Film | The Sound of Trumpets: ‘Dirty Wars’ and the new killing fields

'Dirty Wars', the hard-hitting documentary based on Jeremy Scahill's book, is an insightful examination not only of some shameful episodes in the US's "war on terror" but also of the dehumanising psychology of US exceptionalism, argues Roger Bromley.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 0:45 - 0 Comments

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DIRTY WARS (15)
Director: Richard Rowley
Origin: United States
Duration: 86m

In the epilogue to his book, Dirty Wars (2013), Jeremy Scahill quotes from Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech: ‘A decade of war is now ending…We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.’ (Scahill, 2013: 513). To many, this was a landmark statement indicating wholesale scaling down of military deployments, but what the speech did not say was that the use of drones, cruise missiles, and covert operations was going to be expanded exponentially to cover one hundred countries or more. Hence Scahill’s sub-title for the book: ‘The World is a Battlefield’. The film of the book, with the same title, was released in the UK in November.

Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007), the bestselling investigation into the company formerly known as Blackwater and its role in the privatisation of war through the use of mercenaries as proxies by the USA in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dirty Wars deploys the skills and techniques of investigative journalism to carry out an equally devastating critique and exposé, this time of US foreign policy, in particular its extensive use of covert operations.

Painstakingly researched and relentlessly evidenced (with 82 pages of endnotes) the book explores the secretive use of elite ‘hunter/killer’ teams – Navy SEALS, Delta Force, the CIA’s Special Activities Division, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), plus former private security contractors (mercenaries) – throughout the world, with particular emphasis on Afghanistan, the Yemen, Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa.

How these elite teams came into being and were legitimated as a core part of US national security policy is meticulously traced from the period prior to 9/11 up to the present day. Current policies were sedimented in the Bush-Cheney administrations as part of a strategy to scale down government oversight in order to sanction secret wars and covert military operations at the behest of a very small inner circle of those in power.

This strategy was designed to protect and expand US global interests but also, in the Middle East, to safeguard Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war provided Cheney and Rumsfeld with both a theatre and laboratory for developing a sophisticated system of what came to be known as ‘High Value Targeting’, including, in Scahill’s words, ‘covert action, black ops, secret prisons, snatch operations, and assassinations’. These tactics are now well known, as are the convoluted justifications and euphemisms (collateral damage, rendition, signature strikes etc.), which sustain them, but what the book does is track the impact of all of this upon its targets or, more usually, the ‘unspecifically targeted’, by giving voice to the voiceless through a series of interviews.

In talking about the book on various media, Scahill says his purpose was to humanise the people who live on the other side of the barrel of a gun. The security world is enmeshed in a world of acronyms and euphemisms and, of all of these, it is JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command (founded in 1980 after the failed US embassy rescue mission in Iran) which dominates the book’s narrative. It is so secretive that even Scahill, National Security Correspondent for the Nation magazine for more than a decade had not heard of it when he started researching the book, despite the fact that in one year alone (1996) JSOC had been deployed in, at least, 142 countries. In keeping with the penchant for snappy acronyms and strap lines, its mission was to ‘find, fix, and finish’ ‘enemies’ in a borderless war.

The book reveals also that JSOC operations were carried out in the USA itself (Waco, Texas) and, ultimately, has been responsible for the targeted killing of four US citizens in the Middle East – the death of the 16 year old son of one of these targets was described dismissively as ‘collateral damage’ – he should have had a more responsible father one US official is reported as saying. I use the term ‘targeted’ but when the White House finally got around to responding to questions about the killings by drone strikes, it was acknowledged that ‘3 were not specifically targeted’, what Scahill at one point refers to as a ‘lawyered down’ phrase. The key word here is ‘specifically’, I think. The targeted figure was Anwar al Awlaki, born in New Mexico, whose story is threaded through the book and the film.

In the book and the film two particular sites of covert killings form the axes of Scahill’s investigation – Gardez in Afghanistan and Al-Majalah in Yemen. The first is a place where a celebratory naming ceremony for a child was raided by, what turned out to be, JSOC commandos and a number of people were killed, including two pregnant women. Extensive efforts were made to cover up what was a botched night raid, including the removal of bullets from the bodies.

The official US response for a time was that it was a family honour killing. Unknown to the assailants, cell phone images and videos of the incident were taken and transferred onto computer. These were made available to Scahill and the film’s director, Richard Rowley. The massacre of 46 people in Yemen was brought about by a cruise missile strike, claimed by the Yemeni government but which bore strong traces of a US ‘Special Access Program’ co-ordinated by JSOC; this was part of a series of secret Presidential orders giving authorisation to strike beyond declared battlefields. 21 children and 14 women were killed in the massacre – evidenced again by cell phone pictures. The Yemeni journalist who broke the story was arrested and detained – his release blocked by Obama.

The people killed in Gardez and Al Majalah were, presumably, also not ‘specifically targeted’ but part of the policy of ‘signature strikes’ – designated target areas where a number of criteria related to ‘terrorist activity’ are supposed to obtain as determined by intelligence reports. One of these criteria turns on the concept of ‘imminence’, the likelihood of a zone presenting an imminent threat.

As I sat down to write this piece, I accessed news of an air strike by a US drone in Yemen which killed 15 people travelling to a wedding ‘mistaken’ for an al-Qaida convoy. This was the second such strike in a week which caused the deaths of civilians to add to the dozens killed in Yemen since the US has increased drone strikes as part of its campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A recent AQAP attack on the Defence Ministry aroused considerable hostility and outrage towards AQAP amongst the general population but an activist, who earlier this year gave testimony to the US Senate about the effect of drone strikes, has said that the drone strikes last week ‘literally saved AQAP’s image’ – blowback is the official euphemism for this.

Dirty Wars is a densely written, carefully argued, and extensively documented ‘epic’ of investigative journalism of more than 500 pages; the film based upon the book is 87 minutes long, a breath-taking work of synopsis and editing which condenses the main arguments, presents in visual form selected evidence from the book, and carries out interviews with a range of people upon whom JSOC’s activities have impacted or have themselves been implicated, at various levels, in these activities. A number of the latter interviews are revealing for their evasiveness and utter insensitivity, but others substantiate many of Scahill’s researches, including Somali warlords outsourced by the CIA to operate its targeted kill/capture programme.

If it were not for the extraordinary range of documented evidence, both book and film would strain our credulity to its limit. Both make depressing and disturbing reading and viewing, but together with Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, they have the value of contributing to an understanding of US foreign policy which will, hopefully, make it harder for covert operations to go undetected.

The exposure of counter-insurgency is producing its own counter-surveillance. We now know, for example, that there are 7000 plus drones in the US fleet and also that,  ‘According to the military’s own reports, for every enemy effectively targeted in these operations, there were three civilians wrongly killed or captured’ (Hannah Gurman, Hearts and Minds, 2013). These are official estimates but others have argued that more than 90 per cent of drone strike fatalities are civilians.

High-order investigative journalism of the kind I am speaking about makes available a wealth of research, evidence and description which would otherwise remain unknown. Reporters like Jeremy Scahill go to where the silence is, Amy Goodman has said. They bring back from that silence the voices of those deemed to be of no account. A US foreign policy based upon violence without accountability is only possible because of a long history of ‘othering’ of people regarded by those in the centres of power as ‘less than human’. The cast of those ‘demonised’ may change – Native Americans, Jews, African Americans, Tutsis, Arabs, and Muslims – but impunity and dehumanization are constants.

In thinking about Dirty Wars, I have found it helpful to look at some of the arguments in David Livingstone Smith’s excellent book, Less Than Human: Why we Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (2011).I wrote about these issues in respect of Rwanda in a piece called ‘Beast, Vermin, Insect’ (2007, 2011), the title of which indicates the language used to render the ‘other’ sub-human. We (the pronoun use is interesting) essentialize the other, reduce them to a set of invariable and negative characteristics and this enables ‘us’ to kill with indifference.

Genocide, of course, is the most extreme instance of dehumanization but the hunter/killer mentality, the cognitive and linguistic strategies devised to objectify, and the ‘seeking out of low-cost opportunities for killing outsiders’ (Livingstone Smith: 277) shown in Dirty Wars are all part of a continuum. Arabs and Muslims, in particular, are currently the ‘beasts, vermin, and insects’ of dominant western ideology and drones and cruise missiles the weapons of choice.

To insulate against the possibility of ‘humanity’ being allowed to leak into the construction of the other by close encounters, long-range, unmanned, ‘smart’ weapons have been developed as a means of rendering conflict robotic, non-human, and producing no more than images on a computer screen as they carry out their ‘signature kills’, another newspeak euphemism, also known as ‘crowd killing’ by the military. This ‘no boots on the ground’ policy avoids the risk of combatants ‘getting edgy around the other’ but it is dehumanization which enables JSOC commandos to kick down doors in villages and kill with impunity (the My Lai massacre of 500 Vietnamese civilians in 1969 was an earlier example).

Mind-altering ideologies ensure that these operatives are disengaged in all senses of the word. Authorisation from above (‘carrying out orders’), indifference, and seeing the other as sub-human are all necessary for successful covert operations. I do not have the competence to speculate about psychopathy but some of its characteristics may well be relevant here. A long history of gun culture, slavery, and racism also contribute, together with repeated media vilification, as part of the historical and cultural specificity of this particular stage of ‘othering’ violence – impersonal, and perhaps dehumanizing the predator almost as much as the prey.

Emotional disidentification is the primary condition of those who authorise and/or carry out the night-time raids and pilot the missiles and drones, part of the complex of power which is produced by discourses of ideological justification predicated ultimately upon constantly repeated symbolic forms and ethnic absolutism. Braudel (1988) said that ‘A nation can have its being only at the price of being forever in search of itself’ and it might be argued also that the resurgence of American exceptionalism and entitlement is to do with a nation in search of its ‘not self’, only secure in the knowledge that ‘out there’ there are still the barbarians of myth, displaced from ‘my’ identity. To dehumanize others is a form of displacement, to remove them from their identity (and ‘ours’) so that ‘you can kill them without feeling that you have killed your own kind’ (Waller in Bromley: 51).

Part of the psychology explored in Dirty Wars, I would argue, is the maintenance of an antagonistic frontier, shifting maybe but always sought for as a signifier of privilege, attachment and superiority. The enemy other has to be constantly re-formulated in a discursive construction of an alien community, a categorical boundary, dichotomised and simplified. As Gerd Baumann has demonstrated: ‘a perverted language use will seduce even the initially innocent into complicity with genocidal policies and a  politics of language that de-humanizes the other – until there is no grammar left in which the other can be construed as a legitimate other’ (in Bromley: 56; my italics). So the other is evacuated from the universe of moral obligation but also from the community of grammar and language itself.

The director of the film, Richard Rowley, said in an interview with the Huffington Post that what film does better than any other medium is to allow you to feel a human connection with people you are disconnected from culturally, geographically, and politically and that their goal was to make the people filmed into human beings.  It is the achievement of both the book and the film to open up the possibility of dialogue, to hear and listen to those without voice, who do not count, and enable their return to the community of narrativity, to challenge mental mappings which ‘know’ the always already narrated.

The phrase “Sounds of Treumpets” in the title is taken from the book’s epigraph:

‘It is forbidden to kill, therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets’ (Voltaire).

Professor Roger Bromley will introduce a screening of Dirty Wars at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham on Tuesday 17th December, 2013 at 7PM.

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Roger Bromley

Roger Bromley is an academic and author who has published widely on a range of topics and, in recent years, has written mainly on postcolonial culture and diaspora, refugee and asylum issues, particularly in relation to cinematic representations, and on post-conflict cultures. He has worked in UK higher education for 44 years until his retirement in 2010. Currently, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, Visiting Professor in the Centre for Transnational Writing and Research at Lancaster University, and Associate Fellow in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa.

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