When he joined the Marine Corps as a teenager, Miles Lagoze became his unit’s chief videographer. As one of Combat Obscura’s introductory title cards states, he “filmed what they wanted, but then kept shooting.” Tasked with interviewing his peers and capturing mission footage from 2011 to 2012 in Kajaki, Afghanistan, Lagoze’s videos were edited and disseminated to news networks and the American Forces Network. After leaving the Marines, Lagoze kept the videos he shot that remained unreleased and went to film school, where he began work editing a new narrative out of those remainders.
Combat Obscura doesn’t shed much new light on the so-called Forever War, and how can it? Beyond its fundamentally amorphous purpose, the War on Terror has been marred by human rights abuses and acts of moral outrage from the outset. Even the most jingoistic documents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t help but gesture toward their unending nature and the devastation they’ve wrought on an entire generation of veterans. Comprised exclusively of contemporaneous footage shot in combat and at his unit’s base, Lagoze’s film thrusts the viewer into an uneasy present tense. It’s nonetheless emblematic of the mission creep, cultural confusion, and ethical murk that defines the American century thus far.
Amid the shaky chaos of its footage, the film’s editing favors bracing juxtapositions. The sound of automatic weapons or incoming mortar fire creeps into the edges of scenes of soldiers trying to break their boredom through group freestyles or other revelry, introducing an abrupt immersion into the confusion of combat. This tactic is one of the few apparent embellishments in the film, which is otherwise presented as a work of verité assemblage. Time after time, the camera peers onto a mountain face or a distant hill, and your eye strains to distinguish anything but sand until a plume of smoke breaks the monotony and silence.
The portrait Combat Obscura paints of its Marines is appropriately discordant, redolent of the twitchy frustration caused by a long stint in a sparse landscape with a hazy mission. (The unit appears to be tasked with ferreting out Taliban members; one soldier carries two large posters with headshots of suspected leaders but admits he can barely distinguish one man from the next.) Early in the film, the unit fires a mortar into the distance and an off-screen voice quickly shouts, “Holy shit! That’s the wrong building!” It’s difficult to tell if he’s horrified, rolling on the high of having witnessed a massive explosion up close, or both at once.
Though Combat Obscura lacks any explicit structural thrust, it sees Lagoze touching on a lot of the crosscurrents that make these soldiers difficult to pin down. They’re adrenaline junkies who like to relax with a hash joint (the drug is “one of the only benefits to being in Afghanistan,” one says), patriots train to follow orders and behave with heightened suspicion in a culture they don’t fully comprehend, and young adults who have grown up relishing video games that glorify some of the very violence they expected to find in combat. One of Combat Obscura’s few lengthy sequences neatly sums up these tensions: Lagoze’s unit interrupts a religious service, and just as evident as their desperation to capture “high-value individuals” is the fact that they can’t positively identify any of their targets.
Such fraught scenes inevitably yield to dissonant moments of jocularity: one soldier lifts weights in the dark as a garbage fire burns behind him; a group huddles around a portable DVD player screening Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Because it’s been so many years since this footage was shot, Lagoze is able to depict derelictions of duty without fear of reprisal. (The Marine Corps threatened to block the film’s release but ultimately backed away, likely because the statute of limitations on the criminal acts seen here has expired.) Most of us have read enough horrifying news accounts and seen enough fictionalized accounts of soldiers in combat to feel a bit numb to a film as raw as this—our current wars have been documented more than any others in history—but Combat Obscura does become genuinely upsetting in its final passages, paying equal attention to the atrocities of our country and the wounds a generation of Americans will have to live with for decades to come.