Armadillo, Janus Metz’s Afghanistan War documentary, caused considerable outrage in its native Denmark. One wonders if it will be greeted with anything more than shrugs of knowing indifference in the United States.
Embedded with a group of Danish soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force responsible, along with British allies, for providing security for the locals in remote Helmand, Afghanistan, Metz gives us glimpses of the soldier’s life amid warfare, 21st-century style, that will look familiar to American viewers of such similar domestic products as Severe Clear and Restrepo. The company of young men kill time through macho horseplay or dissecting the plots of porn movies, lament the boredom of inaction, and try to establish friendly contact with the local farmers, justifiably upset by the Danes (and Brits and Americans) destroying their crops and homes and unwilling to cooperate for fear of Taliban reprisal.
Occasionally, things do turn violent and Metz never shies away from showing the brutal aftermath of combat—never more eloquently than when lingering on the haunted, confused face of a newly wounded soldier—or making clear the links between the violent culture of army life and the desire for bloody conflict. This last point the director probably makes too explicit when he cuts directly from the boys playing a war video game to the same soldiers participating in actual warfare, but the connection needs to be established in order to understand the film’s central, controversy-provoking incident.
According to the story leaked to the press (apparently the result of one soldier’s “snitching” to his parents via telephone), several soldiers gunned down five wounded Taliban soldiers lying in a creek, posed with the dead for “heroic” pictures, and then repeatedly bragged about the incident. While the last of these three charges is undeniably true, based on the evidence Metz provides us with, it’s by no means clear exactly what happened before the men returned to barracks. Chalk it up to the fog of war (or the extreme, if unavoidable, turbulence of the camerawork), but all we know for sure is that one particularly macho young man turned both his gun and a grenade on enemy combatants in a creek and then talked up the incident to his buddies. To what degree the Afghans were injured before the killing is never established.
Perhaps what’s most disturbing is not the incident itself (these were men fighting for their lives against a devious enemy on unfamiliar territory, after all), but the jubilation with which the soldiers celebrate. “They deserved to die,” says one of the gunned-down Taliban. But not everyone seems so elated. Repeated close-ups of one of the Metz’s principal subjects, a likable kid named Mads, reveals a more skeptical attitude. Either way, the incident and its repercussions, which dominate the film’s final third, galvanized Danes by giving the lie to the notion that the soldiers were there on something resembling a peacekeeping mission. For Americans, long used to the burden of two (now three) endless wars, the scars to the national psyche caused by Abu Ghraib and waterboarding, and dubious accounts of a kinder, gentler counterinsurgency, it’s likely to seem positively passé. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use all the documentation of this ill-fated international undertaking that we can get, even if Metz’s project is certain to prove far more revelatory to his fellow countrymen than it will when it makes its stateside debut.