicted as a remorseless enemy, Orientals who cared not about human life, who disemboweled village chiefs and would attack California if not stopped at the water’s edge. In truth, our government was running “Operation Phoenix,” a secret program by the predecessors of today's Joint Special Operations Command, in which tens of thousands of peasants in the “Vietcong” infrastructure of the Mekong Delta were being listed for round-up, torture, imprisonment in tiny cages, targeted assassinations, and/or swept up in de facto concentration camps called “strategic hamlets” in those days.
Scahill’s “dirty wars” began there or, if you like, all the way back in the campaigns to wipe out the native resistance to our Manifest Destiny. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written in collaboration including Petraeus and certain Harvard intellectuals during the Iraq War, in fact referenced the 1960s Phoenix Program as a touchstone for modern counterinsurgency theory. People like Petraeus believe to this day that Phoenix was a great model of warfare, misunderstood by the liberals and the mainstream media, and prematurely shut down before it could have reached its bloody fulfillment.
Our national security elite never learns. On that lesson, there is no disagreement. But in my generation there came a surprise no one thought possible. After years of terrible suffering, waste and deceit, there came an anti-Vietnam resistance movement, accompanied by reporters like Seymour Hersh, and political leaders like Eugene McCarthy, Bella Abzug, Ron Dellums, George McGovern and Robert Kennedy. In illegally exceeding his political mandate and constitutional role, Richard Nixon turned Middle America against his presidency and fell in disgrace. The radicals of our generation, who had come to believe the system was unchangeable, were shocked by the turn of events.
The parallel I am drawing is that the cumulative resistance to Iraq, Afghanistan and now the drones and spying scandal will lead to an erosion of support for the Imperial Presidency and its “forever war.” History tells me so. And the brilliant witness of those like Jeremy Scahill will sooner or later awaken an angry impulse in a majority of Americans to end the “dirty wars” because they are unwinnable, unaffordable, and they undermine our democracy and security as a people.