Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Dirty Wars"

Dec 19, 2013

A spiritual successor to his New York Times bestselling book Blackwater, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill's Academy Award shortlisted movie debut, Dirty Wars, chronicles the undeclared "shadow wars" fought across the globe in the name of American national security—and the highly secretive agencies who fight them.

Meant to accompany Scahill's book by the same name, and directed by Rick Rowley with a screenplay co-written by David Riker, Dirty Wars is also the story of how a lone American investigative reporter traveled between Washington and the battlegrounds of the "war on terror" to ask the tough questions few members of the mainstream press seemed to pose.


As the war in Afghanistan was winding down, journalists traveling with the U.S. armed forces in the region were told that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people was being won through American aid and outreach. But while these correspondents traveled from village to village watching Western military commanders interact with tribal leaders, NATO press releases told the story of another war. In this war, U.S. Special Forces were carrying out raids in residential areas in the middle of the night, without the consent of Afghani police commanders. Having been kept out of the loop, local police commanders knew little about the raids, but told Scahill that local NATO bases denied involvement.

Following a story first reported in The Times of London, Scahill traveled to Gardez, Afghanistan, to meet the family of Mohammed Daoud. Daoud was an Afghan police officer who, along with his brother and three women from his extended family, had been killed during an American night raid. As with many other raids, no one seemed to have any idea who the American soldiers performing it were. All Scahill had to go on was their voices and hands, captured in a cell phone video, and a description provided by Daoud's father: They didn't wear American uniforms, and they all had beards. Locals referred to them as "American Taliban."

NATO disputed the family's recount of the story, and sent out a press release attacking the British journalist who first broke it. But as more information about the event leaked out, NATO changed their version of the story. A U.S. Navy officer, Vice Admiral William McRaven, took responsibility for the botched operation and apologized to the victims' family.

Still, information about the admiral and his forces proved elusive. Only later did Scahill find out that McRaven was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—a small Special Forces outfit that answers directly to the White House, and that would in 2011 become famous for the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Upon returning to the United States, Scahill appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to call for an investigation of the raid, but to no avail. Scahill started sifting through NATO press releases, tallying foreign-led night raids carried out in Afghanistan. When these raids were at their peak in the winter of 2010-11, Scahill counted as many as 1,700 over the course of three months.

With growing concern about the covert, undeclared war, Scahill traveled to Somalia to meet with warlords to whom America's list of assassination targets had been outsourced. He then went on to Yemen, where a local leader claimed Taliban recruitment had gone up since Americans had started bombing the region.

The narrative arc culminates with Scahill's discovery that the American "kill list" includes Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based radical Islamic cleric who is also an American citizen. Scahill sees the targeted drone assassinations of al-Awlaki and of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, as watershed events: The cleric's because it was an execution by Hellfire missile of an American citizen who had never received a trial; the son's because he appeared to have been targeted preemptively, struck by an American drone while sitting in a café, for fear of what he might someday become.

Scahill asks, "[al-Awlaki's father] had lost his firstborn son and his first grandson, but what did we lose when the drones struck Abdulrahman and his teenage friends?" And finally, "How does a war like this ever end?"

The War on Terror as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

One of the overarching questions posed in Dirty Wars is whether the "war on terror" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In an interview with Scahill, Middle East scholar and former U.S. Army officer Andrew Exum reflects on how one might start with a "target list" of 50-200 people, but by the time those targets had been apprehended or neutralized, there would be a new list of 3,000 targets.

To illustrate how American operations may drive insurgent recruitment, Exum draws on an incident where his unit was fired upon by two Iraqis. Exum's unit returned fire and killed the Iraqis, only to discover later that the two were civilians guarding the town generator. "From a strategic perspective," reflects Exum, "that's a loss."

Exum expands on this in a part of the interview that is not included in the film, but that is included in Scahill's book: "If you see a fledgling insurgency start to develop, then it doesn't take a genius to realize that by dragging people out of their homes in the middle of the night, by doing so in a way that you are not communicating to the neighbors . . . why this person is being dragged out in the middle of the night . . . how this could inflame tensions, how this could actually exacerbate drivers of conflict."

During his travels in areas with high levels of drone activity, Scahill found that civilian drone strike casualties had a similar effect, which was further compounded by the fact that the U.S. presence is perplexing to many in the regions where the "war on terror" is being carried out. While speaking at an event at Carnegie Council, Scahill cited an International Council on Security and Development survey, which found that 92 percent of young men in the most war-ravaged regions of Afghanistan had never heard of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. "I thought it was interesting," said Scahill, "because how then do they understand why we're there?" How surprised should we be that many of these young men see Americans and their allies as an imperialist enemy force?

"The World is a Battlefield"

Another theme is that of the world as a battlefield. While traditional warfare is declared and fought between clearly defined adversaries in clearly delineated war zones, the "war on terror" is carried out piecemeal and in secrecy against vaguely defined adversaries in conflict zones scattered throughout the world.

One can argue that this change is made out of necessity. Travel from one continent to another is now measured in hours, and global communications are instantaneous. Developments in weapons technology mean that a small terrorist outfit can cause harm both to people and to infrastructure in faraway corners of the world. But if the world is a battlefield, then how do we apply the conventions of war? How can we tell who is a combatant? And when does a war without clear and narrow objectives come to an end?

A War on Journalism

A final recurring theme is that of an emerging "war on journalism." Abdulelah Haider Shaye, the local reporter who first documented the use of American munitions in targeted killings in Yemen, was imprisoned by Yemeni authorities from August 2010 until July 2013, and remains under house arrest to this day on "terrorism-related charges." Shaye was slated to be released in February 2011, until a phone call from President Barack Obama to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, urging Hadi not to release Shaye, halted the proceedings.

When Scahill himself published an article in The Nation about U.S. covert operations in Pakistan (later confirmed by WikiLeaks cables), a Pentagon official insinuated at a press conference that the article contained "cook[ed] up" "conspiratorial theories." Prior to publishing that story, Scahill claims to have received a phone call from a spokesperson for Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threatening that Scahill would be "on thin ice" if the story went out. During his appearance at Carnegie Council, Scahill also drew on NSA surveillance of Associated Press phone records, and "the citing of journalists in criminal indictments" as further evidence of suppression of journalism.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. As terrorism outfits grow increasingly mobile, can we reasonably expect that military operations will be restricted to declared war zones, or is "the world as a battlefield" the new normal?

2. How do we adapt our conventions on war to fit the increasingly complex nature of international conflict? Should those who fight on behalf of non-state actors be afforded the rights owed to prisoners of war? And how do we distinguish combatants from civilians?

3. Throughout history, most have accepted that governments may expand their executive powers during wartime. But unlike conventional wars, "the war on terror" has no end in sight. It's hard to imagine that the world will ever be free of terrorism. Must we—should we—accept that some of our rights may be permanently curtailed?

4. How should we weigh the public's right to transparency against the government's need for secrecy? And who should oversee that a proper balance is being struck?

5. Should we be concerned about the use of "kill lists" in the "war on terror," or are they a legitimate tool in combating terrorism? Should there be restrictions on who can and cannot be put on such "kill lists"? Should states ever target their own citizens, and if so, who decides when they can be targeted?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

The Future of War, with Andrew Exum Andrew Exum, Boston Consulting Group; James Traub, Carnegie Council Andrew Exum is a scholar, author, and former U.S. Army officer. In this revealing talk, he describes, in vivid detail, his days leading platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan; insights gained while working at the Pentagon; the successes and failures of America's counterinsurgency efforts; and the growing civilian-military divide, especially in the Northeast. (Transcript, audio, video clips, Ethics Matter, December 2013)

The World as a Battlefield Jeremy Scahill, The Nation; Marlene Spoerri, Carnegie Council In the name of the "war on terror," the U.S. is conducting covert warfare and targeted killings, and it dismisses the resulting deaths of innocent civilians as "collateral damage." What are the ethical and practical repercussions of these policies? Jeremy Scahill's blistering talk ranges from Iraq to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (Transcript, audio, video clips, TV show, Ethics Matter, June 2013)

Drones: Legal, Ethical, and Wise? Joel H. Rosenthal, Carnegie Council The U.S. drone program raises serious ethical concerns, particularly about accountability and due process. Congress, with support from President Obama, must develop new oversight rules to ensure that U.S. values are safeguarded. (Op-ed for Christian Science Monitor, March 2013)

The Global War on Terror: A Narrative in Need of a RewriteAmy Zalman, senior research strategist, private sector; Jonathan Clarke, author, foreign policy expert This essay focuses on how the global war on terror was constructed and how it has set down deep institutional roots both in government and popular culture. The war on terror represents an "extraordinarily powerful narrative," which must be rewritten in order to change policy dynamics. (Article, Ethics & International Affairs, June 2009)

Works Cited

"Many Afghans Shrug at 'This Event Foreigners Call 9/11'", The Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, September 8, 2011

"Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?", The Nation, Jeremy Scahill, March 13, 2012

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