One year ago thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan forces staged an assault on Marjah, a small, isolated farming community in the center of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Most coverage of the fighting came from embedded journalists writing for newspapers. HBO, however, sent a documentary film crew to capture the fighting as it unfolded. The results, The Battle for Marjah, which premiered last week, are harrowing.
There has been a proliferation of documentaries about the war recently. Last year, Armadillo, about a small base in Helmand province jointly used by Danish and American troops, sparked controversy over its revelations about the reality of combat operations. Last year, too, the film Restrepo exposed the few Americans who watched it to the grinding horrors of the war in Kunar province. PBS’s Frontline has run a series of searing documentaries into the war over the last two years, including embedding with the insurgents in northern Baghlan province and an expose on the sexual abuse of young children.
However, while European documentaries about the war have sparked outrage — Massacre in Mazar started the outcries in 2002 — American documentaries are most often met with indifference. Works of fiction about war — most recently Hurt Locker — win awards for their grittiness, directing skill, and emotional core, but documentaries rarely elicit more than shrugs. Even Restrepo, one of the most visually disturbing documentaries about war I have ever seen, barely elicited more than a troubled "that’s crazy" from the general public.
Sadly, the same fate seems destined for The Battle for Marjah. The unnarrated film unfolds in a chronology of the battle, showing how the Marines first assaulted the area, how difficult and fragile their progress was, and how they coped with the stresses of combat. It is not an easy story to tell, even if it is a common one: the frustrations of operating under the spotlight of live media coverage; of restrictive rules for combat; of wondering if your next step will set off an IED that will maim you or kill you; of dealing with the Afghans after killing one of their family members who was fighting for the Taliban. It is perhaps its own story to realize that these themes are universal in the war, and crop up routinely. But that still doesn’t make a story composed of them any easier to tell or to hear.
Like the other documentaries about the war in Afghanistan, The Battle for Marjah is a study in contrasts. The officers leading their men speak eloquently and forcefully about their commitment to avoiding civilian casualties, while in the next shot a group of enlisted men cackle at the explosions they’re setting off along town streets as their Afghan counterparts look on, forlorn. There is constant talk of winning the population, while the locals complain they are intimidated and unable to resist the Taliban. One exchange seems representative of the entire war: a conversation between a man in his house and some Marines after they made an advance into one of the smaller settlements within Marjah.
Marine: "We’d like to rent your house for the night."
Interpreter (in Pashto): "You should leave this place. There is fighting and it is not safe."
Afghan (in Pashto): "Where can we go? We’re afraid to leave because if we go out you’ll bomb us."
This isn’t as simple as having a bad interpreter, though NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, ISAF, struggles with those mightily (and again, there are documentaries about that). There’s no easy way to explain to a rural Afghan the concept of renting his house for the evening. The man really does have nowhere else to go. The Marines did need to find some shelter that evening, and didn’t know what else to do. It is, in short, an unsolvable cultural problem, one the Marines’ superiors didn’t think to plan for.
It is easy to misinterpret these sorts of films. The Battle for Marjah captures the agonizing the Marines go through upon learning that some of their brother Marines accidentally killed a woman and several children. It follows them, through the uncomfortable meeting with the grieving family, as the patriarch complains that he followed ISAF’s demands to hide inside his own house, only to have bombs rain down on his head. There is no easy answer for that situation, and the apology and condolence payment — $10,000 a head — feels cheap. There is palpable discomfort at the exchange, an unease at how to handle such a situation with empathy and humanity. These Marines are not bad people, in other words, even if they get excited during the adrenaline rush of combat. They don’t enjoy killing innocents, and it’s obvious they’re very concerned with helping a man in the throes of grief anyway they can.
The ultimate message from The Battle for Marjah is that there are no easy answers to these fundamental questions of the conduct of the war. Just as importantly: we are not well served by those who insist there are.
The Battle for Marjah covers events that are about a year old. The Afghans of Marjah were up front with the Marines that they don’t like Marines or the Taliban — they just want to be left alone. The Marines struggled with that conflict: that they’re freeing the people from the domination of the Taliban, but they’re unsure that they can replace it with something better.
In the year since this documentary was filmed, it’s become increasingly difficult to really figure out how things are going in the area. As recently as three months ago there were news stories of combat, IEDs, and misery, even as General David Petraeus insisted Marjah was a shining example of how the surge of 30,000 troops ordered by President Obama was winning the war. Journalists who embed with the Marines have glowing things to say about the area’s prospects, even as journalists who avoid the military say the opposite. It remains to be seen how the area will wind up: the security gains are, indeed, remarkable, but as the closing moments of The Battle for Marjah note, the fabled "government-in-a-box" has not yet materialized. There is no government, in other words, only an unstable local defense force, and the Afghan security forces are non-Pashtun Tajiks and Hazaras. It makes one wonder: are expectations too high? Or are we getting something fundamentally wrong? We may not be able to answer those questions for a long time.