This is article examines four excellent documentaries about the war in Afghanistan: one for cinema, Restrepo; two for TV, HBO’s The Battle for Marjah, BBC Three’s Young Soldiers; and a nine-minute ‘mini’ doco made just for the web.
As a sort of preface, some SOS readers may welcome some background on these.
First, three were filmed before ‘green on blue’, the euphemism for attacks on US, British, Canadian, Australian and other Coalition soldiers by men wearing uniforms like those worn by the Afghan National Army, became a phrase known to the media and to the public.
Second, each clearly was filmed with the total co-operation of the junior and middle-ranking officers of the US and British army units involved – and presumably with that of the more senior officers immediately above them.
Third, none of these documentaries could, I believe, have been produced 10 or so years ago, when journalists were ‘embedded’ (and sometimes died) with the Western military forces that first invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
What I am saying is that in each case the film-makers seem to have been given a totally FREE hand by the military.
These factors suggest to me, as an armchair observer watching movies and TV, that there has been a deep, radical sea-change in attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan, or at least among the men and women who wear the desert-issue ‘boots on the ground’.
In an eerie, quite chilling, way what this war now seems to resemble in some respects is Vietnam. It is has now gone on for far too long (11 years), and although some Coalition soldiers may have begun it fired by patriotism, some are now profoundly disillusioned by it, although they still continue to do their jobs.
In fact, several respected commentators – whatever the White House, the politicians, or the generals may say – are now saying that this war is totally unwinnable and that all Coalition troops should be withdrawn as soon as possible, before any more of them die needlessly.
OK. For what it’s worth, that is my view. Now for the docos themselves, the first two of which are American.
First is Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010), which follows a platoon of US airborne soldiers over the course of a year as they defend a remote OP (observation post) in the Korengal Valley named ‘Restrepo’ after one of their dead comrades – almost like a ‘mini Khe Sanh’, if you like.
Sebastian Junger is an American journalist who made his name as a writer with his non-fiction book The Perfect Storm (2000): a dreadful feature film, but a well-researched, highly original book. Whether he is an important film-maker or not I am still unsure.
Junger is, I suspect, an ‘adrenalin-junkie’. Not purely because of Restrepo, but because of what he wrote about it later, describing ‘war’ in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway once did: the ‘snap’ of bullets overhead, the ‘dust’ they kick up. (I do hope he forgives me for that because, in a way, I am one too, although I have NEVER been shot at as he has. But such an ‘addiction’ can lead to some very bad places from which it is impossible to report at all.)
Tragically, Junger’s co-film-maker, the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, celebrated in his newspaper obituaries as an Errol Flynn-like figure (which no doubt he was) – ‘a man who women adored and who men wished they were like’ – died, aged 40, in a mortar-bomb explosion on a street in Libya in April 2011.
Since its release in 2010, Restrepo’s history has been quite amazing. Its original release was reportedly limited to just TWO cinema screens in the US (although I have not checked that) so that on its opening weekend it is reported to have earned only $35,581. But since then it has gained an incredible 96 PER CENT ‘Fresh’ rating from professional film critics on the Fresh Tomatoes website. Both of these facts I find quite disturbing, although for different reasons. On top of that, Restrepo has an R-rating – not for violence but for LANGUAGE. Something is seriously wrong here.
Despite its great reviews, I simply do not think that Restrepo is a ‘sleeper’ or a ‘lost classic’. It left me indifferent and unmoved, with the nagging feeling that there was never quite enough going on for the film-makers … never quite enough gunfire maybe?
On the other hand, there is one other, much better, documentary about US soldiers in Afghanistan.
2. The Battle for Marjah
The Battle for Marjah (Ben Anderson, 2011) begins almost like an old John Wayne movie with a US Marine captain declaring ‘There is no worse enemy than a US Marine. We’re masters of controlled chaos and violence.’ But this it is NOT. Believe me. It is a very low-key, understated, and deeply troubling piece of film-reportage – in fact, one of the best war documentaries I think I have ever seen.
The viewer soon realises that this Marine officer and his men are not ‘gung-ho’ at all: they are actually very wary, careful, professional soldiers, trying to fight an invisible ‘enemy’ (i.e. the Taliban) who invariably slips away from them. The air of weariness, frustration, and also restraint, among them is palpable in this documentary.
But be warned, it may haunt you.
Simply because of the story of ‘Mohammed’, the Afghan civilian, who is impossible to describe in print. You have to see him on film. He is a man with a genetic disorder because, although in 20s, he looks like an eight-year-old boy. Nonetheless, he is a cursing, smoking, back-talking (in English) Afghan male, and a wonderfully alive person. But you learn at the end that he has since been beheaded. Why and by whom is not explained.
There is another sting in the tail of both of these docos.
As the end-captions roll, you learn that OP Restrepo and the town of Marjah, having been fought for by US soldiers, have BOTH now been abandoned, but neither of them for the military reason of having been ‘recaptured’. Surely, the viewer is then meant to ask: ‘So what was the point?’
3. Young Soldiers
In 2011, a BBC Three film crew followed a group of four young men through their basic infantry training in the British Army, then beyond, and produced a five-episode TV documentary series, Young Soldiers.
Towards the end of his basic training, the most outstanding recruit, Darren Meads, aged 22, from Doncaster in Yorkshire, is given a choice. He is told he can join one of the five battalions of The Rifles Regiment: 1 Rifles, 2 Rifles, 3 Rifles, 4 Rifles or 5 Rifles.
He chooses, sensibly, either 4 or 3 Rifles, in that order, each based in the UK and neither then slated for deployment to Afghanistan. But, it turns out, he never really had a choice, because he is told later that he is going to join 1 Rifles, the next battalion to deploy to Afghanistan, whether he likes it or not.
To his great credit, Darren allowed himself to be filmed meditating on this news, while clearly troubled by it at the time, and then phoning his mother.
To his great credit, the officer, a lieutenant, who delivered the news allowed himself to be filmed while doing so, during which he says ‘Where you’re going you will go, and that’s the end of the story.’
And, to its great credit, the British Army allowed all of this to be filmed and then broadcast without complaint and without anyone trying to slap a DA-Notice (a quasi-censorship order) on it on the grounds that it breached national security because it revealed the locations of British Army units, which, I suspect, is what would have happened ten years ago.
Whatever its current problems, the BBC has a long tradition, beginning with The Paras (1983), of making excellent TV documentaries about British soldiers in training. But this one is different because it follows two of these soldiers into combat.
I would urge any SOS reader who can, and perhaps especially those who live in the United States, to watch this documentary, just as I would urge them to watch the HBO documentary The Battle for Marjah.
But for those who cannot here are two memorable quotes from Episode Four of Young Soldiers:
The first is from Rifleman Darren Meads’ company commander, a British Army major nicknamed ‘Chuckles’, during their six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan:
‘People say “Oh, it’s the PlayStation generation.” But you look around here and you tell me where “the PlayStation generation” is? These guys are as hard as their forefathers and just as capable, if not more capable.’
Then there is Darren himself, nearing the end of his tour in Afghanistan:
‘You have your days and you have your moments where you’re up and down like. “Oh yeah, I love the army and I’m enjoying it out here” and all that. And you just make plans like for when you’re just getting home … but then there’s other times when I think “What the fuck am I doing here?” To be quite honest with you, at the minute I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the country. I’m just doing my job and what I’m told, and then I’ll just go home. That’s it.’
– Roger Bourke