Just a Reminder – We’re Still @ War


Our war in Afghanistan isn’t in the news much anymore… there are better and more interesting things for the media to pay attention to now; the uplifting story of the wave sweeping away autocratic regimes in the Middle East, crazy shit Teapublicans do and say, our own economic plight/scandal, or Miley Cyrus taking a bong rip.  And besides, a slow moving wreck is much less interesting than a spectacular flame out.  What more is there for the media to cover and write about that hasn’t already been covered after a decade of occupation of a foreign land?

Armadillo, a Danish documentary following the nine month deployment of a Danish platoon to Helmand during 2009 featured last night at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival does what no reporting can; give an honest portrayal of the situation through the eyes of soldiers.  The documentary takes it’s name from the forward operating base in which the Danish platoon is stationed.  Despite the fact that the cameras are embedded with the Danish soldiers from the time they leave their homes to the time they return, the documentary isn’t a biased affair.  You are given a chance to see the challenges facing both the soldiers and the Afghani civilians.

You see the despair of a mother saying goodbye to her son leaving for Afghanistan; witness the heartbreak of a farmer that had his house blown-up by a mortar – killing his mother and daughter – while he was away at market; see the fear in the eyes of an Afghani father afraid to speak to the Danes for fear of the Taliban cutting the throats of his sons; feel the anxiety of the Danes as they prepare for a patrol and later receive fire from a hidden position; hear the anger in the voice of children who have had friends and family killed in the fighting as they taunt the soldiers; experience concern for a platoon leader seriously injured after his vehicle gets hit by an IED.

The biggest take away from this film for me was the overwhelming blanket of paranoia under which the ISAF forces operate and the corresponding Taliban resistance’s actions which breeds this paranoia.

In the eyes of the ISAF, every Afghani is a potential threat.  Every interaction between the soldiers and Afghani is approached cautiously.  The guy standing next to his motorcycle smoking a cigarette could be a suicide bomber; the farmer leading the soldiers around through his field so as to avoid losing crops could be leading them into a trap; a man carrying farming tools might also be carrying a piece of a gun for later assembly and use in an ambush; the man showing the troops his house hit by a mortar might be hiding Taliban fighters just inside the doorway.

All this paranoia isn’t the sole fault of the ISAF soldiers, rather it is bread from the tactics the Taliban choose to use.  The Taliban resistance looks just like the rest of the Afghani populace, and when they engage the patrols they attack from houses and quickly melt away before the soldiers can effectively counter-attack.

The worst manifestation of this paranoia comes with the combination of constant surveillance from the sky using drones and the use of mortar rounds and ground based artillery.  Several instances of this are shown in the film and it seems like the default setting of the commanders is to shoot first if anything looks suspicious; an attitude that is the opposite of soldiers on patrol which don’t engage until fired upon.  So a man digging a whole in a field is automatically assumed to be planting an IED, and three men carrying equipment are assumed to be carrying weapons.  In both cases death comes from above with no warning to the Afghanis, and once the deed is done no one bothers to confirm their suspicion of Taliban affiliation.  A lot of property is destroyed throughout the film as the result of artillery shells.  Buildings, livestock, and people all evaporate in the face of a few tons of high explosive.  Even as ISAF forces compensate Afghans for property damage, how can you really compensate a person for taking away their family?

Its easy to assume that a lot of mistakes are made, but how often is anybody’s guess.  In one instance a soldier responsible for spotting mortar fire directs a barrage right on top of a little girl.  In a chilling interview he recounts watching the scene unfold glassy-eyed and in shock.  A mistake that he will never forget, and one that the best training and billions of dollars of the most advanced technology can’t prevent.

We won’t ever “win” in Afghanistan, they have been fighting off invaders for well over a millennium.  Taliban strategy ensures that we end up killing women and children and the Afghanis don’t blame the Taliban for hiding within the civilian populace, but Americans for being in Afghanistan in the first place.  Their reasoning is sound… if we weren’t there, civilians wouldn’t be caught in the cross-fire.  And while the soldiers on the ground never once killed a civilian and were always careful and polite towards civilians, its the artillery and bombing that really turn the Afghans against the mission there.  Throughout the movie there is a stream of Afghanis that have had crops destroyed, livestock killed, house destroyed, and family member killed all because of artillery fire.

What is an Afghani man going to do when he becomes impoverished through the taking of his livelihood and his family?  Is he really going to help the people he perceives to be responsible?  What would you do given a similar situation?

  1. Your point reminds me very much of the TED talk from last year, Sam Richards – A Radical Experiment in Empathy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUEGHdQO7WA
    It shouldn’t be so hard to understand these wars are not making us safer. And for the cost we pay to keep ONE soldier’s “boots on the ground” for a year in Afghanistan, we could invest in half a million dollars in badly-needed infratructure in our own country AND pay 10 people 50 thou a year to work.
    But then our owners might lose “control” and that wouldn’t suit their purpo$e$. Time for people to wake up!

    Ethan Mccord was present on the ground during the shootings posted as “Collateral Murder” on Wikileaks, and describes how he felt about the kids in the van getting shot up there in Iraq. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ihPGtcHjNk We are still at war in Iraq, too, no matter what the propaganda machine says.

    And we are sacrificing the safety net for our elders and healthcare and education for our young ones to pay for all this. It’s insanity.

    Thank you for the review.

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