Despite the fact that it covers basically the same terrain as “Restrepo”, I do recommend the Danish documentary “Armadillo” that arrives at the IFC Center in New York on April 8. Like “Restrepo”, it gives you a close-up view of soldiers operating in Taliban-dominated territory in Afghanistan, in this case the Helmand province.
Armadillo was the name of the base that 170 British and Danish troops occupied. Director Janus Metz focuses on a group of his fellow countrymen as they depart from Demark and serve a brief but horrific tour of duty. Like the men in “Restrepo”, they are addicted to violent video games, rough-housing, pornography and other macho pastimes mostly intended to relieve the boredom. This is not a war in which the combatants face off in large-scale set pieces like the Battle of Gettysburg. Mostly, the occupying forces go out on patrols that lead to no encounters with the Taliban who prefer to use IED’s to punish the invaders. In the course of the film, there are repeated injuries due to the devices.
Also, like in “Restrepo”, the villagers openly complain about the hardships they suffer due to the occupation. Mortar attacks directed at the Taliban often result in the loss of civilian life. The soldiers suspect the villagers of secretly backing the Taliban so it is no surprise that they are indifferent to collateral damage.
The big story with “Armadillo” is that a scene that takes place toward the end of the film has led to major soul-searching in Denmark. In the only serious firefight that takes place in the entire film, a Danish soldier throws a hand grenade into a ditch in which four Taliban fighters have taken cover. When the blast leaves them severely wounded but still alive, other soldiers empty their guns on them.
The Guardian reported on the film’s impact:
Guess which film knocked Prince of Persia off the top spot at the Danish box office this week. Sex and the City 2? Valhalla Rising 3? Wrong: it’s a new film called Armadillo, by young Danish director Janus Metz, that has provoked a furious debate in Denmark since its premiere in Cannes last week. The film, its director calculates, has already been the subject of 300 to 400 articles in the Danish press. The Danish minister of defence, Gitte Lillelund Bech, has seen it, as have many other politicians and senior members of the military, who have now commissioned an inquiry into events it shows. There has been such a clamour among the public to see it that the film has been rushed into cinemas this week, almost two months in advance of its original release date.
It is a sign that there are residues of civilization in Denmark that such behavior could have provoked outrage. Those of us who live in America have become inured to the notion that American soldiers are operating as total savages in Afghanistan. If the Danish got worked up about four Taliban wounded combatants being shot to death, what would they make of their soldiers killing Afghans basically for sport?
The current online Rolling Stone has a chilling article on the men of the 3rd Platoon of the 5th Stryker Brigade who operated in Kandahar Province. Frustrated by their inability to have direct combat with the Taliban who relied on IED’s just as they had in Helmand Province, they decided to start killing civilians because they were deemed guilty of harboring loyalties to the Taliban anyhow. Like New York City cops, they got into the habit of planting weapons on the bodies of the men they shot. Unlike NY cops, at least at this point, they took pictures of themselves standing over the dead bodies as if they were deer bagged during hunting season. They also chopped off fingers and kept them as trophies.
The article was written by Mark Boal, the author of the screenplay for “In the Valley of Elah”, a good movie about out-of-control veterans of the Iraq war, and the dreadful “Hurt Locker”. Boal writes:
Back at the wall, soldiers arriving on the scene found the body and the bloodstains on the ground. Morlock and Holmes were crouched by the wall, looking excited. When a staff sergeant asked them what had happened, Morlock said the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he said.
It was an unlikely story: a lone Taliban fighter, armed with only a grenade, attempting to ambush a platoon in broad daylight, let alone in an area that offered no cover or concealment. Even the top officer on the scene, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, thought there was something strange about Morlock’s story. “I just thought it was weird that someone would come up and throw a grenade at us,” Mitchell later told investigators.
But Mitchell did not order his men to render aid to Mudin, whom he believed might still be alive, and possibly a threat. Instead, he ordered Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague to “make sure” the boy was dead. Sprague raised his rifle and fired twice.
As the soldiers milled around the body, a local elder who had been working in the poppy field came forward and accused Morlock and Holmes of murder. Pointing to Morlock, he said that the soldier, not the boy, had thrown the grenade. Morlock and the other soldiers ignored him.
To identify the body, the soldiers fetched the village elder who had been speaking to the officers that morning. But by tragic coincidence, the elder turned out to be the father of the slain boy. His moment of grief-stricken recognition, when he saw his son lying in a pool of blood, was later recounted in the flat prose of an official Army report. “The father was very upset,” the report noted.
The father’s grief did nothing to interrupt the pumped-up mood that had broken out among the soldiers. Following the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death, they cut off the dead boy’s clothes and stripped him naked to check for identifying tattoos. Next they scanned his iris and fingerprints, using a portable biometric scanner.
Then, in a break with protocol, the soldiers began taking photographs of themselves celebrating their kill. Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, Holmes posed for the camera with Mudin’s bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer. Morlock made sure to get a similar memento.
Despite the fact that this kind of savagery has been going on since October 2001 and that a Democratic president elected on the basis of a return to civilized behavior has largely continued with the status quo, it is amazing that nothing seems to change. Like a nightmare that refuses to end, the war in Afghanistan continues along its bestial path. As a nation that was dedicated early on to building an empire, it is no surprise that the elected officials who swear by its founding values are incapable of changing course, especially since they cannot recognize the Original Sin of Empire.
We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace [ending the American Revolution]…we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.
–Thomas Jefferson letter to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780