Awlaki becomes an anchor for "Dirty Wars" and the central conflict of Scahill's reporting, especially in light of the fact that by the time of Awlaki's death in September 2011, JSOC's public profile had markedly increased after the dramatic operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan the previous May. How, Scahill asks, could a cleric who had been looked to as a prominent American Muslim voice against terrorism and extremism during his time preaching at a mosque in Fairfax, Virginia turn into a rabid supporter of jihad and the eventual target of an extrajudicial killing by the U.S. government?
In search of the answer to this question, Scahill--and "Dirty Wars" itself--looks to the story of Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman. A U.S. citizen himself, born in Denver, he had sneaked out of his family home in Sana, Yemen, leaving a note to tell his mother he had gone in search of his father. Two weeks after his father's death, Abdulrahman too would be killed by a drone strike, one apparently intended for an Egyptian al-Qaeda member, Ibrahim al-Banna.
Due to incorrect intelligence, the drone instead struck an outdoor cafe where Abdulrahman and several other young men had been eating. As the New York Times later reported, the fallout from the strike became a "public relations disaster" for the Obama administration, especially after unnamed officials said that Abdulrahman was 21 years old. In response, his family released his birth certificate, one that had been issued by the Colorado health department, which revealed his true age. Abdulrahman was 16.
A future where covert is the new normal
For Scahill, Abdulrahman's death points to an American foreign and military policy that has gone off the rails. "He was killed not for who he was," Scahill says towards the end of the film, "but for who he one day might become."
To be fair, that is one man's opinion, one based on Scahill's travels to Yemen and his deep experience reporting on JSOC and the American military. In the end, though, "Dirty Wars" is not, at its core, a movie about apportioning blame, nor is it an academic lecture on the facts and figures of the changing profile of the American military. It is more like an invitation to conversation, or perhaps reflection, one that is made all the more powerful because it is framed through the personal journey of one man.
When presented with the enormous, quasi-unanswerable questions about power, war and justice that "Dirty Wars" posits, any viewer's natural reaction might be to simply disengage from the material. Scahill's tenacity, his refusal to disengage from an issue that is disturbing and morally ambiguous even in the face of personal peril and a lack of cooperation from those in the corridors of power, make his reporting--and his analysis of American politics and policy--so compelling. We are certainly not all brave enough to venture into danger in search of the truth. What we can do, though, is pay close attention to those who are.
As "Dirty Wars" demonstrates, once we allow our eyes to be opened, we may discover that we are very blind indeed.