When Osama bin Laden was assassinated, it felt like the War on Terror’s big climax. The enemy was defeated, America rejoiced, and a bright new day was born. Two years later, troops are still in the Middle East, lives are still being lost, and undisclosed wars are still taking place right under our noses. It’s a war without an end. That’s one of the many sad truths explored in “Dirty Wars,” a documentary that’s significant, admirable, and occasionally shocking, although never really profound.
The film follows Jeremy Scahill, who has worked as a war reporter for more than a decade. Only two months ago, Scahill’s latest book, “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield,” was published. Now, Scahill teams up with co-screenwriter David Riker and director Rich Rowley to explore the undeclared wars taking place in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Scahill’s journey begins as he investigates a night raid that resulted in several civilian casualties. This attack is seemingly connected to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a fighting force that was virtually unknown to the public until bin Laden’s death.
Scahill narrates the documentary as if he were a film noir protagonist. This is only appropriate since “Dirty Wars” plays out a lot like a conspiracy thriller, with Scahill playing the detective searching for the truth. As Scahill digs deeper, he finds that JSOC is in charge of tracking down and killing targets that will never have their day in court.
The most fascinating figure explored in the film is Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemen ancestry. He was said to once be an all-American man who developed hostility toward the U.S. as the years went by. Speaking out against America in Youtube videos and allegedly being involved in the 2009 Christmas Day bombing, he was placed at the top of JSOC’s kill list.
“Dirty Wars” is definitely relevant, but not quite as eye opening as it thinks it is. Granted, there are plenty of ill-informed Americans that only hear half of the truth on TV news. At the same time, though, there have been other documentaries and fictional films that have delved into the issues addressed in “Dirty Wars.” Needless casualties, a war with no end in sight, covert operations, and America’s changing ways -- none of this is necessarily new.
While not groundbreaking, “Dirty Wars” is still an informative documentary with something to say. Scahill carries much of the film with his outspokenness, passion, and determination to uncover all the facts. There’s just one question Scahill never properly confronts. “Dirty Wars” makes it clear that we’re fighting a dirty war. Looking back on American history, however, is there really such thing as a clean war?