Sunday, January 29, 2012

Another Afghanistan Documentary

A new (2009) American documentary on the Afghan experience is ringing the chimes at 'indie' movie festivals this year. "To Hell and Back Again", a film by embedded reporter Dafung Dennis, tells the story of a 'surge' Marine fighting in the Arghandab valley of Afghanistan, in the heart of  "Taliban territory". The Marine, Sgt. Nathan Harris, a 'career' Marine of some 6 years experience and mulitiple deployments, is wounded just before the end of his deployment and part of the film deals with the struggle he and his wife undergo with his recovery and the growing awareness his Marine days are, quite possibly, over.

The action parts are the typical dusty experiences of young western men trying to figure out what makes an asiatic society tick, while fighting those asiatics to save them. It is remarkable how many times these young Americans tell the 'terp' to relay to the Afghans that  they're "there to help them". And yet they don't answer the Afghans' questions about helping them by going away, or not shooting at them. Noteworthy, too, how 'promises' to respect their homes give way to military necessity without evidence of the attacks that would engender that necessity. These peoples' homes get entered and 'tossed' without a care.

The war is real. The first casualty falls during a 'firefight' shortly after the Marines arrive. He goes home in a bag with no indication of who he was. And Afghan 'ally' is deafened in an IED or rocket blast and another is, later, tossed a couple of hundred feet into a field - a rag doll created by an IED explosion. The Afghans are visibly affected, the Marine grunts take his death as 'the cost of doing business'.

The business of war, as depicted here, seems to consist of pouring massive amounts of gun projectiles onto a point or points where somebody thinks a Taliban to be in residence. The Afghans say of the Taliban that they shoot once or twice and run away. That would seem eminently sensible considering that to stay in place has to get somebody hurt, or that holding a position is a death sentence. We don't see a lot of dead Afghans, but there is a mini-fuss at one point, with villagers, because three observed to be wounded have 'disappeared'.

Which brings us back to the other part of the story. Sgt.  Harris does not 'return' with his unit but rather is a patient in hospital when they come home. We first meet him, at home, after his recovery has begun. The wound he received is not life threatening, but it certainly is life-changing - smashing a hip joint and removing a sizeable piece if tibia. Sgt Harris has steel rods in his leg and painful exercises to maintain flexibility and motion in his joints. To assist with this, he is on an array of medications, which, as  we see in the film, when combined with the slowness of recovery and the pain, plunge him into some very dark places. 'Stoned', or 'out of it',  the war in Afghanistan has done little, or no, good for citizen Harris. Given his apparent love affair with a glock pistol, it gives one pause to consider that he, or his wife, or both, may not make it through this. He has the support of individuals in the community and the VA medicos and, perhaps, even his Marine brothers, but he doesn't seem to have a family looking out for him, or his wife.

In one of the 'support' scenes he is invited to a remembrance ceremony for the dead members of the unit. A Marine Chaplain gets all choked-up remembering how the 'Betsy Ross' version of the Stars and Stripes that he'd taken with him to Afghanistan, reminded him of the 'circle of the 13 dead (in the credits 15)  'brothers' united forever in a circle of patriotism. Needless to say, the unhurt Marines got to take an emotional farewell of comrades most of them probably never knew. The Sargent just looked like he was in a lot of pain.

It makes you wonder, when you see his suffering, what happened to those three wounded Afghans? Where's their disability pay? Where's their VA?  Medication and rehab?  We know their 'community support' is under direct threat. And it makes you wonder, too, given the circumstances under which he received his wound, if he might not have fallen victim to that creed of  'fire superiority' and received his wound courtesy of his fellow Marines or an Afghan ally.  Being out front of a Marine firing line, couldn't be healthy for anybody.

This movie just leaves you wondering.

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