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Film Review ‘How many times did we mistakenly kill innocent people?’

IAN SINCLAIR recommends an eyewitness account of the disastrous US military intervention in Afghanistan

Combat Obscura
Directed by Miles Lagoze

IN 2011, Miles Lagoze deployed to the Sangin-Kajacki area of Afghanistan as a combat cameraman to shoot and edit videos for the US Marine Corps.

Those videos, shot in northern Helmand province, were “a PR tool for the military,” the 29-year old veteran told The Intercept website. With Washington keen to publicise the Afghan army taking over from US forces in the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency, his job was to document marines working with the Afghan army, “giving candy to kids — hearts-and-minds type of stuff.“

The big three no-nos were “no cursing, no shots of guys smoking cigarettes and they have to be in full gear. And then no casualties. That was a big one, not too much bloodshed.”

Lagoze did all this for the US military – and then kept filming. Combat Obscura is made up of the footage the US military didn’t want you to see.

Taking a grunt’s-eye view of the war, there are long periods of boredom interrupted by short bursts of intense, adrenaline-fuelled combat. Soldiers smoke marijuana, disrespect the local population and kill an unarmed shopkeeper.

At one point a marine aggressively waves a gun at a group of children demanding “Where’s the fucking Taliban?”

With no narration or explanation, Combat Obscura is a confusing, impressionistic take on the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan. Yet it it highlights some uncomfortable truths for the US and British political and military establishments, with the media in tow, who initiated the war and have backed it since 2001, an incredible 18 years ago.

In one of the film’s longest scenes, a group of marines search a village for a “high-value target.” Local men are detained, photographed and fingerprinted and one US soldier is filmed shortly after taking a shit in the garden of a house.

With no arrests made, the marines hold a debrief meeting. “Are they pissed off at us?” asks one soldier. “I would be pissed,” answers his superior.

This understanding that the very presence and actions of the foreign occupying forces is likely energising the armed insurgency is not confined to US troops.

As British lieutenant Jimmy Clark explained about an operation to secure a road in northern Helmand in the 2012 BBC3 series Our War, “one of the problems, especially with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the route 611, is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police), or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us.

“So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

Having experienced the war first-hand, Lagoze himself is highly critical of the US intervention. “While we were there, we created an almost uninhabitable environment for the Afghan civilians,” he told The Intercept.

“Before we were there, they were oppressed by the Taliban. While we were there, they were caught in the middle between two oppressive forces. And how many times did we bomb their houses? How many times did we mistakenly kill innocent people?”

Combat Obscura is available for viewing online, download details: combatobscura.oscilloscope.net.

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