There’s no end to the pro-war movies we’re subjected to: countless celebrations of bombs, guns, and torture. They come in the form of cartoons, science-fiction, historical fiction, dramas, and reenactments pre-censored by the CIA. Movies show us the excitement without the suffering. War in our theaters resembles almost anything else more than it resembles war.
Journalists appear in our movies too, usually as comic figures, talking-head air-heads, numskulls, and sycophants. In this case, the depiction is much more accurate, at least of much of what passes for journalism.
But, starting in June, a remarkable anti-war / pro-journalism film will be showing — even more remarkably — in big mainstream movie theaters. Dirty Wars (I’ve read the book and seen the movie and highly recommend both) may be one of the best educational outreach opportunities the peace movement has had in a long time. The film, starring Jeremy Scahill, is about secretive aspects of U.S. wars: imprisonment, torture, night raids, drone kills.
Dirty Wars won the Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival 2013 and, recently, the Grand Jury Prize at the Boston Independent Film Festival. Variety calls it “jaw-dropping … [with] the power to pry open government lockboxes.” The Sundance jury said it is “one of the most stunning looking documentaries [we’ve] ever seen.” I agree.
Typically, information that does not support our government’s war agenda appears only on the printed page, or perhaps in a power-point presented to the usual heroic crowd of aging white activists gathered outside the range of corporate radar. But stroll through an airport and you’ll see hardcopies of Dirty Wars displayed at the front of the bookstores. Check out the movie listings in June and July, and you’re likely to see Dirty Wars listed right alongside the latest super-hero, murderfest, sequel of a sequel of some predictable Hollywood hackery.
I wrote a review of the book some time back, after which I picked up a job helping to promote the film. But I’m promoting the film because it’s a great film, which is different from calling it a great film because I’m paid to promote it. And my interest remains less in selling the film tickets than in recruiting those who see the film into an active movement to change the reality on which the film reports.
This is not Zero Dark Thirty. You can’t walk into Dirty Wars supporting drone strikes, night raids, and cluster bombs and walk out with your beliefs reinforced. Most viewers of Dirty Wars will leave the theater believing that U.S. wars make the United States less safe. In that moment, when people who are usually otherwise engaged have come to realize that the Department of So-Called Defense endangers us (on top of impoverishing us) is when we should sign those people up to take part in activities the following week and month and year.
The film opens by contrasting embedded war journalism — the regurgitation of spoon-fed propaganda — with what the viewer is about to see. And what we see is investigative journalism. The film begins by providing us with an understanding of night raids, including from the point of view of family members who have survived them. We see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tell Scahill that night raids that kills civilians should not be investigated. And then we see Scahill investigate them, his search leading him to secretive branches of the U.S. military involved in a variety of dirty tactics in various countries.
The film does have a failing. It doesn’t tell people anything they can do about the horrors they’re exposed to. But, of course, activism is possible and far more effective than any journalism — good or bad — will tell you.
One of the stories told in the film and the book of Dirty Wars is the story of the destruction of al Majala. On December 17, 2009, U.S. Tomahawk missiles and incendiary cluster bombs rained down on the tiny Yemeni village of al Majala, killing 21 children, 14 women, and 6 men, and burning all the homes and their contents. The government of Yemen falsely claimed responsibility. Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye disproved that claim.
Shaye reported on the carnage, including photographing missile parts labeled “Made in the United States.” He reported on subsequent U.S. strikes in Yemen, working with the Washington Post, ABC News, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.
Shaye is in prison in Yemen for the crime of journalism, at the insistence of President Obama. A coalition has launched a petition today urging Obama and Yemen to set Shaye free. Fans of Dirty Wars who want to begin to do something to end the crimes committed in their names can be sent to RootsAction.org.
While the United States was searching for its citizen Anwar Awlaki to kill him, Shaye repeatedly tracked him down and interviewed him. These were tough and serious interviews, with Shaye asking Awlaki how he could possibly support acts of violence. Awlaki’s image was not helped. But the U.S. government began warning media outlets not to work with Shaye, falsely accusing him of supporting al Qaeda. The Yemeni government kidnapped Shaye, threatened and released him, then snatched him again and gave him a one-sided “trial,” universally denounced as a sham by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
On February 2, 2011, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, under public pressure, had drawn up, printed out, and was prepared to sign a pardon of Shaye. But Saleh received a phone call from President Barack Obama, who opposed release of the journalist. Saleh ripped up the pardon.
The White House is feeling a little pressure over recent revelations of government spying on and seeking the prosecution of U.S. journalists. It took the targeting of a U.S. journalist for prosecution to start people like Chuck Todd and Dana Milbank chattering about Obama treating journalism as a crime. But have you heard U.S. media outlets raising concerns over the imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist at the instruction of the U.S. president?
There is much else that we are not regularly told to be found in Dirty Wars. Organizations that would like to help promote this film and organize around it in U.S. cities should contact me. With any luck, together we’ll change the conversation to one aware of and unaccepting of acts of murder anywhere on earth.