Scahill and Rowley first finished a version of the film that was significantly different from its final iteration, which follows Scahill--a national security correspondent for The Nation magazine who has investigated and reported stories in Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia--as he uncovers a much larger narrative about a secretive and deadly unit at the center of the U.S. military after a puzzling trip to a remote area in Afghanistan.
The earlier version of "Dirty Wars" was a straight-up, linear documentary, a just-the-facts-ma'am look at Scahill's reporting, not the journalist himself. But with the help of David Riker, a writer and director whose film "The Girl" debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, in 2012 Scahill and Rowley turned the film from a story about the most covert arm of the U.S. national security apparatus into a story about an investigation into that elite fighting force.
It was undeniably the right choice. Through its unique framing, focusing on a journalist reporting rather than a story reported, "Dirty Wars" manages to simultaneously delve deeply and authoritatively into the murky world of U.S. counterterrorism while ultimately posing a series of questions, or perhaps a central dilemma. How do we understand the world around us and our priorities as a nation when we don't even know the breadth of our country's armed forces engagement around the globe?
As Scahill says towards the beginning of the film, "This is a story about the seen and the unseen."
Shadows and questions in a nighttime raid
One of the earliest clues that there was more to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than met the eye came from U.S. soldiers themselves, who told Scahill that the real fighting--the real war, in fact--was taking place in secret, in the background, away from the skirmishes of official military units that were reported by journalists embedded in the field. A steady stream of press releases told a different story: nighttime raids where combatants were killed in the so-called 'denied zones.' These areas were far outside the secure perimeter within which most journalists operated; these were the areas which few foreigners ever see.
Scahill was determined to be an exception. On a trip to a small city called Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan, he investigated a nighttime raid that had killed five civilians. He met with the family of Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police commander who had trained with the U.S.; he watched cellphone video of Daoud dancing with his family hours before his death at the hands of unnamed, unknown men who showed up at Daoud's house wearing no uniforms and shot him dead. He left Gardez with questions, as had another journalist, Jerome Starkey of the Times of London, whose reporting had linked the attack to NATO but had been publicly pushed back upon by the treaty organization.
A UN investigation later confirmed U.S. involvement in the Gardez killings. NATO changed its story, and a chilling cell phone video surfaced, in which bloody, bullet-ridden bodies can be seen, accompanied by two American voices speaking in English as they parse the events of that night, reconstructing a narrative. A photo emerged of a uniformed, high-ranking American officer, Admiral William McRaven, personally apologizing to Daoud's family for the loss of their relatives. Scahill, a veteran journalist with a deep knowledge of the military, knew little of the man or an unusual insignia on his uniform. After some digging, though, he learned that McRaven had been appointed in 2008 as the head of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, one of the most secretive--and most elite--arms of the U.S. military.
"Dirty Wars" follows Scahill's investigation of the then-almost unknown JSOC, which takes him from Afghanistan to New York to Yemen to Washington. Scahill interviews former officials with knowledge of the unit's operations who detail how the war in Afghanistan transitioned to one spearheaded by JSOC through targeted killings and strategic, almost surgical attack-and-grab missions. In Yemen, Scahill visits the site of a deadly airstrike, later returning to the country to speak with the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who became the first U.S. citizen to be slated for a targeted killing and to die in the crosshairs of an unmanned drone.