Dirty wars and stained maps

I’m still in Beirut where I’ve had a wonderful time at the Transnational American Studies conference at AUB.  Yesterday morning I chaired a panel on ‘Geographies of War‘, which featured Laleh Khalili (on Kuwait, military logistics and private contractors: abstract here), Lisa Hajjar (on the (il)legal strictures and injustices at Guantanamo; she changed her paper so I can’t link to an abstract), and Jeremy Scahill (‘The world is America’s battlefield’: abstract here).

In the evening Jeremy showed the film of Dirty Wars, co-written with David Riker and directed by Rick Rowley.  Bear with me here; I’ll return to those ‘geographies’ in a moment.  Seeing the film for a second time (the first was in Toronto in the fall with Jaimie and Jorge) I have to say I found it less satisfactory – I much prefer the book, but it’s not only because the written version is (inevitably) more detailed and more nuanced.  I think it has something to do with the film being less an act of investigative journalism than a reconstruction of investigative journalism, a noir docudrama in which the investigator (no less inevitably) becomes the central figure: Sam Spade with a notebook.  For that reason, I think Michael O’Sullivan is simply wrong to say that ‘the film is a documentary pure and simple.’

Dirty Wars

You can see that most obviously in the section that deals with a Special Forces night raid in February 2010 on a compound in Gardez, Afghanistan, where much of the ground-breaking reporting was done by another journalist, Jerome Starkey.  But these scenes have incredible dramatic force, none the less, and the incorporation of cellphone footage of the raid and the unmasking of the Special Forces commander are genuinely and profoundly arresting (if only that were literally true).

Dirty Wars Gardez

I’m less convinced by the sections that treat the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, probably because I’m still dismayed that it was the killing of a U.S. citizen that sparked so much public outrage in the United States rather than the killing of all the others.  Certainly in the film, far more so than the book, there’s an unwavering focus on the ‘Americanness’ of al-Awlaki, and especially of his transparently innocent teenage son, murdered by a drone strike just two weeks later.  Home videos, games, clothes, a whole series of images are put to work to show not that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’ but that in some substantial sense ‘they’ are ‘us’.   I was left wondering about those who don’t qualify for these sort of identifications, who can’t provide similarly legible identity papers: how are we to recognise and acknowledge their lives as grievable too?  There’s also something unsettling about Jeremy’s epiphany that he’s come to Yemen ‘to apologise’: I’m still trying to figure out how he could, and what position he would have had to occupy for that to mean very much to al-Awlaki’s grandparents and cousins in Sa’ana.  

Dirty Wars SomaliaFinally, the extended passage through a war-ravaged town in Somalia, crouching alongside militias and interviewing a warlord who gives very little away, seems to run into the sand.  I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that these sequences had been retained primarily for Mohamed Afrah Qanyare‘s assertion (about his paymasters) that ‘America knows war… They are the war masters.’  

And yet, of course,  America doesn’t know war: Bush and Cheney famously avoided Vietnam, most of the war managers view the results of their military and paramilitary violence on screens and spreadsheets, and most of the public turns the other way.  As Kamila Shamsie says in Burnt Shadows, the United States fights ‘more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all’ (see also my draft introduction to The everywhere war here; scroll down).

That’s precisely why investigative journalism and documentary films are so urgently necessary – and why we need these different forms – but I’m not sure that rendering Jeremy’s courageous and principled investigations in the black and white tones of a Hollywood thriller is the best way to bring ‘what is hidden in plain sight’ into public view.  (For a different take, that pays close attention to the visual codes in the film, see Mike Hill‘s very smart essay over at Feedback here).  I do know that films have to be different from books, that they have different grammars if you like, and I also understand that one of the most effective ways of soliciting an audience’s response is through story-telling – academic prose would be considerably less deadly if it had more narrative force – but in the end I’m with Roger Ebert:  

‘Scahill is so respected and convincing that he doesn’t need such propping up, so the flashy directing and editing makes it feel as though “Dirty Wars” is trying too hard to sell things that might have sold themselves just fine without the hot box approach.’ 

Other (non-film) critics have objected to the way in which the history of clandestine/covert war is foreshortened in Dirty Wars, so that the CIA is left in the shadows.  But that’s surely because in the wake of 9/11 the CIA was, in some crucial respects, pushed out of the limelight and a vastly aggrandised Joint Special Operations Command took centre stage to play for Cheney and Rumsfeld. And it’s the combination of a para-militarized CIA and JSOC that is instrumental in pushing the boundaries of the everywhere war.


  • Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.
  • Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.
  • Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.
  • Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.

US Special Operations Deployments, 2012-2013

While I was writing this, a new report from Nick Turse popped on to my screen, charting the extraordinary global geography of JSOC (above) and its entanglements with other militaries and agencies like USAID.  JSOC has set up its own shadow system of subcommands mirroring the Pentagon’s division of the globe into unified combatant commands like US Central Command, each assigned to a different geographical region:

JSOC sub-commands

US Special Operations Command – Subcommands

I’ve taken the map above from US Special Operations Command’s own ‘Factbook‘, though it’s so reluctant to disclose any information that here too, as you’ll see if you read Nick’s article, part of the story is getting the story.  If you read this alongside Steve Niva‘s brilliant essay, ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security dialogue 44 (3) (2013) 185-202, and in conjunction with the gritty detail (and vivid prose) of Dirty Wars, you’ll have a desperately disturbing sense of one of the modalities that is producing these new geographies of war.  As Scott Horton tells Jeremy in Dirty Wars, ‘suddenly the theatre of war has become the entire globe – it’s become everywhere.’

Dirty wars and private eyes

Dirty Wars/Sundance Festival

There’s a wonderful line (well, hundreds of wonderful lines) in Simon Gray‘s play Butley, where the eponymous university lecturer waspishly declares “You know how it exhausts me to teach books I haven’t read…”

So it’s with some trepidation that I return to the Rick Rowley/Jeremy Scahill/David Riker film of Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars: the world is a battlefield“, since although I’ve read the book I haven’t seen the film (it opens Friday 14 June in Vancouver [Cineplex Odeon International Village]).

But Gerard Toal has, and has posted an interesting reflection at Critical Geopolitics:

‘Scahill’s world is that of the investigative reporter. He’s focused on the facts, details and lines of connection that reveal abuse of power and extra-constitutional excess. Don’t expect to have Agamben cited. That is the power and value of his work. It gets under the skin of the conventional wisdom and general consensus on the war on terror. It disturbs. With the journalistic revelations of the last week (and there’s a lot more coming from what Scahill indicated; he also mentioned how journalists are now changing their digital behavior in big ways), the whole everywhere endless terror security surveillance state is cracking open before our eyes.’

David Harvey dedicated Social Justice and the City ‘to all good committed investigative journalists everywhere’, but the figure of Scahill in the film has attracted less generous commentary.  Mike Hogan notes, like many other critics, that the film is structured like a noir crime story in which Scahill becomes the gumshoe we follow

‘from the lawless hinterlands of Afghanistan, where he interviews the surviving members of the family of a U.S.-trained police chief decimated in a secret night raid; to Yemen, where he inspects the wreckage of a drone strike and meets the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of four American citizens to be assassinated abroad by the U.S. (al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was another); to Somalia, where he tags along with Somali war lords on the U.S. payroll, who brag of committing war crimes as they rampage through the rubble of Mogadishu.’

In Hogan’s interview Scahill talks about his initial reluctance to have the film revolve around him since ‘I don’t write articles in the first person and I don’t tend to talk about myself when I’m reporting.’

‘Rick [Rowley], the director of the film, was driving me insane by constantly filming me when I wasn’t supposed to be the character — and I think somewhere he knew that he wanted to do this. We had cut a version of the film where I was not me, I was just sort of like a tour guide through the archipelago of these covert war sites. And then when we started to change the way we were going to tell the story, we went back to the cutting room, and all the s**t that I told Rick not to film became the stuff that made the film possible…. I can see myself in the movie where I’m in a car, and it might look like I’m really tense about something, but it’s just that I’ve just yelled at Rick and told him to get the f**king camera out of my face. I’m like, “I’m trying to file my story, man, leave me alone.” I still have trouble watching it, to be honest.’

VALENTINE The Phoenix ProgramSo, it seems, did Douglas Valentine.  He castigates the film for its lack of historical context: its failure to acknowledge the long history of ‘dirty wars’ waged by the CIA (Valentine himself is the author of a brilliant book on The Phoenix Program in Vietnam).  It’s a serious criticism, and it applies to the book too (though to be fair it already comes in at more than 650 pages).

I do think it’s important to trace what is new and what isn’t about today’s wars fought in the shadows of 9/11,  which is in part why I constructed The colonial present as I did and why my analysis of today’s ‘drone wars’ is situated within the wider arc of the histories and geographies of bombing from the air. That said, I also think that Scahill’s stream of stories has done more than most other journalists reporting from the war zones to illuminate the contemporary reach of military and paramilitary violence.  As he says, ‘the world is a battlefield’.

But Valentine doesn’t care for the way Scahill bestrides that battlefield – look at the posters I’ve reproduced here – and he reserves his most withering fire for the starring role played in the film by Scahill himself:

Dirty Wars is a post-modern film by Jeremy Scahill, about himself, starring himself in many poses.The film owes more to Sergio Leone and Kathryn Bigelow than Constantinos Gavras…. 

The endless close-ups artfully convey the feeling that our hero is utterly alone, on some mythic journey of self-discovery, without a film crew or interpreters. There is no evidence that anyone went to Gardez to make sure everyone was waiting and not toiling in the fields or tending the flocks, or whatever they do. And we’ll never find out what the victims do.  The stage isn’t big enough for JS and anyone else.

This is a major theme throughout the story – JS is doing all this alone and the isolation preys on him…. 

Initially, there is no mention that journalist Jerome Starkey reported what happened in Gardez.  JS is too busy establishing himself as the courageous super-sleuth.  As we drive along the road, he reminds us how much danger he is in…. In my drinking days, we referred to this type of behavior as grandiosity.’ 

Dirty-Wars1Valentine dismisses this as ‘the cinema of self-indulgence’, and readers may remember other critical commentaries on academic appropriations of the stylistics of film noir and the figure of the detective: I’m thinking of Rosalyn Deutsche‘s scathing review of ‘Watching the Detectives’ (aka the Critical Theory Gang) in the late twentieth-century American city: ‘Chinatown Part Four? What Jake forgets about Downtown’, assemblage (1993) available here; Matt Farish subsequently provided a more extensive discussion here and Kristin Ross a still more recent take here.

Now one of my private pleasures is serious crime fiction, but taken together these commentaries raise a series of questions about the debt most academics working in and around war and military violence owe to the work of  investigative journalists and about the masculinist privileges both may assume in exposing ‘dirty wars’.  And what happens, stylistically and analytically, when the story moves from the ‘mean streets’ of the city, from chasing down criminal gangs, urban warfare and the entanglements between the two, and out into killing fields that extend far beyond the concrete jungle?  There’s something else too: perhaps it’s not surprising that investigative journalists should adopt the persona of the private detective when they are tracking down state-sponsored operations that move so seamlessly between the legal and the illegal?

Scahill Dirty Wars

Coda: If you want an excellent academic commentary on the rise of Joint Special Operations Command – which, as Valentine implies, is the focus of Scahill’s investigations (it certainly is in the book) – then I thoroughly recommend Steve Niva, ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security Dialogue 44 (3) (2013) 185-202: it’s a clear, cogent and remarkably insightful analysis, completed before – and so far as I can see without any reference to – Scahill’s work.  Here’s the abstract:

Joint Special Operations Command In the twilight of the USA’s ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an expanding shadow war of targeted killings and drone strikes outside conventional war zones, where violence is largely disappeared from media coverage and political accountability.While many attribute the growth in these shadowy operations to the use of new technologies and platforms such as drones, this article argues that the central transformation enabling these operations is the increasing emergence of network forms of organization within and across the US military and related agencies after 2001. Drawing upon evidence from unclassified reports, academic studies, and the work of investigative journalists, this article will show that elements within the US military and related agencies developed in the decade after 2001 a form of shadow warfare in which hybrid blends of hierarchies and networks combine through common information and self-synchronization to mount strike operations across transnational battle spaces. But, rather than a top-down transformation towards networks, this article will show how it was the evolution of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from an elite strike force into a largely autonomous networked command that has been central to this process.Although drone strikes have received the bulk of critical attention in relation to this expanding shadow war of targeted killing, this often-lethal networked warfare increasingly resembles a global and possibly permanent policing operation in which targeted operations are used to manage populations and threats in lieu of addressing the social and political problems that produce the threats in the first place.

No Agamben here either, incidentally.

I don’t mean any of this to disparage Scahill’s book – as I say, I haven’t seen the film so must reserve judgement – and if you want a detailed summary of the book then head over to Understanding Empire where Ian Shaw has started to share his reading notes.