'Dirty Wars' Review: Doc Demonizes Secret War on Terror Tactics

Let's pause and give The Nation's Jeremy Scahill his due. The liberal war correspondent isn't just firing off accusations from the comfort of his couch. He travels to the hottest spots in the world to file war dispatches, and with Dirty Wars Scahill gathers some impressive information regarding the nation's War on Terror tactics.

The documentary reveals the civilians killed by drone strikes and other U.S.-led military assaults, efforts meant to extinguish elements of Al Qaeda wherever they may breathe, plot and promote their poisonous world view.

What's missing, of course, is the broader picture, an assessment of the terrorist threat and the limited ways the West can battle back against arguably the most vicious ideology in modern times.


Director Rick Rowley's film focuses intensely on JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command that perpetrates many of the secretive strikes used to battle terrorists. The unit got plenty of press when it finally tracked down Osama bin Laden, but JSOC's actions aren't restricted to such high-value targets.

The public, the film argues, has a right to know how JSOC operates as well as how many civilians are killed when the group carries out its missions.

Dirty Wars introduces us to some missions that went awry, and others where it appears the military attempted to cover up mistakes that led to the deaths of innocents. That, plus President Barack Obama's penchant for drone strikes, is creating more terrorists than we kill, the film contends.

It's a common refrain from the left, the notion that fighting an aggressive War on Terror simply makes more otherwise peaceful Muslims take up arms. So, too, is the notion that terrorists should be hauled before a tribunal rather than taken out, a case exemplified by the killing of American citizen turned radicalized Muslim Anwar al-Awlaki.

What's missing here is a Plan B, an alternate way of fighting a shadowy enemy intent on killing as many so-called infidels as possible. The war being waged against the West leaves its citizens few morally pristine options, which weakens even some of the film's more cogent arguments.

Scahill himself hurts his own cause, cinematically speaking. He's the film's Michael Moore, a narrator-slash-tour guide who eschews Moore's everyman shtick for a more hard-boiled approach. The film focuses so heavily on Scahill, his moods, media appearances and handsome visage that the documentary veers toward a vanity piece.

The film does single out Obama for apparently supporting the continued arrest of a journalist investigating one of the JSOC strikes. Obama hardly comes off as heroic, a rarity in today's documentary field, but it doesn't treat him with the disdain President George W. Bush would have felt had Dirty Wars existed five-plus years ago.

We also don't hear enough from those who support JSOC's actions, an element that might have elevated the movie beyond its choir preaching veneer.

Dirty Wars asks some tough, worthy questions regarding the battle against global terrorism and the need for accountability. For that reason alone it's a worthwhile addition to today's discussion on U.S. security, even if only one side of the debate gets a fair hearing.


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