Screen shot from Rick Rowley & Jeremy Scahill’s appearance on “Democracy Now!” to discuss their film, “Dirty Wars”

“The world is a battlefield,” is the tagline for Dirty Wars, a documentary that premiered days ago at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film produced by Nation national security correspondent Jeremy Scahill and Big Noise Films director Rick Rowley attempts to bring the US global war on terrorism out of the shadows by spotlighting the CIA agents, special forces operators, military generals and US-backed warlords who are waging this war. The film also follows Scahill as survivors of night raids and drone strikes are located and interviewed about their experiences.

Both Rowley and Scahill appeared on “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman this morning. A clip shown from the film features Scahill comparing the war in Afghanistan to the undeclared war in Yemen, “In Yemen, there was no war. At least not officially. The strikes seemed to come out of the blue and most Yemenis were going about life as usual.” The clip is when they were just getting into what is happening in Yemen and learning about cruise missile strikes in 2009, the first time Yemen was bombed by the US in seven years.

The film highlights the targeted assassination of US-born Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Also, it explores the area where strikes have been happening. Survivors are interviewed. It details the strike on al Majalah, which is one of the first drone strikes Obama authorized during his first term as president. Forty-six people were killed including two dozen women and children.

“What we saw on the ground is the United States and Yemen claim to be killing al Qaeda leadership and they’ve killed a handful of them in Yemen but for the most part it seems that the drone strikes are hitting in areas where they’re killing civilians,” Scahill stated. “And what it’s doing [is] it’s turning people in Yemen that might not be disposed to have anything against the United States into potential enemies that have a legitimate grudge against America.”

Rowley told Goodman, the documentary is an effort to tell the “most important story of our generation,” the story of the global war on terrorism. “It’s a story that’s been completely not covered. It remains hidden and invisible for most Americans.” It is happening in the shadows so the idea was to go where most members of the press are not going and “Make this invisible war that’s being fought in our name but without our knowledge visible to the American people.”

This required leaving the “Green Zone” to go see where the war is taking place—to talk to civilians about the impact of the war on their lives and to witness the “massive popular anger over drone strikes and government complicity” in countries like Yemen. It entailed Rowley and Scahill putting themselves at risk in areas where al Qaeda or warlords were mobilizing.

Rowley shared, “One of the things that humbles both of us is when you arrive in a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that knocked that door in and killed half their family.” Yet, “time and time again those families invited us in, welcomed us and shared their stories with us.” We “promised we’d do everything we could to share their stories” in the United States.

A part of the film looks at a brutal night raid that took place in Gardez, Afghanistan. Scahill recounted, “US special operations forces had ‘intelligence’ that a Taliban cell was having some meeting to prepare a suicide bomber.” They raided this home in the middle of the night and killed five people, three of them women. Two of the women were pregnant. Mohammed Daoud, a senior Afghan police commander who was trained by the United States and Military Professional Resources, Inc., a private military contractor, was killed. They had actually been celebrating the birth of a child. When the soldiers realized what they had done, they conspired to cover up the killings.

“We interview the survivors of this raid including a man who watched, while he was zip-cuffed, American soldiers digging bullets out of his dead wife’s body,” Scahill said. The special forces took the men in the house into custody, flew them to different provinces and tried to get them to give up information on how they were tied to the Taliban.

Jerome Starkey of the Times of London reported on the massacre. According to Scahill, NATO smeared him and said he was lying in his reporting. NATO also put out a press release and made anonymous statements that the forces had stumbled upon the aftermath of an honor killing. The women had been killed by their own family.

Rowley and Scahill managed to obtain cell phone video taken by victims of the raid. Soldiers’ hands can be seen moving the corpses around and photographing bullet holes to make it seem like something other than a massacre happened.

Amazingly, the production had connections to a photographer who happened to get a shot of Vice Admiral William McRaven, JSOC commander, when he showed up to Gardez with “scores of Afghan soldiers and US forces.” Sheep were offloaded and they offered to sacrifice the sheep to ask for forgiveness. This happened in the place of the raid and showed that JSOC had likely been responsible for the raid.

Both Scahill and Starkey submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which were bounced around by the military. Had they not known a photographer who captured an image of McRaven, they would not have been able to suggest what forces or agency was responsible for the raid in the film.

Raw cell phone video, a snapshot—These are the “scraps and pieces that we have to use to reconstruct the story of these wars because everything else is systematically hidden from us,” Rowley stated.

In another clip shown, Scahill is with General Indha Adde, a US-backed warlord in Somalia. Adde used to protect people on the US kill list but he was flipped and now works for the US. The part of the film highlights the outsourcing of the kill list in Somalia.

Scahill says, as men fire across rooftops, that it does not make sense what the US is doing here “arming this warlord-turned-genral” for what seems like a “senseless war.” Adde tells Scahill what happens when people are captured. Foreigners are executed on the battlefield because they “should feel no mercy.”

As Western countries expand counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, militant groups are only becoming stronger. Scahill said the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has expanded these “dirty wars.” And what he saw in Somalia was a “hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.”


From the clips shown, it appears to be a great blend of journalism and cinema. Viewers essentially follow Scahill in these countries where the Obama administration has been fighting, maintaining and even expanding wars composed of covert operations that the government refuses to acknowledge. It essentially shows that if one’s government will not come clean about what is being done then it is up to journalists or filmmakers to go where the action is unfolding and to at least reveal the impact or effects, which innocent civilians who are victims are trying to survive.

President Obama has relied on state secrets privilege, expanded drone wars, empowered special operations forces including JSOC to operate in countries where the US is not at war, Scahill said. He has “boxed Congress out of any oversight role of the covert aspects of foreign policy.” (Case in point.) He also has “normalized for many, many liberals in the United States the policies they once opposed under the Bush administration.” For example, John Brennan has been nominated for the position of CIA chief and is the architect of a drone program that has involved Terror Tuesday meetings where officials sit around discussing who should live and who should die. He was a defender of torture during the Bush administration, but now liberals can barely be bothered to send a tweet expressing concern about the nomination of Brennan.

Appropriately, Scahill stated Brennan is the “greatest symbol of how deeply invested in covert war and in expansions of wars around the world” the US has become. He epitomizes the notion popularized by neocons that the world is a battlefield, the “United States can strike in any country around the world” wherever it suspects terrorists or ‘militants’ might reside. But through Brennan and Obama’s first term, the world has seen the bankruptcy of partisan politics—how the “way we feel about life or death policies is determined by who happens to be in office.”

Dirty Wars appears to directly challenge this bankruptcy and how the military industrial-complex or national security state has been able to operate in complete secrecy with much of Congress and the American people accepting that it is permissible to not know what is being done and there is little reason to be critical or concerned about how operations are unfolding.

It invites comparisons to the classic documentary Hearts and Minds on the Vietnam War because it courageously shows the human cost of war that regardless of what Obama says in regal speeches is the product of policies and programs of perpetual war. And the film has been picked up by Sundance Selects, which means the film will potentially be seen by thousands if not millions of Americans on cable and in theaters nationwide.

Below is the full clip of Scahill and Rowley on “Democracy Now!”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."