I happened to catch HBO’s The Battle for Marjah last night. Here’s the trailer, but be warned that it’s misleading.
What’s misleading is that there’s not a lot of “action” in this documentary at all. That very lack of action, the lack of direct confrontation with the enemy or even of much sense of impending threat, feeds an atmosphere of pointlessness – Marines trying hard at community-building, and ending up with a little park featuring a fresh-painted wooden bench that no one uses, Afghans not being much on wooden park benches… Then there’s the oddly talkative little Afghan boy… strange little fellow… not really very appealing, but memorable… we learn he was later found beheaded. (“Of course,” you say to yourself.)
The Marines all seem like earnest and decent young men who might as well have been space-lifted in from across the galaxy, for all the luck they have earning the understanding and good will of the citizens on whose behalf they’re risking, or imagine they’re risking, or want to imagine they’re risking their lives – or, by the end of their tour, perhaps remember themselves so imagining.
In short, it adds up to a quiet, understated Hearts and Minds. Indeed, one moment that stands out painfully concerns that famous phrase: The well-briefed and thoughtful Capt. Sparks – the guy in the trailer’s splash image above – tries to explain the Hold/Build part of Clear/Hold/Build, and finds himself about to speak the taboo words. He self-consciously tries to stop himself, and then admits that it’s pretty much what they’re trying to do… again. Other candid interviews, with frustrated Americans and with locals impatient for them to leave, lock in the overall impression of an expensive and tragically lethal enterprise whose main justification absolutely must lie somewhere else, if it still exists at all.