New Film 'Dirty Wars' Exposes America's Ruthless, Covert Wars

The United States deems Kabul, Afghanistan the center of the “war on terror.” The press corps and other embedded reporters, then, are limited to these borders.

But beyond these green (meaning safe, according to the U.S. govt.) streets of Afghanistan, lies a sea of red (dangerous) and black (Taliban-heavy) streets that go largely unexplored by journalists.

Yet, that’s exactly where investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill begins to delve in his new documentary Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowley.

Scahill traces a night raid that took several innocent lives, including two pregnant women. And while NATO officially reported that the Taliban were the perpetrators of the raid, Scahill uncovers a much different story, eventually discovering the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an arm of the U.S. military designed for covert action, was behind the raid. Once extremely hidden, JSOC would eventually be publicly deemed heroes for killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

After hearing of another strike, Scahill begins his next investigation, this time to a country where there is no declared war: Yemen. There, he again traces a missile strike that took 46 innocent lives back to JSOC and its admiral William McRaven. Discovering that one of those on the U.S. kill list targeted in this strike was an American citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki — Scahill pursues him for an interview, but ends up interviewing al-Awlaki’s father. 

Scahill’s next trip to Somalia is less successful, as he was unable to speak with any friends or family members of innocent victims. He does, however, land a few fascinating interviews with U.S.-funded warlords who spend all day wandering around their towns searching for people on Obama’s kill list.

Scahill returns to Yemen upon the news that Anwar al-Awlaki was killed via U.S. drone attack. By the time he gets there, a drone killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son, too.

Narrated by Scahill, Dirty Wars is not only the story of our covert wars overseas, but also the story of the obstacles to war reporting. Not only do the powers-that-be make it extremely difficult to get information and hear victims' stories, they work to silence those who still manage to uncover alternative war narratives. Throughout his investigative reporting, Scahill is threatened and his computer hacked. Fortunately, though, he doesn't face the persecution felt by other journalists such as Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who was imprisoned after reporting on the U.S. strike in Yemen. Besides capturing the government oppression of journalists, the documentary also illustrates the personal changes that may occur during war reporting. For Scahill, anxiety and frustration sets in after returning to his normal life in New York City.

The documentary does an especially amazing job putting a face to the victims of our dirty wars. Scahill spends a good deal of time not only giving the victims’ families a voice, but also bringing the victims to life again through photos and family videos.

The highlight of Dirty Wars, however, is the overarching narrative that our “intelligence” is ultimately quite unintelligent, resulting in innocent victims and an ever-expanding kill list. Although Scahill visits only a few countries, he shows on a map that these covert wars are expanding worldwide, now in more than 75 countries.

As Andrew Exum, a soldier in JSOC’s 2003 task force in Iraq and killer of two innocent Iraqis (due to two-weeks-old “intelligence”), told Scahill in the film:   

You start out with a target list. And maybe you got 50 guys on it. Maybe you got 200 guys on it. But you can work your way through those 50 to 200 guys. And then suddenly at the end of that target list, you now got a new target list of 3,000 people on it. And how did this grow?

But then again, we must be reminded that a large target list is quite profitable for the U.S.’s military-industrial complex.

As one JSOC operator told Scahill in secret:

Billions upon billions of dollars was poured into JSOC. What we have essentially done is created one hell of a hammer. And for the rest of our generation, for the rest of my lifetime, this force will be continually searching for a nail.

"Dirty Wars" is currently playing in select theaters in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. It will be opening in a number of other theaters nationwide this Friday and for weeks to come. To view locations and dates, visit


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