Reckoning with the Legacy of Afghanistan

U.S. Marines provide assistance at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, August 22, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sergeant Victor Mancilla/Handout via Reuters)

A 2015 film on the war’s aftermath is worth revisiting now that America is out.

Tobias Lindholm’s 2015 film A War (Krigen, in Danish, and currently streaming for free on TubiTV) opens with a fictional group of Danish soldiers patrolling the desolate countryside of Helmand province, Afghanistan. An IED detonates as a soldier walks over it, and he dies after an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate him. While the film is fiction, Denmark did lose 43 soldiers during the Afghanistan War, no small number for a country of fewer than 6 million inhabitants. (By comparison, Colorado and Wisconsin each have almost identical populations to Denmark, and lost 38 and 36 soldiers during the war, respectively.) A War asks uncomfortable questions, explores the myriad ethical dilemmas facing soldiers, and explores the burdens of soldiers’ families. It may be the best film made yet about the Afghanistan War.

The central theme of the film is the moral burden that falls on soldiers tasked with fighting an unwinnable war. We can debate the specifics of the Afghanistan withdrawal and whether it might have been handled better. We can debate whether staying in Afghanistan to prop up a corrupt government, with the goal of preventing the return of the Taliban, might be in America’s strategic interest even if we come to terms with the notion that the country will likely never be democratic or liberal in our lifetimes. But the immediate collapse of the Afghan government is the ultimate proof that the war’s stated objectives were unachievable, and it was the soldiers on the ground who suffered the consequences of that truth.

Like all countries involved in the Afghanistan War, Denmark, too, had to maintain the fiction that its soldiers were making things better. “You are here to safeguard and help civilians, so they can have a life,” A War’s main character, Claus Pedersen, a unit commander in the Danish military, tells his troops after losing their comrade. “So they can rebuild their country.” It is unclear if Claus believes this himself. But it is very clear that many of his troops don’t. After the death of their comrade, one soldier breaks down and asks to go home. He later gets his wish when he is seriously injured in a firefight.

Soon after the IED incident, an Afghan man comes into their compound distraught. The Danes had previously treated his daughter’s infected wound while passing their house on patrol, and the Taliban were now threatening to kill the entire family for collaborating with the enemy. The man insists that his family spend the night in the compound, or they will be killed. Claus refuses the request but promises that his soldiers will come to the village the next day to clear the area of Taliban. The Afghan man was correct in his assumption, however; when the Danes go to the village, they find the family dead.

The ensuing confrontation with the Taliban sets off a chain of events that leads to Claus’s court-martial, shifting the film’s setting from the Afghan countryside to the Danish military-justice system. Claus is home but now has his decisions second-guessed with dramatic stakes. On trial, Claus is confronted with the moral weight, and ambiguity, of the situation he faced back in Afghanistan. When an injured soldier needed immediate evacuation, what level of risk was he expected to take to avoid civilian casualties? Did he see the combatants in the compound where he ordered an air strike? And perhaps most important: Can those who weren’t there possibly judge the decisions he had to make? The consequences will ultimately fall on his entire family, not just on Claus, if he is convicted of killing civilians and sent to prison.

The burden on those who stay behind makes up the other side of A War. While he is in Afghanistan, Claus’s wife struggles to raise three young children by herself. When he comes home to face trial, she faces the prospect of losing him to a four-year prison sentence. Her children were already struggling to cope with the absence of their father. His oldest daughter, the only one of the children aware of what’s going on, asks him if he did kill civilians.

The movie’s climax comes in the courtroom, not on the battlefield. Its climax has such a subtle genius that to reveal the event in question would be to spoil the film. The significance thereof is never said aloud, but the event’s profound moral weight is understood by all: Are truth and justice inherently linked, or might the former be relaxed in the most extreme of circumstances to serve the latter? It seems Lindholm takes a stance on the matter with his treatment of the film’s premise, in favor of the soldiers put in an impossible situation, but the question remains difficult. Less difficult is the obvious truth that the war in Afghanistan was doomed to fail if the goal was to instill a functioning Afghan government that could prevent the return of the Taliban without outside support.

A War was a challenging film when it came out. But watching it now, after the Afghanistan withdrawal, it has taken on a new profundity. Again, the truth that Afghanistan would never democratize does not necessarily mean that the U.S. should have withdrawn. But the fact remains that those villagers earlier in the film, terrified of Taliban retribution, had nowhere else to turn but to the Danish soldiers patrolling the area. That could only ever be a temporary solution, and if 20 years was not enough to create a viable alternative, it was never going to happen.

After 9/11, U.S. allies stepped up and shared the burden of the war in Afghanistan. In light of the contentious international politics of the Iraq War, it became easy to forget this fact. The burdens of war, and the consequences of withdrawal, are not borne by the U.S. alone. Other countries also believed that change was possible, and that a stable Afghanistan was in the world’s interest. Tobias Lindholm’s film is a fitting tribute to all who served in Afghanistan, not just those representing the Stars and Stripes, trying in vain to prevent the exact scenario that has played out over the last few weeks.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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