Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, admits he wasn’t trying to be a “master of the obvious” when he named his new investigatory book and corresponding documentary film Dirty Wars. After all, wars are bound to get dirty. Though some more than others.
“[The title] was meant to have a two-fold logic to it,” the author, who will read from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield at the Free Library of Philadelphia Tuesday night, tells PW. “On the one hand, there’s this sense, I think, particularly amongst Democrats or liberals, that the drone wars are clean wars, and they’re smarter wars, which I don’t think is true.” On the other hand, Scahill says, the U.S. is moving back into the age of ‘70s and ‘80s clandestine foreign policy, in which there aren’t necessarily more large troop deployments, but a ramping up of covert actions that will likely lead to inevitable blowback on American soil.
And those conclusions aren’t part of some conspiracy-minded Alex Jonesian line of thinking. Scahill and Dirty Wars director Rick Rowley scoured the Muslim world over the course of several years in search of answers they weren’t getting from American military-embedded journalism. They began while investigating a cover-up of a night raid in an Afghan village during which five people were killed. Scahill soon realized, after talking with villagers and watching cell phone videos, that the work of covert American forces—specifically the Joint Special Operations Command—was behind it. And it wasn’t an isolated incident.
“I think what we wanted to do was tell a story about how far we’ve come as a society since 9/11, like how deep into this mess we’ve gotten,” he says, “and to tell it in a way that would be accessible to people and not feel like it was just pundits interpreting it or people being bombarded with acronyms and statistics.”
Scahill, whose previous work includes the George Polk Book Award-winning Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, says he and Rowley made a point of showing the faces of those affected by U.S. foreign policy—and the dead—to show the inhumanity of war. Still, beyond the human faces are the human policies—the use of targeted drone strikes, kill lists and secretive, elite forces to conduct raids—which rarely cause a blip on the media radar, and if they do, most polling suggests Americans are both uninformed and in favor of those policies.
On March 6, during Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster against the appointment of John Brennan as the Obama administration’s CIA director, the junior senator entered the names of two U.S. citizens killed overseas by U.S. forces without a trial: radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman—something Scahill calls “a step forward,” even if it was Paul, of all people (joined by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey) to take it.
“Dick Cheney is probably sitting somewhere … saying, ‘We’re lucky that Obama is expanding the drone strikes and getting liberals on board with it, because next time a Republican is in office and they want to conduct these operations, liberals aren’t going to have a leg to stand on,’” says Scahill, who adds he believes the Obama administration has likely created more anti-American sentiment in the world since taking office, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen. “People feel like if Obama will do these things and increase these drone strikes and targeted killing operations and continue working with some of these unsavory governments, then there’s no chance of it ever ending.”
While deciphering the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Scahill inevitably offers a scathing critique of the U.S. government, which has never been taken to task for the boy’s death or had to explain why it happened. He concludes the young al-Awlaki was likely killed because of who his father was.
If that’s the case, U.S. foreign policy is not just creating new terrorists who are eventually killed via hovering aircraft. It means our government has taken it upon itself to kill potential terrorists before they terrorize. And that is pretty fucking scary.
Tues., May 21, 7:30pm. Free. Free Library of Philadelphia Central Branch, 1901 Vine St. 215.567.4341. freelibrary.org.