“They’re here for the salary. Can we trust such an army?” ponders General Fazil Sayar, who with a weariness built by three decades of combat experience in the “graveyard of empires” easily dominates Carol Dysinger’s clear-eyed, ultimately mournful documentary Camp Victory, Afghanistan. Culled from footage shot over four years of U.S. National Guardsmen who, stationed at a base in western Afghanistan’s Herat Province, endeavor with varying degrees of cynicism and heroism to “teach, coach, and mentor” enlistees in the divided nation’s newly configured armed forces. As in many nonfiction portraits of man at war, the speech often turns Strangelovian: An Afghan commander with less forbearance than Sayar concludes a dressing-down to the troops with “I am ashamed to be your commander. Thank you,” and an American officer deadpans about the native recruits who skip literacy classes and eyeball their Yank trainers with skepticism and discomfort, “We envisioned a higher level of proficiency.”
The scar-faced and sober General Sayar, a one-time informer for the mujahedeen in the Soviet-controlled Afghan army, finds a well-intentioned and industrious partner in Colonel Michael Shute, a military lifer from New Jersey on his first and last hot-war deployment who emphasizes, “I’m not his mentor, I’m his advisor.” Slowly forging a friendship via an interpreter and the occasional shared bag of trail mix, the pair are followed by Dysinger’s DV camera as they visit tribal chiefs suspected of planting bombs for the Taliban (“the Neighbors,” as the warlords discreetly term the deposed fundamentalists), are plagued by deserting and ammunition-smuggling soldiers, and late in Shute’s tour, hold a Babel-like meeting with Italian coalition partners and NATO Special Forces personnel whose instructions contravene the directives Sayar has received from the Americans. Told by Shute that Washington has funded Herat with $33 million in the past year, the general queries amid persistent local poverty and worsening security, “They paid it; who spent it?”
That an army capable of answering to a civilian government—particularly one as transparently corrupt and nepotic as the Karzai regime—is emerging from this protracted, bloody stab at nation-building is not supported by any of the images or testimony here. A tragic-ironic fate befalls one of Camp Victory’s grim, even-keeled leaders in a climactic twist, but the closing words come from Barack Obama at his inauguration, mere days later; in this context, his bellowing of martial reassurance about the pseudo-War on Terror he has since unflaggingly continued has the hollow ring of an LBJ-like imperial steward, as an Afghan National Army patrol is seen marching into the mountains, to what end and for how long there seems to be no concrete answer.
Camp Victory, Afghanistan will play on June 12, 13, and 17 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.