Jeremy Scahill’s ‘Dirty Wars’ Brings America’s Dark Secrets to Light

In Jeremy Scahill’s years of traveling to war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia as an investigative journalist, he’s gained a reputation for going places others won’t.

“Journalists are thieves in a lot of ways,” Scahill tells TakePart. “We take people’s stories and we don’t give much back to them at all. I feel a responsibility to the people who let me into their lives. If I ask someone to let me into their home and share the most painful thing that’s ever happened to them with me, and then I walk away and write a book or an article about it, and I’m never in touch with those people again, something about that is fundamentally wrong.”

Scahill can take some consolation in the fact that if he weren’t there to tell those stories, there’s a good chance no one in the rest of the world would learn of them.

After years of filing indispensable dispatches about covert military operations to The Nation magazine, he’s making the jump to the big screen. Dirty Wars, a film companion to Scahill’s book of the same name, is making its way to theaters and video-on-demand this week.

As usual, Scahill’s work begins where other news organizations leave off.

“The whole embedding system is a carefully managed operation. There’s all sorts of rules when you’re an embedded reporter about what you can and can’t report,” says Scahill. “There is a degree of censorship that takes place there. In these war zones, particularly in Afghanistan, but also Yemen, I think they just assumed no one’s going to go out and fact-check them.”

What does it do to you and the way you see the world to take in all these stories of suffering and loss? I feel like I’ve seen things I can’t just erase.

Scahill hones in on three examples of secret yet substantial military actions that happened on America’s watch, sad sorties that the government would rather you not see: The coverup of the murders of two pregnant women during a military raid in the Afghan province of Paktika; the employment of Somali warlords to carry out “kill lists” on America's behalf, and the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical imam who was the first U.S. citizen on record to be the aim of a drone strike. The strike also killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.

Together, the three stories form a portrait of a U.S. that’s in a permanent state of war, depicting a style of military intervention that has stoked anti-American sentiment around the world and is in stark contrast with the current administration’s insistence that the all-encompassing war on terror is winding down rather than ramping up.

As Scahill recalls, reconciling America’s actions with America’s rhetoric was difficult from a storytelling standpoint, even for viewers that might already be familiar with recent military history.

“At one point in the film, [I ask in the narration] where do the Americans find men like [Mohamed] Qanyare and to what end?” Scahill is referring to the Somali warlord he sits down with in the film. “I remember when we were dealing with that scene, we had tried to structure it so we could explain history [in the region] post-Black Hawk Down. We found ourselves coming to a realization that it actually doesn’t make sense. Even if you know the history, it doesn’t make sense.”

Still, Dirty Wars strives to uncover some truth to it all, specifically by presenting information to the public about America’s covert operations that have never been brought to light before.

Scahill hopes that an informed public will be as moved by watching the film as he was by making it.  

“I’ve been doing this for almost my entire adult life,” he says. “I think I was moved by the recognition that I hadn’t ever let myself stop to say as a human being, not just as a journalist, but as a human being, ‘What does it do to you and the way you see the world to take in all these stories of suffering and loss?’ It really did change me. I feel like I’ve seen things I can’t just erase.”

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