Dirty Wars: a review

Screen shot 2013-07-10 at 14.56.16

UN Charter, article 2 (4)

This is an essay on how devastating it is to watch Dirty Wars. This is an essay on why it is necessary for you to keep your eyes open so you can rebuild.

Freshman year in law school, I was told there was two types of lawyers: those who believe in the rule of law, who have read Hobbes, Berkeley and have made a career out of upholding it; and those who see the law as a mere tool to achieve the goals they set for themselves, their companies, their government. Lawyers, like any other profession, are divided between ideals and cynicism. More often than not, this dichotomy exists within the lawyer himself.

I am of the former group. I specialise in civil liberties and human rights; because of where I come from, because of my education, because of what I know, see, hear, and read. There is nothing in Dirty Wars that I didn’t already know. The difference lies between holding knowledge of a piece of information and seeing an elected official speak straight into the objective eye of a camera of the ways your beliefs, ideologies, and value system as a citizen hold little importance in the face of the overbearing, overwhelming, crushing concept of national security. At that moment, during my first screening of the movie, I uncrossed my legs, my eyes staring wide at the screen, and felt my fists clench against the arm rest. “There is a difference between what you believe your rights are, and what they actually are.” “Can you tell me the difference?” asks Jeremy Scahill. “Of course not”, the good Senator replies.

There have been two previous instances of the use of media to warn us against massive executive interference in the rule of law, domestic or international: one was Eisenhower’s 1961 declaration on the military-industrial complex; the second was the excellent documentary Why We Fight, by Eugene Jarecki. If the latter denounced the use of war for profit, Dirty Wars denounces something more pernicious. Beyond the empty concepts of safety, security, and self-defence, the War On Terror has justified the application of terror in retaliation, the use of armed force worldwide, the violation of the rule of law for national interests- and all of that, in the “dirty” way: covert, hidden, away from Congressional hearings, out of reach of a regular journalist, in unpublished memos, undebated decrees – away from democratic input. We all experienced this gloomy, ominous sense of being manipulated and instrumentalised under Bush. Obama was elected under calls for democracy, transparency, and lawful intervention. Dirty Wars carefully, calmly and factly exposes the cold hard truth that Obama has in fact escalated covert operations to the point of assuming there are no limits to the what the administration would do… Or pay mercenaries to do.

Commenting on a 2001 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Markus Rau states that the rule of law “… Has awakened in a bygone world in which the state is ‘susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself.'” There can be no interference in the state’s actions if said actions are not documented, reported, or even witnessed: the movie opens on a gruesome revelation that a specific armed force intervening in Afghanistan removed bullets from the bodies of its victims to get rid of any possible traces, should anyone investigate. In a post Cold War world, human rights organisations have prospered, the United Nations sought to grow in legitimacy, and from human rights lawyers to UN rapporteurs, little is left to the imagination. Or so we think. Because every organisation answers to an agenda, and each and all are susceptible to apply red tape, only the work of independent journalists can be relied on. The investigation depicted in Dirty Wars goes far beyond what I, as a human rights lawyer, would ever be allowed to do. It’s frustrating, but liberating to know it is indeed possible. Until said journalist uses all the democratic tools at his disposal to expose the violations of a force acting beyond accountability or answering to the department of Defense: testifying before Congress – and watching your own representatives, the very guardian of a system resting on checks and balances, walking out on your riveting, compelling testimony. More than the scenes of violence and pile of bodies, stories of destroyed lives and accounts of giving up and giving in, it was the wall of concrete erected around Scahill to isolate and hinder his work that is most infuriating. A nation getting in the way of journalism is a nation that no longer answers to its citizenry and turns its back on fundamental liberties to act within its own little state, hidden from view, until the next election comes up and secrets are passed on.


No nation understands theatre politics better than the United States. When Admiral McRaven emerges as a national celebrity, a true American sweetheart, a Disney hero following the death of Osama Bin-Laden, we are plunged into an abysmal display of Kafka-esque surrealism. The very convert operation unit it took so long to investigate and reveal suddenly takes center stage all by itself, the administration one-upping journalists and human rights workers by creating a situation in which they knew the people – the public – would approve: destroying the emblematic figure of Bush-era “evil”, the very justification for the war on terror.

From then on, Dirty Wars tries to maintain rational and emotional balance between images of McRaven receiving accolades, being pictured with heads of state on official websites, and the startling, devastating revelation that military intervention goes way beyond the frontiers of Afghanistan and Iraq. While the world praises McRaven for his flawless mission to keep the nation safe, Scahill goes from Yemen to Somalia to expose targeting, fixing and killing of so-called enemies of the state or the hiring of lawless warlords to execute mercilessly the figures on a seemingly endless kill list. Those dirty wars are devastating in their tentacular overreach. Watching it is like falling down the rabbit hole.

I saw people collapse and cry at the end of the movie. Again, it’s not so much the casualties of war, as horrible as they may be; it’s the realisation that collective responsibility now makes us part of those covert actions, performed by a democratically elected government, funded by tax money. “We didn’t know” can only go so far when faced with entire tribes or populations whose only resort is to fight back in rule-defying acts of terrorism or rebellion. This is not a justification of political violence: it’s a simple equation on violence breeding violence. Since creating a supranational force of peacekeeping and law-abiding states, the idea that unlawful intervention was nothing short of an act of aggression prevailed. The consequences of acting above and beyond the rule of law can only create lawlessness and chaos in response. The indiscriminate and senselessness use of force as depicted in Dirty Wars can only be stopped by implementing strong, stable and reliable accountability.

But what do we do once we finally see what’s been hidden in plain sight? I’m holding on tight to my anger, because this might be all I have left. But for as long as people nationwide make up their mind as to what kind of citizen they want to be, what kind of nation they want to live in, what role they want to play within the international community, and what rights they believe are worth fighting for, all is not lost. And it all starts here.

go to dirtywars.org for info // follow @DirtyWars on twitter

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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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