Dirty Wars and Not So Clean Journalism

The underlying message of Jeremy Scahill’s documentary, Dirty Wars, is both valid and profound: certain aspects of the “war on terror” are immensely counter-productive, significantly contributing to the sort of violent fundamentalism that spawns terrorism. In other words, some of the tactics our military uses to fight terrorism are actually aiding and abetting the enemy.

For that alone, the film is worth seeing. However, Scahill’s flawed approach has a similar effect on those who seek to defend such foolish tactics, in that the journalist’s ignorance and bias leave an objective viewer somewhere in the fog of this shadowy war.

JSOCogoLet’s start with the ignorance. Scahill boasts of being a veteran war correspondent, but he had never heard of JSOC – Joint Special Operations Command – until he started investigating the incidents featured in the film Dirty Wars, some 30 years after the command was officially established. How can this be? Is this ignorance, incompetence, or a shallow attempt to feign some sort of journalistic scoop?

Clearly JSOC is not the kind of thing that’s advertised, but other journalists have had no problem identifying and writing about this organization. And I, a civilian with no military or government connections, and no budget or official capacity for even unprofessional journalism, have been aware of JSOC for nearly a decade now.

I cannot recall when I first learned of JSOC, but I am certain that it was as early as 2004. That’s when two key books were published: Gary Berntsen’s Jawbreaker and Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command. The former is an insider’s look at the opening days of the war in Afghanistan and the latter is an in-depth exploration of both the Afghan and Iraq wars, as well as the politics behind them. JSOC was also featured in Malcolm MacPherson’s Roberts Ridge and Sean Naylor’s Not A Good Day To Die, both published the following year. And then there are the numerous New York Times articles throughout the past decade that have mentioned JSOC.

Yet Scahill, whose first official assignment in a war zone was in 1999, appears to have “discovered” the existence of this “secret” organization as late as 2010 or 2011? Perhaps he needs to reevaluate how he does his research, since a couch potato with Internet access (or a library card) clearly knows more about our special operations command than this “investigative” war journalist.

JSOC has been out in the open for years. A subscription to the Fayetteville Observer, a local newspaper covering Fort Bragg (if Scahill ever watched the Military Channel, he’d know that Fort Bragg is JSOC’s home base), has been openly writing about it since the late 80s. JSOC is far from a military secret, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

JSdirtwarWhy is it important to challenge this? For starters, such claims – whether out of ignorance or incompetence – weaken the valid ones Scahill makes about the military. It portrays him as either a clueless buffoon who doesn’t know what he’s talking about or a biased liberal zealot with an axe to grind.

And given that much of the documentary focus on what Scahill alleges is a military cover up, programs deliberately run behind our backs, these claims – which may be quite legitimate – are undermined by the fact that he failed to do his homework on JSOC. Even a liberal like me started questioning everything else he said as soon as I realized how wrong he was on JSOC.

But perhaps the biggest problem Scahill’s shoddy journalism causes is that he completely misunderstands the role of JSOC and how it came to lead the charge in these wars. Again, had he done his homework and read some of these books, he’d know that the Bush administration didn’t create JSOC (the Carter administration did) to lead a covert, “dirty” war.

JSOC 101
DODogoWhen Bush asked for military solutions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the conventional military had nothing but outdated plans that would require lengthy build-ups, similar to its five-month timeline for Gulf War I. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which is JSOC’s parent organization, quickly offered plans that would enable the administration to strike back immediately, putting boots on the ground in a matter of weeks – instead of months – and reducing the risk of US causalities.

That sort of innovative thinking and flexibility is what put JSOC in the lead in Afghanistan, not some secret agenda. And its relative success is what has kept them in the lead for much of the activity in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade. It wasn’t a need to hide their actions from the American public but rather an ability to respond quickly and effectively that helped JSOC rise to prominence. There is nothing sinister about it.

Now whether or not JSOC has spiraled out of control, creating a greater need for its use and growth, is certainly a valid question. But the fact that Scahill was so clueless about the organization makes it hard to swallow anything he might have to offer on that subject.

PreDroneScahill’s bias comes into play when he criticizes the JSOC raids and targeted killings in various war zones. For starters, Scahill acts surprised that the US is undertaking such operations in places like the Philippines. Had he done his homework, he’d know that the Philippines have long been a hotbed of terrorist activity, particularly for Al Qaeda. In fact, their first attempt to simultaneously bring down multiple airliners – the precursor to 9/11 – was born there.

And when you are waging a war on terror, any nation that harbors terrorists becomes part of the war zone by default. Now whether or not that is the approach we should be taking is certainly a matter for debate, and Scahill’s documentary makes some good arguments against it. However, the fact that he fails to even acknowledge the need to pursue individuals and organizations who are plotting to kill Americans, to wage war on our people…including innocent civilians, belies all journalistic objectivity and makes him look like a blind crusader.

AQattackThrough much of the movie, Scahill investigates a US Special Forces raid, under JSOC command, in Afghanistan that mistakenly attacked a group of innocent civilians gathered at a family compound for a wedding. Not only did the American soldiers kill an Afghan police officer, but several pregnant women as well. And, as if that weren’t disturbing enough, in a grotesque effort to hide their involvement, these American troops literally carved their bullets out of the dead bodies so that there would be no evidence. Clearly even they know that what they did was very wrong.

The result of this tragic mistake – whether caused by poor intelligence at headquarters or poor discipline in the field – and the mindless butchery that ensued, is that an entire family of Afghans who were once pro-coalition are now radicalized against it – and against America. And their story, along with a valid reason to radicalize, will likely be spread throughout their entire village, clan, and region. Add to that whatever other botched raids we don’t even know about, and there’s plenty of cause for concern.

But one thing Scahill and others need to keep in mind is that the US doesn’t intentionally target innocent civilians. Clearly our military makes grave mistakes, but we don’t deliberately set out to harm helpless individuals. Terrorists, on the other hand, deliberately intend to harm as many innocent civilians as they can. That botched raid in Afghanistan is their primary mission. To Americans, such an occurrence is a terrible tragedy that people make documentaries about. To Al Qaeda, killing a policeman and a few pregnant women is considered a good day – a job well done. And that is a monumental difference.

Not So Innocent Civilians
AnWarLakiWhen Scahill talks about the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, he largely portrays the man as American exercising his free speech. Naturally, anyone watching Dirty Wars will be rightfully outraged that we killed an American, exercising his rights – not to mention that we used a missile to kill him in Yemen, a country where we have not officially declared any type of war.

What Scahill only alludes to is the fact that this Muslim cleric – once a beacon of peaceful Islam and a vocal opponent of those, like Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization, who abuse the religion for their own political purposes – had become increasingly radicalized. Like Bin Laden, al-Awlaki had become a global leader of terrorism, calling for Muslims around the world to kill Americans every chance they get.

And that’s the problem with guys like Scahill. One minute their crying conspiracy, demanding to know why the US government failed to take out Bin Laden when they had the chance to save thousands of innocent lives, and now they are crying conspiracy because the US government took out a radical actively recruiting individuals to carry out similar attacks on innocent Americans.

Rather than cowering to his own bias, Scahill would have served his argument, and peace-loving people of all faiths, far better if he had taken a more balanced approach. Yes, the question of the legality of such assassinations needs to be asked, but it should be asked in a fair context, with the ramifications of what al-Awlaki had become, what he was actively doing, and what he had hoped would be the result of it: American bloodshed that would rival 9/11.

Better yet, Scahill should have focused more on the role that these assassinations and raids had on radicalizing guys like al-Awlaki. For that is arguably the most interesting and important issue raised in Dirty Wars: is this policy effective in combating terrorism or is it only increasing it?

Unfortunately, Scahill gets lost in the fog of subjective journalism. And any objective viewer of Dirty Wars is left wondering if it’s a valid documentary or merely a polished propaganda piece.