This article was written on 09 Oct 2013, and is filled under Film & TV.

The “Demonic Precision” of Pictures: Review of Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars”

The German philosopher of photography Ernst Jünger, who served with distinction during World War I, wrote about the nature of images that they bear a “dangerous precision” in the eyes of the viewer.   Jünger was among the first theorists to show how visual media transforms the spectacle of war into a material force, and brings violence home to those on the peaceable side of the distinction between soldier and civilian.  He summed up this distinction more specifically as allowing” a bourgeois relation to danger [wherein] lies a perception of it [danger] as an irresolvable contradiction to order, that is, as senseless.  In this sense,” Jünger continues, “he [the bourgeois viewer] marks himself off from … the warrior, the artist, and the criminal.”  One ought to read Jünger, or at least consider these remarks, before seeing Jeremy Scahill’s exposé on what the journalist-turned-film-maker (if not also, the film’s reluctant star) calls our “invisible wars.”  Jünger is an appropriate figure for thinking about the reach, scale, and even the generic boundaries, that Dirty Wars relentlessly explodes.  What’s more, it is precisely these questions of reach and scale, and indeed, of cinematic genre that are common to the invasive war sceneographies (read here: drone war; dis-embedded journalism; domestic spying and surveillance) that Schahill himself wants to target.  That he, too, becomes a target in the course of the film—that he is shot at while shooting in the liminal zones of the planet’s secret sites of US inspired combat—is a kind of Jüngeresque reversal very much to the point of seeing Dirty Wars:  when “the world is a battle field,” one of the films many pithy catch phrases, there simply is no outside, no civilianized perspective, that keeps the war-image at an entirely risk-free distance from the “demonic precision” that upsets the more peaceable acts of information exchange.

As the film’s chief protagonist, Scahill starts out in an expected way to document the facts.  From the war zones of Somalia (the site of the famous Black Hawk down episode), to the drone wars of Pakistan and, more disturbingly still, of Yemen (where US citizens Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16 year-old son Nasser are taken out by drones), and indeed, to Schahill’s (largely unattended!) testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Dirty Wars chronicles the so-called War on Terror as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  The film’s hardest news story reveals the importance of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) as the US military’s most important—and most closely guarded—secret.   JSOC became well-enough known during the one-bullet-war with Somalian pirates that re-took the cargo ship Maesrk Alabama in 2009, and is currently celebrated for the killing of Osama bin-Laden, not to mention Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay.   As Scahill reveals, however, those operations were the modest beginnings of an evidently endless and expansive, secret US governmental kill list.  What is most disturbing, and most enigmatic in the age of permanent and perpetual war is not simply that JSOC is effectively a private army directed by the office of the President, and therefore, unaccountable to any civilian governmental body.  At bottom, JSOC exhibits a relation of command that is apposite to the de-civilianization of civil society at home and abroad, even while it does so in highly uneven ways.  We surrender control of our military to secret courts and imperious examples of executive power, while people are targeted the world over by the uninterrupted, yet unseen presence of high-flying drones. As disturbing as this reality is, the more enigmatic point is that JSOC’s kill list has been growing, and continues to grow, in direct proportion to the numbers of targets eliminated from its deadly roster.  The more we kill, the more we must kill, and it is precisely the technologies manifest in, for example, drone vision, that lock us into the ever-widening feedback loop of insurgency and counter-insurgency that is twenty-first century war.  By 2010—as Scahill points out in his best-selling book by the same title, on which the film Dirty Wars is based—we have put special operation forces to work in some 75 countries around the world, from Pakistan to the Ukraine, from the Philippines to Mexico (not to mention here within the shadows of US Homeland Security itself); and in this sense, the most important wars exist unknown to all but the highest state powers in the borderless regions Yemen and Somalia rather than Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The “JSOC-ification” of war (Scahill’s term) is an imposition upon whatever form of civil society might exist in whatever so-called “host country,” as much as it is unaccountable to traditional forms civilian restraint.

In this sense, Dirty Wars delivers what one would expect from a progressive journalistic exposé.  But the film is a good deal more than that.  It is not simply the facts that the film exposes—consistent with Jünger’s provocation regarding the war image—but the fact that “Dirty Wars” exposes the act of viewing itself.  You might even say that, while the journalist serves up the requisite liberal dismay about the state of things regarding war, the state of things reverse and move us far beyond that weaker strain of shock and awe.  The film-maker, who at once becomes an object in the film, becomes an uneasy target himself, not just of the bullets flying around him, as they do, for example, in his encounter with (US backed) Somali warlords about mid-way though the film, but as the uneasy spectator, targeted while targeting the very forces of the state he might  otherwise be more comfortable simply to document.

What would otherwise be Jünger’s distant spectator is finally unable to stave off the “dangerous precision” of the war image, as Scahill’s discomfort intensifies toward the end of the film.   The secrets he’s able to disclose, for example, about General McRaven’s nefarious involvement with civilian deaths caused by JSOC’s never-ending night raid—its turning of would-be allies into enemy insurgents—in the end, these make Scahill less secure for doing the disclosing.   This is a dynamic that is consistent with the demonic war pictures that Jünger describes.  You might say that the core technologies of asymmetric war are demonically precise in their imprecision.  For example, as with drone vision, and as with the satellite-based forms of planetary monitoring on which such vision depends, every aspect of life’s activities can be homed in on or opened up to war. Yet again as with drones, the imprecision with which this kind of world-targeting works kills multitudes of innocent civilians. One of the most haunting encountered in Dirty Wars is Al-Awlaki’s unsuspecting son, a nerdy adolescent and US citizen. The fear of abduction and assassination directed toward JSOC over there, at some geographical, but not—thanks to Dirty Wars—some cinematic distance, comes home in a reflux of violence, shot on the anxious face of the journalist/film star, who soon enough becomes a suspect in his own right.  Jünger’s tragic hero—the Janus-faced figure of the “warrior,” cum “artist- criminal”—enters reluctantly.

One of the most important points that Dirty Wars makes is that, under conditions of contemporary warfare, purely civilian activity, or for that matter, the purely civilian perspective, is impossible.  Scahill thus refers in the film to drone vision smartly when he describes how these aerial assassins loiter permanently around the planet (if not, we must also ask, over the US) without regard for national boundaries or the discrete identities of their targets.  The killing of US citizens by drones in foreign countries with whom we are not officially at war gets us wondering about the death of citizenship more generally, its political capacities—and if we want to view it in a critical way—citizenship’s corresponding aesthetic limits.  The focus on drones is a key turning point the movie, and a hint to the film’s own way of upsetting the traditional documentary genre with the cinematic elements of neo-noir.  UAVs are in this sense Dirty Wars‘ demonic media foil.   We see, for example, how JSOC’s drones, more efficiently than the CIA’s, at least in theory subject to some form of congressional oversight, are poised to monitor what Scahill calls “the life patterns” of military age males, looking for anomalies in daily practices of otherwise ordinary people in order to make a strike before whatever merely potential act of violence our intelligence algorithms might surmise.

A compelling aspect of this film is that, in a way totally apposite to drone vision, Scahill becomes as much a target as the one doing targeting.  And—as unwitting, too often passive participants in the myriad forms of planetary violence we civilians try by self-definition to ignore—so ostensibly do Scahill’s viewers.  I’ve already mentioned that this film does not fail to deliver the important gotcha moments that should needle the progressive’s conscience once we’re better informed about how our invisible wars are fought today, where, and on whom US military violence is too often misdirected.  But more to the point of Dirty Wars‘ achievement as a film, we have to concede that part of what’s being gotten, indeed, slammed into reverse on the other side of the gotcha moment, is the journalistic impulse to presume that objectivity can reliably be had.  Schahill is himself a victim of his own gotcha moment, and he doesn’t shy away from letting us know that.

We learn eventually that his phones are hacked by the government, his own data effectively sucked into the war machine, as he is harassed by dark forces to back away from investigations that bring consequences exceeding standard journalistic bargains.  If the world is a target, as the film insists, and Scahill—and we ourselves—are forced to live and think, to write and/or take pictures—within that targeted world, then whether or not we are interested in war, to return to an old phrase, war is interested in us.

A promotional poster-page at the end of Dirty Wars, the book, promises that the film is as much a “thriller” as it is a conscientious good deed.  This is clearly the case.   The fiction filmmaker David Riker, together with Scahill’s director, Rick Rowley, have made stylistic choices that will muddy the water for those seeking from Dirty Wars, the movie, something more approaching a newspaper experience.  Riker is known for his neo-realist film The City (La Ciudad), about the plight of Latin American immigrants in New York City.   More in connection with Scahill’s work, Riker also directed the vastly under-appreciated drone-war movie, Sleep Dealer, about a world of digitized labor and insurgent neuro-warriors who fly remote control drones by biological wire, that is, connected directly to the human brain, Matrix style.  Many production and post-production choices made by Riker and Rowley—key-board close-ups preceding far away key-strikes; letters spelled out in wide-screen with type-writer sound effects; a shaky camera filming survivors of a knight raid in Khataba, Afghanistan—make the movie Dirty Wars part and parcel of the disquieting visual innovations crossing over between the equally hot zones of war and the exchange of information.  A haunting soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet sucks us further into the JSOC chase, and hastens the suspense over what the film ultimately reveals, which is Scahill’s multiply layered inner turmoil, not least his agitated self-awareness as a dangerous agitator (if not a potential enemy?) of the state.   In an interview on the film, Scahill is asked about “being the subject” of war, “as opposed to writing about the subject.”   He also comments on Riker’s early suggestion to film Dirty Wars in a way that would highlight the psychology of the inquiring mind, and to do so in a way that would ultimately upend the rationalistic bases of print-based forms of inquiry.  “You can’t capture that kind of intensity emotional [in the tradecraft of journalism] in the same way that film can.”  In this sense, Dirty Wars has to be seen to be understood; but understanding is only part—and not even the most challenging part—of the battle.


  1. Name *
    October 31, 2013

    I ask Scahill to read Zizek a few years ago. But he didn’t.
    Now he paid the prize.

  2. […] attention to the visual codes in the film, see Mike Hill‘s very smart essay over at Feedback here).  I do know that films have to be different from books, that they have different grammars if you […]