U.S. military leaders are worried that recent outrageous conduct by U.S. troops in Afghanistan are stoking public anger against the foreign occupation, destabilizing the country and endangering U.S. and NATO troops there. They responded by telling their troops to behave. The AP reported “Military commanders warned to get troops in line” (May 3, 2012):
Military leaders are telling commanders to get their troops in line and refrain from misconduct such as urinating on enemy corpses, in a sharp response to the tasteless photos and other disturbing examples of bad behavior that have enraged Afghans and complicated war-fighting.
As military leaders gave their troops a refresher on proper occupation etiquette, President Obama made a secret trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden to sign a security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai:
President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have signed a strategic partnership accord that charts the future of US-Afghan relations beyond the end of the NATO combat mission in the country in 2014.
The deal does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the US to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaeda.
So, essentially the President has reneged on his promise to end the war and occupation of Afghanistan. Democracy Now! ran a show that featured the critical commentary of Tariq Ali and Ann Wright. The U.S. seeks to establish a long term military base presence in Afghanistan, not for anti-terrorism operations, but for surrounding Russia and China. However, despite modeling the security agreement on the kinds of arrangements in existence in Japan, Afghanistan is not post-war Japan.
A series of public relations disasters by U.S. troops have made it extremely difficult to convince the Afghan people that a continuing U.S. military presence is a good thing for them. In January, 2012, a video appeared on the internet that depicted U.S. troops urinating on Afghan corpses:
The Marine Corps said Wednesday that it is investigating the origins of a video on the Internet that purports to show Marines in combat gear urinating on the corpses of three Taliban insurgents.
The brief video, which runs for less than a minute, began circulating on Web sites early Wednesday. It depicts four Marines laughing as they relieve themselves while standing over three prostrate bodies.
A caption asserts that the Marines are part of a scout sniper team with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, an infantry unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Members of the unit were deployed to Afghanistan last year but returned in September.
The Marine Corps was quick to distance itself from the scandal:
“The actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps,” she said in a statement.
Then on February 22, 2012, U.S. troops from Bagram Air Base burned Qurans at the nearby detention facility. The desecration of the Muslim holy book sparked a deadly wave of protests and violence across Afghanistan that resulted in 41 deaths and at least 270 injuries. As the New York Times reports “Obama Sends Apology as Afghan Koran Protests Rage” (February 23, 2012):
The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers, while a crowd nearby protested the desecration of the Muslim holy book.
And all President Obama could do was say “uh, sorry.”
Then in April, photographs emerged of U.S. troops posing with body parts of dead Afghans. As the L.A. Times reported “U.S. troops posed with body parts of Afghan bombers” (April 18, 2012):
The paratroopers had their assignment: Check out reports that Afghan police had recovered the mangled remains of an insurgent suicide bomber. Try to get iris scans and fingerprints for identification.
The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers arrived at the police station in Afghanistan’s Zabol province in February 2010. They inspected the body parts. Then the mission turned macabre: The paratroopers posed for photos next to Afghan police, grinning while some held — and others squatted beside — the corpse’s severed legs.
A few months later, the same platoon was dispatched to investigate the remains of three insurgents who Afghan police said had accidentally blown themselves up. After obtaining a few fingerprints, they posed next to the remains, again grinning and mugging for photographs.
Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture
The inhumane conduct of U.S. troops that has shocked public sensibilities is not an abberation; it is a product of the dehumanizing psychic conditioning of militarization and war. It is a necessary skill for troops to survive in war. To get a glimpse of this conditioning, I highly recommend Hell and Back Again, a powerful film about a Marine who is injured in Afghanistan and struggles to readjust to the terrifying normalcy of life back in the U.S. Like Restrepo, another powerful documentary about the war in Afghanistan, Hell and Back Again immerses the viewer in the “fog of war.” But unlike Restrepo, which leaves the audience disoriented by the surreal Apocalypse Now!-like meaninglessness and horror of it all, Hell and Back Again pulls the audience back to into the struggles of one Marine and his loved ones trying to piece together his life and make sense of what he has experienced. It forces us to face the mangled humanity that emerges from war, which can be more disquieting and terrifying than the senseless violence of the war itself. The website describes the film as:
From his embed with US Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, visceral portrait of one man’s personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where Harris confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, HELL AND BACK AGAIN lays bare the true cost of war.
In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris’s unit (US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) is attacked from all sides. Cut off and surrounded, the Marines fight a ghostlike enemy and experience immense hostility from displaced villagers caught in the middle.
Embedded in Echo Company during the assault, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis captures the frontline action with visceral immediacy. When Sergeant Harris returns home to North Carolina after a life-threatening injury in battle, the film evolves from a war exposé to the story of one man’s personal apocalypse. With the love and support of his wife, Ashley, Harris struggles to overcome the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life.
In immense physical pain, Sergeant Harris grows addicted to his medication. His agony deepens as he attempts to reconcile the gulf between his experience of war and the terrifying normalcy of life at home. The two realities seamlessly intertwine to communicate both the extraordinary drama of war and, for a generation of soldiers, the no less shocking experience of returning home.
An unprecedented exploration of the moving image and a film of uncommon intimacy, HELL AND BACK AGAIN comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.
Filmmaker Danfung Dennis wrote about his personal motivation to make the film:
Oct. 23, 2010 – This morning I learned a photographer friend was severely wounded after stepping on a mine in southern Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and is in critical condition.
I’m flooded by feelings of rage, sadness, helplessness and isolation. I think of my friends and colleagues that have lost their lives while doing their job. It all seems utterly senseless.
Unless you have a personal connection, the war in Afghanistan is an abstraction. After nearly ten years since the initial invasion, the daily bombings and ongoing violence has become mundane, almost ordinary. It is tempting to become indifferent to the horror and pain. It is much easier to look away from the victims. It is much easier to lead a life without rude interruptions from complex insurgencies in distant lands. But it is when we take this easier path, the suffering becomes of no consequence and therefore meaningless. The anguish becomes invisible, an abstraction. It is when society becomes numb to inhumanity; horror is allowed to spread in darkness.
Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for truth. The images of napalmed girls screaming by Nick Ut, the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Eddie Adams, the shell-shocked soldier by Don McCullin – these iconic images have burned into our collective consciousness as reminders of war’s consequences.
But, this visual language is dying. The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. I am attempting to combine the power of the still image with advanced technology to change the vernacular of photojournalism and filmmaking. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, I am attempting to bring the viewer into that world. I believe shared experiences will ultimately build a common humanity.
Through my work I hope to shake people from their indifference to war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home. By bearing witness and shedding light on another’s pain and despair, I am trying to invoke our humanity and a response to act. Is it possible that war is an archaic and primitive human behavior that society is capable of advancing past? Is it possible that the combination of photojournalism, filmmaking and technology can plead for peace and contribute to this future?
It is these possibilities that motivate us to risk life and limb.