‘Hell’ in the Afghan war

October 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the so-called war in Afghanistan. Obama states that 30,000 out of 100,000 troops will be home by the end of 2012. But his new head of operations there, Gen. John Allen, told reporter Scott Pelly on “60 Minutes” a few weeks ago that, in effect, 70,000 U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan indefinitely.


Director Danfung Dennis’s film, “Hell and Back Again,” is as close as one can get to experiencing combat without actually being there. It’s another powerful film illustrating the effects of war, though Dennis purports to present it not as an antiwar film. Yet watching it, how can one not view it in that light?

In 2009, Dennis, who has seen combat himself, was imbedded with the U.S. Marines’ Echo Company. He filmed in full combat gear with mostly hand-held cameras. Helicopters dropped them off behind enemy lines in Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley. Prior to this, he filmed a briefing by a commander who brayed the usual military rhetoric. 

The U.S. troops invaded land that has been inhabited without much change for centuries. Dennis pans over homes of adobe and wood; light brown earth, roads, and buildings contrast with abundant green orchards and lush gardens. Around this bucolic setting we hear gunfire. Marines, hunkered down in rutted roads and gullies, shoot back at the unseen Taliban. Shots come from every direction. Some soldiers crouch and run, shouting, “Don’t shoot me!” to their buddies.

Dennis’s cinéma vérité camera work is shaky, some shots unfocused, cuts are quick; scenes are zoomed in on and out, while all the while men are running, swearing, shouting instructions. A Marine gets shot in the chest; medics treat him. A helicopter lands; bleeding, he is rushed to it—no stretcher board here. He dies.

Sgt. Nathan Harris from a suburb in North Carolina heads Echo Company. A Marine for over 10 years, he joined at 18 because he “wanted to kill people,” which pleased his recruiter. Now, at 29, and wounded, he says he’s matured. Harris was shot in the hip by heavy gunfire. The film documents his slow recovery, and his adjustment to home life and his wife, Ashley. Interspersed with these scenes, to illustrate Harris’s PTSD flashbacks, Dennis uses footage shot during battles and in the village. When he zooms in on some Marines’ faces under cumbersome helmets, you are struck by their freckled, young faces; their eyes registering confusion and fear.

After his recovery, Harris is sent home from the hospital with a dozen vials of medication in a zip-lock bag, a wheelchair, and crutches. His overbooked surgeon and outpatient physician appear to do double duty treating his mental state. He describes symptoms; they prescribe more drugs. 

Everything freaks him out as Ashley drives through a shopping mall. He’d rather be back in Afghanistan where life is simple, he says. Ashley, a slim blonde, tells the filmmaker that Harris is not the same man he was when they married.

Harris mostly appears fine, like a Travolta in his “Grease” days, yet will suddenly double over, hold his head, feeling sick. He is often sick, confused and paranoid—and in constant pain. His hearing is bad, he flies into uncontrollable rages, and he jokes about suicide. There are scenes of him cradling his two handguns, talking into the camera about loving his guns and sleeping with them.

Dennis vividly captures the villagers’ outrage when they trudge back to their village after being evacuated out of harms’ way of the firefights between the U.S. and the Taliban. In their absence, the filmmaker had shot scenes of Marines kicking down doors and ransacking homes, tossing boxes of household items on the floor. Later, one scene shows a village elder lifting colorful silk quilts from the floor, folding them, and laying them on shelves.   

Wide-eyed children watch as robed, turbaned Afghan men and covered women complain to the troops through an interpreter of the damage not only to structures, but livestock. The answer? We’ll hold an ashura to meet with your tribal elder. We will pay; just send us a report, an estimate. The contrast between the troops and the villagers is striking. The children seem to see the Marines in their desert camouflage and helmets, cradling firearms, as robots or creatures from another planet.

The elder complains about being caught in the middle between the U.S. troops and the Taliban. He is told that the Marines came to bring peace and democracy. The elder says that they just want to farm and live peacefully as before the Americans came. “Now,” the elder says, “We have no pharmacy, no doctors, and no schools!”  He is assured that the Marines will give them medication, but no hashish, or opium—just aspirin and antibiotics. Yet the persistent question the villagers pose is: “When are you leaving?” 

 Multiply Harris’s condition by the 56,562 (and counting) U.S. troops physically wounded in both Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Also, consider those suffering no obvious physical wounds, but PTSD. After counting the statistics, and seeing such a powerful and realistic film as “Hell and Back Again,” one might feel for a moment like crying out in despair. But the reasonable conclusion is that we must redouble our efforts to end the eternal deadly conflicts perpetrated by the U.S.

> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith, and first appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.