"Dirty Wars" Portraits - 2013 Sundance Film Festival

Author, investigative reporter, and all around intrepid muckraker, Jeremy Scahill is worried about the state of America. In fact, the national security correspondent for The Nation Magazine is convinced that in our effort to snuff out global terrorism and protect our own cities, we have allowed our government to act abroad without censorship or deliberation for quite some time now.

And he’s not just talking about the Bush Cheney Regime either. In his most recent book, Dirty Wars, as well as its accompanying documentary (directed by Rick Rowley), Scahill lobs some serious accusations at the Obama Administration, not to mention each and every American Citizen for allowing our shoot first foreign battle strategy to sow the seeds of enmity and retaliation in certain parts of the world much more than it is actually stomping out global terrorism.

Recently, I sat down with the charismatic, dedicated, and staunchly patriotic humanist to discuss the documentary, the current global climate, and of course Mr. Obama himself.

Chris Hedges, in his book, The Death of The Liberal Class, talks about this cult of personality that began with the baby boomers and has evolved into this all for me, every detail of my life is transcendent and I deserve to be constantly happy and entertained Twitter/Facebook/Reality TV world. Do you think that this institutionalized vanity is the reason that we simply don’t care about things that aren’t in our face, ie. foreign peoples/future generations? 

“I think for the most part that the only Americans who are forced to pay attention to our current wars are people who have loved ones deployed, and there is something so profoundly rotten about that reality.”

“I love Twitter by the way, but I agree that we live in an infotainment/me me me culture and certainly reality tv and this sort of Snookie, JWoww/Real Housewives obsession is training us to be dumbed down. When you have reality tv defined as what Pinot Grigio they’re drinking at their party in New York, or you know, Bethany has a kid and a margarita line- when that’s reality, what does that mean for journalists? What happens when we want to tell a story about the goings on in a remote part of Afghanistan or a missile strike in Yemen-what do we call what we’re doing?”

“I want to try to challenge that notion (with the film). The idea that we are calling these botoxed and enhanced women of New York, or Beverly Hills, reality-it says something about our society. I have basically been a war reporter or conflict reporter, whatever term you prefer to use, for my entire adult life, and I came to the conclusion during the course of shooting this film that we are definitely making more enemies than we are killing terrorists. Yet people don’t seem to want to think about this.”

The story that you mention in the film, concerning Denver-born Abdulrahman al Awlaki (son of slain US Islamic extremist and supposed terrorist, Anwar al Awlaki) who was killed in a Yemeni drone strike sanctioned by the Obama Administration in 2011 really drives that point home. 

“This kid, al Awlaki who had just turned 16 when he was killed, he hadn’t seen his dad for years and was completely innocent. We’re living in a moment where we’ve got this very popular democratic president who many people view as this transformative figure, won the Nobel Peace Prize, is a constitutional law professor. If he doesn’t have to explain why this 16-year old kid is killed in this drone strike; that says something really profound about our country.”

“Are we really at the point where we believe that justice is defined as sort of the posse getting out the pitchforks and torches and going to deliver citizen’s justice? Do we really want to be a society where we can have one of our own teenagers killed in an operation authorized by the president and no one has to explain why we killed him?

“We wanted to leave people at the end of our film with real questions, and say that maybe you can take 10 minutes out of your day to pick up the phone and demand that one of your elected officials do something about this.”


What do you say to the many in this country who trust Obama implicitly and believe that even though he may make some mistakes, he truly does have not only our country’s, but also humanity’s best interest at heart?

“A lot of people were so sick of the Bush/Cheney era and you have this guy, first African American President, who was speaking with such passion and his message really resonated with a lot of young people and liberals- And I totally understand that! The whole thing was this incredible breadth of fresh air after these dark 8 years of Bush and Cheney in their lair making decisions about lives around the world.”

“Part of it for me though is that your real principals are tested not when someone that you despise is in power. It’s very easy to villain-ize Dick Cheney and make him into Darth Vader, and he encourages that just by his very being, but when someone that you voted for that you like or perhaps view as the greatest president in history, when they’re doing things or implementing policies that you would be against if the other guys were doing it, how you stand in the face of that reality says a lot about who you are. Are you just serving the purpose of a partisan political agenda because you happen to like the guy? Or is it really a principal and you’re against these kinds of actions?”

“If McCain had won the election, I don’t think you’d see polls saying 70% of liberals support drone strikes. In a lot of cases, it’s people saying that because it’s Obama, I trust him. And that’s fine if that’s your perspective, but that’s not really what principals are; that is just trusting a politician.

“I think a lot of liberals are also afraid that when someone like me is criticizing the drone strikes or how Obama has continued some of the Bush/Cheney stuff, that it will hurt his chance of beating the Republicans and they feel it’s counterproductive. I don’t agree, but I understand.”

As flawed or as screwed up as our country and political system can be sometimes, how can you say that its principals of democracy and upholding (for the most part) human rights, are not more evolved than those held by these Militant Islamic regimes? For instance, look at how they treat their women or gay citizens.

“In a country like Afghanistan, there are pockets of that country where because we went in, girls have a future or women have rights that they never had before, but in large parts of the country, and this is something we never see on TV, the reality for these women and girls is actually much worse because they simultaneously still have the Taliban in control and they have the added violence of US night raids or bombings.”

“I’ve always thought that it was a little bit of an insidious argument that we somehow went into Afghanistan to liberate the women of that country. In general, I think it would be hard to argue that the women of Afghanistan are better off because we went in. I also think that we have to ask what is our role in the world. Are we the cops of the world? Are we going to go into any country where they are violating the rights of their citizens? I think that this is a form of cultural imperialism that we are engaging in that is not going to be productive at the end of the day.”

“America picks and chooses what conflicts it intervenes in. What are gay rights and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, one of our key allies? Do we ever hear major criticism of them- no.  But when Iran goes after gays and women we hear all about it, because it’s convenient to the US agenda. If the US was more willing to be harsh in it’s criticism of its fiercest allies when they engage in this behavior, than I would take it more seriously, but I don’t think that we are an honest broker on those issues. At the end of the day, the fact that we are in bed with the Saudi regime despite all of its human rights atrocities, says a lot about where our priorities really lie on those issues.”


How do you convince Americans that these people are not simply the enemy, especially when they are constantly bombarded with this idea of the entire Middle East being nothing but suicide bombers and oppressed innocents?

“What we try to do is turn that idea on its head and say, ok, if you are forced to realize the humanity of the women and children killed in this bombing and hear from survivors who say, I was making bread when the missile slammed down on my house, then its not just a  statistic of people- there’s a real person there.”

“I think that if we as Americans viewed those who live on the other side of the barrel of the gun, as human, it would be a lot harder to say, oh, the drone strikes are surgical and they’re killing the bad guys, because sometimes they do, but a lot of times there are innocent casualties. We have to be able to see the humanity of these people if  we are ever going to empathize with them.”

Could this have something to do with the fact that America is a lot more xenophobic than it wants to admit? Aside from the Olympics, we don’t even like to participate athletically in the global community.

“It’s funny, we know the story of the Chinese Grad student who was one of The Boston Bombing victims. A friend of mine who lives in China told me about a blog post written after President Obama mentioned the name of this Chinese woman, and the post said, where you die matters. The point of it was that if she had died in an explosion in a factory making a product for Americans, we never would have known her name. But because she died in the Boston Marathon bombing, her name was said by the most powerful man in the world.”

“That impacted me very deeply because that is exactly what we were trying to do in our film, which was show the human costs of these wars. It sounds like a cliché, but unless we get way from being hyper-nationalistic and only condemning or feeling sorrow when it happens in our own country, nothing really is gonna change.”

Though I would hardly call this film partisan, you do openly question our President. Are you worried about any pushback from Liberal Hollywood with the release of this film?

“We haven’t felt it yet, but we are at the beginning of the process so maybe in a year I’ll know for sure.”

“I mean, (Hollywood) is a community that is often viewed as a safe bet for the democrats and we made a film that is calling into question some of the most serious policies of a very popular democratic president. I assume it will make some people uncomfortable, but there’s a good discomfort, you want to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Food for thought… much like the rest of this fascinating conversation.