Scores of students gathered in Meyer Science Center Monday night to view a showing of the documentary-film “Dirty Wars.” The event was hosted by the Middle East Understanding Club, a group on campus dedicated to “challenging assumptions and stereotypes associated with the Middle East,” and included a response by assistant professor of politics and international relations Michael McKoy and associate professor of politics and law David Iglesias.
Written, produced and narrated by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, “Dirty Wars” documents U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, critically examining what Scahill terms “deadly U.S. night raids” and targeted drone strikes. Through his reporting, Scahill draws attention to the role of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — led at the time by Admiral William McRaven — in the “War on Terror,” uncovering the story of five Afghan civilians who were allegedly killed by the force in a secret operation. Later in the film, Scahill turns to the deaths of U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, both killed by separate U.S. drone strikes in Yemen.
“Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe,” narrates Scahill near the end of the film, “Foreigners and citizens alike assassinated by presidential decree. The war on terror transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does a war like this ever end?”
Sophomore Mary Daghfal described her reaction to the film in one word: “Confused.”
“It raised a lot of questions for me about the war, about what we have been doing, about who has authority,” Daghfal said. “So many questions.”
For McKoy, the film highlighted a fundamental dichotomy “between U.S. absence vs. U.S. empire.”
“The positive takeaway I got from (the film) was there needs to be more transparency and accountability for U.S. forces,” McKoy said. “I think that’s important.”
“But on a broader debate, do we think it’s a better thing for the U.S. to provide security in the world, even with the inevitable mishaps that are going to happen or … to withdraw and let local forces sort things out among themselves?” he asked.
“I think there’s a fair argument to be made on both sides.”
Iglesias expressed concern about the film’s lack of balance.
“I would have liked to have seen a spokesperson from the Joint Operations Command or from the Pentagon or from somebody giving an official explanation,” said Iglesias. “In fact I would say I was a bit disappointed.”
Iglesias went on to explain that he “actually worked with McRaven,” the former head of JSOC that Scahill singles out in the film, “during his time in Coronado.”
“(McRaven has) a tremendously good reputation within the Navy,” Iglesias said.
Iglesias also offered context for the drone operations reported in the film, emphasizing the difference between engaging targets militarily in a context of war and engaging suspects through “due process” in a “law enforcement model.”
“I didn’t have any legal problem with the use of a drone strike against al-Awlaki,” Iglesias said, citing al-Awlaki’s ties to confirmed terrorists. “Against the 16-year old son, I need to know a lot more information. It would appear that he was collateral damage, that he was not specifically targeted. If he was, I would like to know what those reasons are. So I’m withholding judgement on that.”
Other viewers were more critical.
“If we have enough evidence to convict someone and basically assign them the death penalty —which is a drone strike — than that person should be given due process like everybody else. I don’t understand why that didn’t happen,” McKoy said.
He also explained that al-Awlaki’s case highlights serious issues about the drone campaign in general.
“Essentially what the White House has said is: ‘Don’t worry. We take this seriously. Trust us.’”
“I’ll be blunt,” McKoy said, “I find that insulting. That’s never the way an advanced democracy works.”
Sophomore Theodora Beschel, who helped start the Middle East Understanding Club, said that while the film “uncovered … the ugly, seedy side of the American military … Captain Iglesias was very good at pulling it back in.”
Most importantly, the event stayed true to what Beschel explained is the mission of the club: “to start conversations about the Middle East and get people informed.”
McKoy added, “The best way you can engage is continue to learn more, continue to challenge yourself, respectfully challenge others, respectfully allow yourself to be challenged in your views and keep pressing forward.”