Dirty Wars, a documentary filmed in 2013, discloses shady U.S. activities in foreign nations that are relatively unknown by the public due to a political agenda to keep them a secret. Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill makes it his duty to shed a light on the new foreign policy the government has been practicing. According to Scahill’s investigations, the U.S. military is now occupying seventy-five countries. Despite this vast interference, the relationship the U.S. has with these countries is unheard of by the general public. Scahill’s documentary reveals the contemptible measures taken by the United States to fight “terrorism” in these lands. The unilateral use of arms, considered a norm in modern times, is a comparatively new system in relation to former foreign policy.
In chapter 18 Freeman explains the configuration of this policy, which fails to comply with the opinions of the general public in its bold intrusion into countries that did not provoke U.S. interest. Arguably, the foreign policy, which has been applied in recent times, arose at end of the Vietnam War. The devastating impact of Vietnam left Americans with distaste for military action, and leaders hesitant to exercise armed force. This resistance to war on the grounds of the widespread criticism of armed conflicts, and fear of additional defeat came to be known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Due to the dread of military use, foreign policy after the Vietnam War was dominated by indirect action through proxy wars. By the 1990’s, the Vietnam syndrome subsided with the success of the Panama Invasion, led by President George H.W. Bush.
Foreign policy, which was structured around the Soviet Union shifted after the end of the Cold War, launching a “new world order.” The United States now made it a priority to occupy a larger role in global interaction and to maintain an enormous military. The Panama invasion reinstated the prowess of the American military and eased the way for the President (and future presidents) to embark on more ambitious military operations, such as the Gulf War. George H. W. Bush’s appetite for war established a close-knit relationship between foreign policy and executive power that transferred over into future presidencies. Freeman discusses how the Clinton administration further contributed to the drastic changes in foreign policy that began under Bush’s authority. Clinton initially focused his foreign policy on promoting a global-free trade regime, and worked to make American products available to foreign markets.
As globalization thrived, the role of the military grew more secretive and it motives unclear. The relationship between economic expansion and military power became obscure, as military intervention took on the pretense of “in defense of human rights.” Tying in humanitarian efforts with military force made it easier for the U.S. to interfere in foreign affairs even if it was not directly threatened by it. “Clinton created precedents for the unilateral use of arms by the United States against foreign nations and force that had not attacked it. ” (437) This application of brute force against nations threatening American interests is demonstrated in Dirty Wars, in which the American government goes to great lengths to demolish any sources of susceptible terrorist activity. One of the most shocking attempts was the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen year old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Anwar al-Awlaki was an American-born Islamic Cleric involved in Al-Qaeda activity, and was killed by a drone attack two weeks prior to his son’s murder. The U.S. government justified this heinous deed by claiming that the son was a liable threat just by being the son of a terrorist. The death of this guiltless child was not exactly widespread news, although if the situation had been reversed, in which an American child was killed by Al-Qaeda, it would’ve spurred a minefield of fury. Although the American public generally understands and seems to accept the role the U.S. takes in global affairs, they appear oblivious to it unless one of their own dies. Despite the fact that hundreds of innocent foreigners that may die in effort to target a few offenders, American media turns a blind eye to these “others,” as well as the sketchy endeavors of the U.S. military that result in the deaths of innocent people. This is proven in Freeman’s discussion of an event in which eighteen American soldiers died in assistance to UN efforts to deliver relief supplies to Somalia, resulting in an ambush that also killed hundreds of Somalis. It is only when actual images of the dead American soldiers surfaced that citizens began to retaliate and question the actions of the U.S. military. Americans were only caught off guard at the death of Americans, and perceived other casualties of wars, such as Awlaki’s son or Somalian civilians, as mere unfortunate repercussions.
This phenomenon of American belief is challenged in Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars, in which he attempts to put a human face and personal story behind the targets of the U.S. military. He does this in the beginning of the film when he investigates a night raid led by NATO that resulted in the killing of an Afghan police commander Mohammed Daoud and three women, two of whom were pregnant. Scahill discusses the death of these innocent civilians with Daoud’s brother, who not only lost his brother but his wife, sister and niece in the incident. The man claimed he witnessed U.S. soldiers carving the bullets out of the bodies of his family members in order to cover up their actions. He states that after the event that he no longer had the desire to live, and wished to blow himself up among Americans as revenge.
This desire to retaliate against the U.S. manifested itself in forms of terrorist attacks in American cities during the 1990’s, one being the first World Trade Center bombing. These attacks disproved the notion that the U.S.’ universal military deployment made the country immune to terrorism. The same weapons that the U.S. placed in the hands of former CIA agents such as Osama Bin Laden were now being pointing back at them. Freeman states that Bin Laden was the least of the U.S.’ worries during this time; as they instigated international conflict, the U.S. was now subjected to a world in which weapons of mass destruction were in the possession of multiple enemies.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, required an elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear weapons by the United States and Soviet Union. This was a significant moment towards resolution with an old enemy, it was the first time both the Soviet Union and United States agreed to remove an entire class of weapons from their armory. This bargain was one of the first stepping stones in Gorbachev’s attempt to improve the Soviet Union’s poor international relations which he believed hindered the health of its civilian economy. Gorbachev’s reforms did not sit well with some communist leaders, which led to a coup in 1991. The coup was unsuccessful but proved fatal for Gorbachev’s ability to hold the reigns of the state. He eventually was forced to resign and signed a decree that broke the up the Union. The end of the Soviet Union symbolized the ending of a chapter in American politics. International relationships were structured by the Cold War, which was now officially over. “For the United States, it was had been the defining element in its foreign policy, the impetus for two major was and the occasion for an unprecedented level of peacetime military mobilization.” (404) An unexpected moment in the United States occurred with the conclusion of this superpower rivalry. Policies that once shaped family life, economy and politics had to be redefined, introducing a new age in American history.
Chapter 17, titled “I’m Running Out of Demons” is a quote from Colin Powell which accurately describes the attitude evoked by the “new world order” that began at the anticlimactic end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War freed the United States from a forty-year battle with the Soviet Union which international relations were structured around. The war ended in a manner that left Americans feeling uncertain in two ways. The fact that the end of the Cold War came as a result of their own demise rather than by direct U.S. action made it unclear whether or not the finale could be considered an American triumph. Also, with no remaining definite enemies to tackle, Americans were uncertain about what was going to happen next. What eventually happened next was the election of George H.W. Bush, who truly believed that the Cold War was a victory, and was determined to make his mark through foreign policy. Bush was a supporter of the use of force and occupying an enormous military. He was finally able to take part in foreign relations with the invasion of Panama. Tensions rose with leader Manuel Noriega, who originally had been employed by the United States. When he became involved with arms and drug trafficking after forming an allegiance with Cuba, he became seen as unnecessary and was planned to be removed from office. When the U.S. attempted to replace Noriega he nullified the election that would have replaced his leadership, causing hostility. After an incident in which Panamanian soldiers killed an American soldier and abused an American couple who had witnessed the murder, the Bush administration called for an invasion, led by 27,000 soldiers. Noriega eventually surrendered, and the invasion, also called “Operation Just Cause” was a success. The strength and swiftness of the United States army were proven during the invasion, making a spectacle of its technological talents and its ability to evade the entire country in the nick of time. The success of Operation Just Cause assisted the image of force military action and helped pave the way for future larger military operations, more specifically, the Gulf War. Bush’s “new world order” provided a new landscape for international relations, and according to Freeman, “Rather than a new world order, global disorder became normalized, as even relatively small groups, through low-tech terror tactics and guerrilla warfare, found that they could disrupt less developed and even advanced societies…Rather than a sense of security and peace, the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of unsettledness, at home and abroad.” (415)
Discovering M.I.A. at the malleable age of fifteen tremendously impacted my life. Like all high school sophomores I was confused, temperamental, and insecure but despite all of that I still thought I was an “adult” that could survive in the real world. I listened to a lot of mainstream music, things that I would hear on the radio and whatever I saw on TV. I never felt connected to any of the pop or hip-hop stars that were famous, they all looked different (white girls and gangster black men) and their influence on me was fleeting. I grew up thinking that girls that looked like me weren’t seen in mainstream media because we weren’t cool or attractive enough. Due to this feeling, I was first intrigued by M.I.A. because of her appearance, her skin and hair were dark like mine but at the same time, she radiated coolness. The first song of hers I ever listened to was “Sunshowers” which confused me at first, because her lyrics weren’t about the usual love and heartbreak but seemed to be making a statement about something bigger and more worldly. I ended up having to do some research on her to truly understand what her songs were about, and a lot of them were about life in war ridden third world countries.
M.I.A. grew up in Sri Lanka during a civil war and had lived through violent time which resulted in fleeing her country and living as a refugee. Her music is deeply influenced by her childhood and her negative views on war. I was born in America and lived in New York all my life, the most contact I’ve had with the third world experience is when I go to India with my parents, even then I know in a week or two I’ll be back in the states where running water and electricity aren’t considered a luxury. Because of this, M.I.A.’s lyrics did not apply to me whatsoever, but somehow they still inspired and taught me that there were bigger problems than boys and worrying about the SATs. Shortly after I listened to “Sunshowers,” I began listening to all of her music, and constantly playing them on repeat. I told all my friends about her (they thought she was weird) and eventually all my clothes began to mirror her style. I had hoodies and pants in crazy neon patterns and wore big gold jewelry that weighed down my ears and neck. My hair was curly and unkept like hers and even though I probably looked like a moron, I felt cooler than ever.
“Sunshowers” is about the violence in Sri Lanka during the civil war. The song is very political in its lyrics “You want to go- You want to win a war-Like P.L.O.-We don’t surrendo” but is very cheerful and something you can dance to. Her strong political criticisms are probably the reason why this song wasn’t featured on channels like M.T.V. When M.I.A. was questioned about the meaning of the song, she stated “Sunshowers is about how in the news the world is being divided into good and evil with this axis of evil and terrorism thing, so the song is asking: how can we talk about gun culture and other issues while Blair is preaching that if someone hits us, we should hit back twice as hard?” This statement clearly displays her negative thoughts on war, gun use and her dissaproval of violent retaliation. I remember blasting this song constantly and my mom complaining about the crazy noises that were coming out of my room. M.I.A.’s unique and influential music taught me a lot about life outside of my little bedroom in Queens, which is why I admired her so much-and still do today.
Harlan County, USA lays bare the incredible lives of coal miners in a province in Kentucky. Harlan County miners risk their lives working in hazardous coal mines, without proper safety measures, medical or retirement benefits. Listening to the narratives of former coal miners we see men in their declining years, decayed from years of being exposed to toxic dust. While watching these men I wonder what exactly they were working for, if not to one day be able to live comfortably in their old age. These men worked strenuously all their lives just to wind up as poor as they were from the start and dying of black lung disease. The bravery and diligence of these men is mind blowing, but we are also given a perspective of another remarkable group of people in the community, the women. Its hard to imagine the lives of the women of Harlan County, who must tolerate the fear of not knowing whether their husbands, fathers and children will come home that evening. From the scene where a mother must bathe her daughter in an uncomfortable basin because they have no hot running water, it is evident that these women are living under harsh conditions and are just as sick of it as the men. One of the ways in which women conveyed their stories of despair and willpower to make a change is through song, with lyrics that are real and passionate.
They take your very life blood, they take our children’s lives
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won’t you organize wherever you may be
And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me.
-“Come On All You Coal Miners” Sarah Ogan Gunning
The women of Harlan County play a significant role in the coal miners strike, we see large numbers of them on the picket lines with signs hanging from their necks trying to spread their word and collect donations. They put themselves in an equally dangerous position as the men, flooding the streets and blocking scabs from getting to the mines, risking getting shot at by gun thugs. These women are selfless and armed, and are willing to die in order to make their point made. They play an important role in the influencing the community, having meetings to promote the strikers and to encourage more members of the county to join them. Eastover Mining president, gives his views on the initiative of the women in Harlan County, saying “I would hate to think that my wife would play that kind of role. There’s been some conduct that I would hope that U.S. women wouldn’t have to resort to.” After witnessing the conditions these people lived in and how much they risked just to make barely enough to live, it is obvious why these women were acting out. These mining companies are blind to the fact that it is their ignorance that have left nothing else for these women to do but “resort” to such extreme conduct. Harlan County, USA is a incredible story about the working soldiers of America, both men and women- who fought to better their lives with a passion that is still uplifting to see four decades later.
After World War II, changes in the political system allowed a democratization of American life. More people were allowed to vote than ever before, and were given additional opportunities provide their own input in political decision making. Although the role of government in the lives of private citizens grew tremendously, it was not appreciated by a large part of the population. People felt disgusted by the government, especially after the revelations of the Watergate scandal, the attitude of the American population “reflected a blanket rejection of politicians and a growing belief that elections had little to do with daily reality.” (319) This lack of trust and unconcern in politics was clearly seen in the massive decrease of participation in national elections. During the 50’s and 60’s, sixty percent of the electorate population voted, whereas in the 1978 election, only 38 percent of the voting population casted a ballot. The public became interested in the immoral behavior of politicians, which was aided by the press. A law was passed in 1978 to set up a system appointing prosecutors in cases specific to the misdeeds of government officials. Trust in the federal government declined by 40 percent between the decade of 1964 to 1974. This crisis of authority did not only apply in the sphere of government, but society also began to lose trust in the medical and legal profession as well. When Gerald Ford came into the political spotlight it seemed as though he had the ability to restore the public’s trust in government with his modest, straightforward personality and normal suburban background. Confidence in Ford shattered soon after his pardoning of Nixon’s crimes during his presidency. The result of this act caused a slump in his approval ratings since people believed that the two had secret dealings, restoring the suspicions of government.
“The pattern of wealth and economic dominance, though, was shifting. With companies and people moving out of the cities of the Northeast and Midwest to suburbs and other parts of the country, many of the traditional centers of national power grew shabby. A train trip in the mid-1970’s from New York to Washington would have given a sense of their decay.” (303)
In Chapter 12, Freeman discusses the effects of the industrial decline in northeastern and midwestern parts of the U.S, also known as the Rust Belt. He utilizes the word “decay” often to describe what was happening to American society and government and uses the example of what was occurring in New York City to demonstrate this. Unlike its dwindling neighbor states, New York still managed to hold a steady population after World War II. The decade between 1970 and 198o proved to be unfortunate, when over ten percent of the population flocked to the suburbs and other areas of the country. The recessions that occurred during the 1970s raised the unemployment level to 12 percent causing this massive migration. In reaction to this, crime among the streets increased and institutions that endorsed apartment building owners terminated their investments for fear of financial loss. Low-income areas of the city, especially the South Bronx were hit the hardest by this desertion of economic reinforcement. The dark and hell-like atmosphere of New York City in this era was especially reflected in the cinematography of the 1970s, in movies such as Taxi Driver, illustrating the instability and bloodshed of Vietnam returning to the streets of New York by an eccentric war veteran. Escape from New York, a film directed in the early 80’s, takes place in the then-near future (1997), in which the country is laden with crime and the state has turned into a maximum security prison, displaying the city as a devastated version of itself. These films were important in communicating the feelings of chaos and insecurity of the decade. Americans during this era were left hungry for the government to to make changes to provide economic stability, but the glory days of the New Deal were over, recruiting the growing role of corporations in the economy.
Between 1968 and 1973, numerous gangs emerged that altered life drastically in the Bronx. To be caught in the wrong part of town without backup was a high-risk, it was a rule of thumb that you stayed within the boundaries of your own neighborhood. Education was insignificant to existence in the Bronx, and more time was spent trying to complete gang initiations than completing high school. Distanced from the ideologies of the late 50’s and 60’s these young folks did not care about desegregation and politics. Being in a gang meant brotherhood and protection of their own turf from other gangs, which was more directly beneficial to their lives. It can be argued that the development of gangs in the Bronx prolonged it’s lack of progress.
Chang brings to light actions taken by the gangs of this period that contributed to the borough in several ways. Young people living in unstable homes, as well as immigrant and foster children who did not have the guidance of an adult in their lives, sought refuge from the harsh conditions of the streets with help from gangs. Gangs provided these minors with a sympathy, security, and a place to sleep. This population of lost children was in the thousands, and with the help of gangs they were able to unite and fight against common enemies. Eventually these gangs were considered the overseers of everything that happened in the community. According to Danny Dejesus, a Savage Skull gang member-“before they would go to the local police, the people would come to us to solve their problems.” (pg. 49) Gangs also participated in an operation to promote health care, stealing and making use of an x-ray truck for free services. They took it a step further by completely taking over a hospital in their neighborhood, and effort which rival gangs linked together as defense against the police. Gangs also declared war on drug addicts and dealers as they attempted to reduce burglaries (crimes addicts are most prone to) by purging the streets of junkies and their suppliers. In this way, gangs did the “dirty work” of the police who failed to take action. They did this at first by giving twenty-four hour warnings to leave; things then became violent when a junkie stabbed a fellow gang member, causing the “Junkie Massacre.” Gang activity during this era may have been fueled by their revenge against society for leaving them in the dark. However, it can be argued that some of their endeavors were consequentially helpful to their city.
In chapter 9, Freeman discusses in detail the various interest groups that were now rallying under the politics of identity rather than class and ideology. Many of these social movements transferred into government practices and new laws under the command of President Richard Nixon. American society was in a state of uncertainty, as these social groups fought to defeat discrimination and better their lives. Nixon took advantage of the turmoil in order to assist his popularity in office. Freeman shows how Nixon had taken advantage of the fragility and confusion citizens and interest groups had during this period with his reforms that seemed to be favoring all sides. “He adopted centrist positions, bobbing and weaving in an effort to maintain support from both the liberal and conservative wings of the republican party…he adopted strategies so intricate that his actual views and intentions often remained hidden.” (pg. 267) To gain votes from traditional democrats in order to strengthen the Republican party, Nixon supported New Deal programs and at the same time had conservative positions on other issues. Freeman calls Nixon the master of “mixed signals,” abandoning his support for programs and movements such as his proposal for a guaranteed minimum annual income in the place of welfare as soon as it was rejected by the Senate, as well as his support for the environmental movement which he deserted after it presented unpopular issues. He also played opposing political opponents against each other by putting a hold on affirmative action policies in order to check labor costs and save capital for major corporations. By doing this he forced a barrier between civil rights groups and the labor movements that opposed affirmative action. By his second term in office, his presidency began to unravel with the revelations of the Watergate scandal, leaking the private views of the president which were so shockingly unfamiliar with the persona he projected to the public that it caused the breakdown of his reputation as well as the trust of the American people in their government.