Weekend Watchlist: Combat Obscura

Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan

Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan

About a year ago, I had a disappointing conversation with an old friend whose views I sincerely respected until, over time, his media selections sapped both facts and sense out of most of our discussions and, recognizing the futility, I stopped having them. That day, we were talking about Kim Jong Un, sharing thoughts on the escalations and debating what we deemed an appropriate response to the back and forth chest thumping rhetoric making news at the time. With a cavalier nonchalance I’ll never forget, he tried to make the case that, “sometimes people just need to be nuked.” That was it. Problem solved. Just - nuke them? T h e m - plural. Just… drop a nuclear bomb.

I instantly felt my blood pressure rise as I contemplated if he understood how nuclear warfare worked. There was no obvious understanding of or concern about what his suggestion actually meant: the deaths of millions of innocent Koreans, the assured retaliatory strike that would kill some if not all of the 100,000 + service members the U.S. has strategically stationed in South Korea, and the whole “going to war” part. Maybe he envisioned this as a stealthy Bourne-style takedown where the nuke somehow only took out a single, target individual? (Even Hollywood knows better than this.) Regardless, it was the suggestion of a dangerously uninformed armchair general whose exposure to real war was distant, limited to the censored and sanitized footage we all see on cable news, where America is portrayed as the righteous liberator of nations and defender of freedom. The science-based curriculum he aced didn’t teach history, international relations, or geopolitics and the gaping holes in course study were apparent.

It was hard to suppress the anger I felt cascade through me as I thought about the fact that people lacking such basic knowledge get to vote and send men like my husband to war with scarcely a second thought about the implications of doing so and no qualms about the loss of innocent lives on either side. And I get it - how dare they vote and send my husband, right? Not mine. My concept of what it means to be an informed citizen crystallized when I married a military officer on active duty. It wasn’t until then that I fully realized what a luxury it is to remain ignorant on these issues is or what a privilege it is to “opt out of politics“ because you “don’t really get into that stuff” when your daily life isn’t affected. As a middle class white girl, I got through too many years of life before recognizing the privilege of peripheral familiarity. It’s a very different story when misguided foreign policies or say, a thoughtless tweet, could send the person you love into an avoidable conflict. Ignorance just isn’t an option.

War is glorified in film, the “heroics” romanticized, and the true cost glossed over by everyone except those directly experiencing it. We’re so accustomed to it and desensitized by it that a flippant reference to “solving a problem” with a nuclear weapon isn’t even uncommon. This film was the antithesis of that depiction and something I wish everyone could draw upon as they decide what type of leaders to support, what types of experiences matter for elected officials, and what approach to international relations is beneficial for us and the rest of the world.

Sobering and poignant, Combat Obscura is a war documentary created from unseen footage captured by former Marine combat cameraman Miles Lagoze during his time deployed in Kajaki, Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment from 2011-2012. Far from the DoD-approved and preened news clips that form the foundation of most of America's opinion on conflict, this film strips war of its noble pretenses and illustrates the unglamorous, far-from-Hollywood daily monotony and muddled morality of young Marines deployed in support of the Forever War. “Kids” as Lagoze calls them, referring also to himself, most weren't old enough to buy beer in the U.S. at the time they were asked to determine which Afghan men in a given village were "just hanging out" versus which may be Taliban fighters they should capture or kill. 

In his words, "We filmed what they wanted, but then we kept shooting," meaning that he fulfilled his obligation to produce footage for use in USMC recruitment and for release to the U.S. public (you'll see one such CNN clip about halfway through) but let the cameras roll beyond the bounds of those tasks. Combat Obscura is the candid and nuanced flip side of the Marine Corps' shiny and clean PR coin where the branch works hard to maintain its noble public image.

Like the war it depicts, each scene is unpredictable, a rollercoaster oscillating without transition between tense firefights and moments of mindless boredom, with heartwarming scenes where soldiers hand out coloring books and play soccer with kids cutting swiftly to scenes where the sport is suddenly kicking village chickens like the soccer balls and snapping their necks. Striking for me was witnessing the "college bro" behavior I've seen countless times in bars and frat houses play out the same way in a desert combat zone half the world away: fighting over porn, adolescent name-calling, and crafting makeshift bongs out of Pringles cans. Was that what we pictured in 2001 when George W. Bush announced that the U.S. military began strikes against Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban military installations in Afghanistan?

Intentionally anticlimactic, there is no narration, no plot arc, and no sense of direction, leaving the opinion-making entirely up to the viewer. Lagoze has been clear in each interview: his goal was to accurately depict the daily reality of war.  Period.  

Combat Obscura isn't about “painting these guys as heroes or victims" or “painting this war as an ultimately good thing in the long run," Lagoze said, adding that it's about “showing an honest to God depiction that doesn't cater to either side of the political spectrum, and humanizing these guys and showing, ultimately, the futility of this whole experience. [1]

Shepherd, Afghanistan | Cedar + Surf

In one scene, a solider examines a blood-soaked corpse, emotionlessly comparing him to a deer before realizing that he was unarmed, noting, "Oh man. We killed a shopkeeper." before attention shifts to hiding the body.  The realities of war are raw and graphic images are seared into memory, like the use of a severed hand to input a fingerprint into a biometric data collection device, presumably to determine if the person the hand belonged to was in the Taliban.

Like my husband, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-2010, Miles openly questions the righteousness of this war on a macro scale as well as the morality associated with the daily realities of combat.  In a Now This interview, he asks, "Why are you thanking me [for my service]? I didn't do anything.  I didn't help anyone.  I just perpetuated a system of senseless violence," questioning why such moral authority is given to people simply because they've gone to war.  

“People seem to have a very formulaic idea of the uniform," Lagoze said. “On the right, you're a hero, a sacrificial lamb, you're god's gift to America, and on the left, it's that you're probably just naive and too dumb to know what you're signing up for." [1]

The release of this footage has prompted an investigation into the criminal elements of the behavior depicted, though it’s likely that that statute of limitations has passed for most, and the Marine Corps contends that the content belongs to them because it was shot with government-owned equipment. Though Lagoze ran Combat Obscura through the Pentagon’s declassification process and the film opening makes it clear that use of DoD equipment does not imply endorsement, time will tell if this is sufficient to ward off backlash that feels like it might be looming.

Quilts in Kabul | Cedar + Surf

Quilts in Kabul | Cedar + Surf

As he intended, I'm left with far more questions than answers. To what end do we begin retaliatory wars where there is no practical definition of success and conclusion? Do we owe all troops our respect and admiration simply because they’ve served? Who do we serve by sanitizing and romanticizing the realities of war? Why, as a nation, do we glorify “business” experience instead of military service or geopolitical knowledge, as if the country operates like an international chain hotel and the only collective goal is profit?

In practice, maybe supporting the troops is more than displaying a patriotic bumper sticker or pulling on an acronym-papered tee. Maybe it’s collectively evaluating the polices we support via the votes we cast that lead to the wars we eventually regret in one way or another. Maybe it’s educating ourselves to ensure that we are casting votes that actually support service members by not sending them into unnecessary conflict, by fairly paying them, by providing them with proper medical care, and by addressing the well-known issues of sexual assault and of post-service homelessness and suicide.

2,400 U.S. troops and at least 40,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan in the last 18 years. Neither the film nor the war provide closure, but it’s required viewing for the armchair general in your life and well worth the small rental fee.