Judge Clark Douglas is grateful that he's never had to face situations as intense as the ones depicted in this documentary.
A sobering look at the realities of counterinsurgency warfare.
The British documentary Battle for Marjah is yet another addition to the increasingly large pile of documentaries on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The best of these to date is arguably Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington's harrowing Restrepo, which provides a look at modern warfare both terrifying and intensely moving. Battle for Marjah isn't quite up to that standard, but it's an effectively despairing look at the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people the American military is attempting to aid.
On February 13th of 2010, the largest and most ambitious military operation of the Afghanistan War was conducted. The Marines were given a four-part mission: clear the area of the Taliban, hold all ground seized, create some measure of infrastructure, and then transfer control to Afghan forces. As you might expect, this mission is easier said than done. The focus of this documentary is primarily narrowed to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, led by the grim, earnest Captain Ryan Sparks.
"There's no greater enemy in the world than the United States Marines," Sparks declares. "We are masters of controlled chaos." Unfortunately, he and his men are about to find themselves more than a little overwhelmed by the chaos they're walking into. Much of the film's first half is a nightmare taking place in broad daylight, as the Marines struggle to secure buildings and make even the slightest amount of progress. Against a backdrop of surprisingly elegant cinematography (there are moments when Battle for Marjah looks very cinematic; the images we see are often far more crisp and clear than the grainy shaky-cam stuff of other war documentaries), we witness an endless stream of profanity-laced cries of despair. It's rare to hear any of these soldiers utter a sentence without dropping an f-bomb or two, and the ceaseless swearing only adds to the aura of misery the film creates.
However, this material isn't too dissimilar to other films of this sort. Battle for Marjah is distinguished by its later scenes, as we witness the Marines attempting to build a relationship with the locals. One of the most distinctive figures is a foul-mouthed little person who's tired of both the Marines and the Taliban. "Get the &$#@ out of here! I'll kill you all, mother@$ers!" he shouts at one Marine in frustration. Later, he takes a long drag on a cigarette and addresses the camera: "#&$@ the Taliban. And *#@$ their mothers." Another man attempts to convince the Marines that they simply aren't doing any good and that life was more tolerable under the Taliban. "You didn't bother them, and they didn't bother you," he insists. "They took care of things." A farmer glares in bitter frustration as he is paid $10,000 as a "condolence payment" for family members who have been killed in the midst of battle. "There's no way to rationalize this. It's a terrible failing and a terrible sight," one Marine says mournfully.
While Battle for Marjah may not provide enough context at times (reports are that things in Marjah have improved considerably in the months following the filming of this documentary), it does provide a striking portrait of a particular place at a particular time. Most importantly, it successfully underlines the fact that actually winning the confidence of the Afghan people is an assignment even more challenging than actually defeating the Taliban. Despite the best efforts of the Marines, you can see that some of them have begun to feel that their mission is a fruitless one.
Battle for Marjah arrives on Blu-ray sporting an exceptional 1080i/1.78:1 transfer. Detail is excellent during the battle sequences, but some of the nighttime footage is very rough (as is some of the press conference footage, which is surprising). There are moments when flesh tones look a little off. Audio also varies a great deal, which is par for the course in a documentary like this. The battle scenes are quite immersive, but some of the dialogue can be a bit muffled depending on location. Extras include a text timeline of the Afghanistan war, brief text bios on filmmakers Ben Anderson and Goran Tomasevic, a 12-page viewer's guide and a DVD copy of the film. The Blu-ray case also list additional materials available at athenalearning.com.
It's a difficult watch at times, but Battle for Marjah is a worthwhile, educational experience. Give it a look.
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