Dirty Wars , The Documentary: Notes in the Margins

Saturday night, I went to see Dirty Wars, a documentary film about the U.S. covert operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates, written and produced by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation.

The film chronicles the reporting of Scahill as he journeys on a trail, which eventually led him into the murky labyrinth of U.S. covert operations designed to cross out individuals from an ever growing list of alleged terrorists. While he was reporting from Afghanistan, Scahill sensed that he was possibly missing the real story, as if the war that he was witnessing and narrating was only a speck of reality masking a much deeper hidden truth. When he stumbled over the story about a night raid, which in a remote Afghan poor village killed an American trained police commander and two pregnant women, Scahill begun to ask questions and to connect dots that eventually revealed to him (and now to us) the existence and the global extent of the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the use of predator drones in Yemen, the murky alliance of the CIA with war lords in Somalia, and finally how a drone within Yemen killed Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, and two weeks later his 16-year-old innocent son, Abdulrahman, while eating at a restaurant with his cousins. Dirty Wars does a great job at showing us up close the stories of the tribal communities affected by the U.S. drone war, as well as displaying the American intelligence and military's culture of war.

With Dirty Wars it is as if Jeremy Scahill is holding up a mirror against the U.S. government's war against al Qaeda and its affiliates across the Middle East and Africa, while inviting us to look into the abyss of its practices.

The film, though, does not only bring into the light events and information that have been carefully hidden from the public, through lies, deceptions, and cover-ups. In fact, Dirty Wars is also a documentary on the inner working of power at the heart of the state; on how violence lies at the core of the state, and how secrecy lies at the core of power. In this sense, Dirty Wars reveals a public secret: a secret whose existence we sensed but were unable so far to articulate and to state. In the film, as he does in the book, Jeremy Scahill reveals the truth by stating the secret. As anthropologist Michael Taussig wrote (from Walter Benjamin), "Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it" (Defacement, p.2).

In this sense, Dirty Wars is an act of Enlightenment because it brings inside out, it sheds light into the abyss, it unearths knowledge, and it reveals mystery. It is the mystery of the power of the state that here is unearthed. I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the state, which the two French philosophers defined as an apparatus of capture with an impulse to seize an exteriority conceived and engendered as an heart of darkness. JSOC and the drug lords employed by the United States, in Scahill's work emerge as the incarnation of war machines that the state seems not to hesitate acquiring when its back is up against the wall. But in leashing out the war machine, the state runs also the risk of being taken over by the war machine's logic of total war. Other movies, like Apocalypse Now or the more recent TV series Homeland, have pointed to the dangers of warriors gone out of control; these are metaphors for the state when, in the name of security, it turns war as its primary, if not sole, object. Deleuze and Guattari did not hesitate in defining this kind of state as suicidal.

ThroughDirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill wrote effectively against terror. His work is an act of subversion with the intention to interrupt the state's production of fear and terror. Dirty Wars hopes to get American citizens to step on the brakes and to arrest the direction in which the U.S. has embarked. One leaves the theatre thinking that this U-turn can only happen, as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now suggested on Saturday at the end of the evening, if we take citizenship not for a given but, as the Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe wrote, experience it as a form of political identity: something to be constructed since rather than granted by a legal document, citizenship is acquired through democratic engagement. Fear depoliticizes citizens, engagement instead reactivates the democratic citizen.

In both civic participation and awareness lie the hope and the chance to rein in the war machine the state has become. Going to see Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars could be for many the first step in engendering a war machine of a different kind, a non-violent machine of metamorphoses, which will eventually redefine predominant notions and practices of security that ultimately are making us more insecure.