A secret army of helicopter-borne ninjas and remote-controlled missiles that answers only to the president and is authorized to strike with deadly speed and overwhelming force anywhere in the world that it damn well pleases. That’s the thumbnail take on the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from Dirty Wars, a hyperventilating new documentary that muffles a frightening reality with fuzzy reporting and simplistic analysis. The secretive muck raked up here by the film’s narrator and star, The Nation’s national security correspondent Jeremy Scahill, exposes the terrifying likelihood of a free-ranging shadow army fighting in the shadows, with deadly and counterproductive results, utterly free from scrutiny. Scahill makes his point here but misses an opportunity.
JSOC is a subdivision of the U.S. military that operates flexible, mixed units of special forces from all the services (SEALs, Rangers, Delta Force, etc.) to carry out kill/capture raids on individuals believed to be part of insurgent groups ranging from the Taliban to Al Qaeda and others. They are the closest thing in reality to the supermen commando units so valorized in modern media. Scahill starts his story in the aftermath of a 2010 raid in a small Afghan village where civilians reported that American soldiers on a night raid fired on them indiscriminately. Among those killed was a police commander who had worked with the Americans for years, and two pregnant women. Not surprisingly, nobody in the chain of command was forthcoming on the tragedy.
After this horrific opening, Scahill turns his eye to investigating JSOC itself. This is less fruitful a cinematic or journalistic endeavor than he or the jittery director Rick Rowley seem to imagine. Substantively, there’s not much new being reported here. Anybody who’s kept even half an eye open to the Afghan and Iraq wars or the brushfire skirmishes from Pakistan to Somalia that the U.S. has kept a hand in since 9/11, won’t be as shocked as Scahill acts like he is upon hearing about JSOC. He threads in elements from the ever-expanding theater of war. In Somalia he looks into the morally-compromised warlords the U.S. paid and armed to fight Islamic extremists. In Yemen he investigates why the Al Qaeda-sympathizing preacher and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed without charges or trial.
The larger concerns Scahill points towards are potentially shattering, particularly the idea of an underground military that kills at will without regard for civilian casualties or due process. One of his interviewees calls JSOC “one hell of a hammer” that “for the rest of our generation … will be continually searching for a nail.” But by covering too broad a swath of territory in this too-short film (which is odd, given that his 500-plus-page book of the same title delves into the subject in exhausting detail), Scahill doesn’t draw strong enough connections to make a convincing point about the dangerous forces at work here.
Stylistically, Dirty Wars becomes even more problematic. The film insists on aping the look and staccato edits of a sub-Paul Greengrass thriller: Scahill in pensive study of documents or walking purposefully to meet sources; moody freeze frames give the impression of surveillance photography, as though he were being followed. There’s an unjustified level of paranoia here, as Scahill isn’t uncovering anything new (even the Afghan village story was broken by another writer); he’s just piecing it together. Combined with some off-putting remarks in Scahill’s narration about getting outside the Kabul media bubble — the implication that he dares to go where others don’t would be a great surprise to the reporters currently risking their lives in every corner of the Afghanistan war zone — this approach makes Scahill too much of the story. If the story were less important, this all might not be an issue.
Just imagine if All the Presidents’ Men had tried to make Woodward and Bernstein the focus instead of Watergate.