Citizen Soldier [Motion Picture]. Bert Bedrosian (Co-producer), Christian Tureaud, and David Salzburg (Co-producers and Directors). United States: Strong Eagle Media, 2016.
At some point during the final scenes of Citizen Soldier, you will probably realize your jaw has been clenched tight and needs to be loosened. In one of the most gut-wrenching documentary scenes filmed during the last decade and a half of war, four soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team struggle to carry a dead comrade, wrapped in a poncho, up the side of a Hindu Kush mountainside while under continuous enemy fire. Finally at the top, the group silently waits for a MEDEVAC helicopter to hover above and, due the craggy nature of the mountains in which the platoon is fighting, lower a line with which pull the body aloft. Tired, numb, and made faceless by the camera angle, one soldier gently rubs his fallen friend’s forehead through the poncho as the helicopter finally comes into position.
Describing Citizen Soldier’s concluding minutes should not rob the movie of any of its suspense for future viewers. Ostensibly a film intended to document the year-long deployment of a company of soldiers from Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the film provides some of the best “soldier perspective” accounts of the war since Restrepo. By letting “soldier point-of-view” videography drive the documentary, viewers gain a sense of not only the danger, but also the monotony of the war in Afghanistan. Clearly audible bullets and rocket propelled grenades whizzing by punctuate a narrative defined by near-constant looking up—and up and up—at the high mountain peaks of Afghanistan. In the process of recounting a year of war, though, the filmmakers flirt with some of the larger issues that the wars in Afghanistan (and Iraq) have exposed: How does a “long war” in the Middle East and Central Asia redefine the relationship between the regular Army and the “citizen soldiers” that make up the National Guard? How do several deployments to war zones affect the relationship of these same National Guard soldiers to the lives, and the society, from whence they came?
During 2011, in the midst of the Afghanistan “Surge,” elements of the 45th Brigade deployed to Laghman province. The brigade, known since World War II as the Thunderbirds and identified by their distinctive unit insignia, immediately set to work patrolling villages, clearing routes, and conducting key leader engagements in the steep Hindu Kush Mountains that rise along the restive Afghan-Pakistan border. The first-person footage of their patrols captures the environmental factors that confronted the soldiers—steep, rocky mountains ridges and winding streams and canals leave patrol members panting and exhausted, cold and wet. Enemy contact comes from out of nowhere; the footage from Citizen Soldier exhibits not only the chaos of war, but the unique anarchy that typifies warfare in Afghanistan’s rugged, higher elevations. At the end of a patrol defined by long stretches of boredom fraught with the momentary panic of an ambush, soldiers collapse among rocks and scrub brush, physically and mentally wrung out.
Willfully focusing on the nature of small-unit combat, the producers and directors of Citizen Soldiers seek to convey the intimacy and nature of war to an American public that has shied away from a full engagement of the nation’s longest war. Thus, the documentary relies on combat footage situated amidst the pop culture/media space defined by Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and the other films, documentaries, and miniseries that revel in the nature of violent combat. Showing the personal fear and pain experienced by the guardsmen, the filmmakers hope to convey the sacrifice of these soldiers. In the process, however, certain questions go forsaken. Preparing for the largest mission of his deployment, an officer mentions in passing that his platoon is being inserted into a valley where Afghans have not seen an outsider since the Soviets in 1979. Besides a brief “there are bad people there” aside, no operational reason for the mission’s execution is provided. Later, soldiers and non-commissioned officers hunkering down in a makeshift rock redoubt to overwatch their platoon’s movement struggle with the notion that the operation is not focused on the Taliban, but instead, the Haqqani Network. Beside pointing to “bad dudes” and “high value targets,” the movie should leave uninformed but curious viewers wondering, “What is going on in eastern Afghanistan that has left several soldiers, from the National Guard no less, dead or wounded?” Has American society reached a point where filmmakers and documentarians can assume that viewers will accede to war’s perpetual existence, but not its personal brutality?
As the Army debates increasing the annual training time and rotational schedule of National Guard units, when do we as an American society revisit the social contract between our guardsmen and the society they protect?
At the same time, the documentary’s focus on personal combat obscures what should be its primary differentiation from other contemporary war media. Citizen Soldier emphasizes the soldier while foregoing an analysis of the citizen. The introduction highlights some of the careers of the activated guardsmen, then closes with a brief “where are they now” segment that revisits many of the soldiers and their civilian careers. But, for the vast majority of the movie, these men are soldiers only, no different from their active duty Army brethren. This is, of course, a message in and of itself, but not fully plumbing the dual nature of each of these Guard soldiers’ roles leaves half the story untold. By film’s end, several of the soldiers have exited the Army…after two, three, or even four deployments. The film opens with many of the remaining soldiers training for their next deployment, with the majority of the group wearing the right sleeve unit patch that signifies at least one combat tour already. Hinted at in the Citizen Soldier, but left unspoken, is a startling question: How does a nation justify, rightly or wrongly, the repeated and increased use of National Guard formations traditionally intended for moments of national crisis or state emergency? As the Army debates increasing the annual training time and rotational schedule of National Guard units, when do we as an American society revisit the social contract between our guardsmen and the society they protect?
Citizen Soldier’s filmmakers close their film with an interesting interspersal of scenes: Threaded through a speech of the 45th’s present command sergeant major exhorting soldiers to stay “citizen soldiers” and carry on a legacy that reaches back to 1775 are brief vignettes recounting what the documentary’s soldiers are doing now. Of the numerous clips, the most striking is of Lieutenant James Brown, a platoon leader and the primary focus of the film. During his platoon’s time in Laghman, Brown performed with an experience and confidence well beyond his years. He is a tactical force of nature, leading soldiers through ambushes and executing the hard patrols that defined the entire deployment. Now, though, in the half-light of dusk and wearing a uniform devoid of patches, he looks through windows of a minivan as a civilian security guard for a nuclear facility. He looks small. No disrespect intended to him or his unit, but the larger than life warrior of the Hindu Kush now appears soporific and continents removed from the battles of years before. While a slight nod is given to this fact when a threesome of soldiers, now back home, discuss the war and how they miss it, this uncomfortableness is drowned out by the bravura of the sergeant major’s speech and the sequence of guardsmen showing off their post-documentary civilian success. As the credits roll, however, one has to wonder, what does Lieutenant Brown think about on those nights when he stands at his guard post, chilled now by the winds of the southern plains? Does he ponder an upcoming deployment, the second in four years? Or does he try and measure the commonplace nature of his present job when compared to the life and death struggle he found himself so recently a part of? Does he worry about balancing the increased pressure of his National Guard commitment with his family life and career, particularly amidst rumors of a new fifty- to sixty-days a year training requirement?
Citizen Soldier does not explore these questions, and is content not to. Its depiction of combat aims for a more visceral reaction and challenges viewers to place soldiers’ sacrifices within the context of our ongoing wars. And it does an admirable job, leaving you tense and guessing about the outcome of the battles and ambushes the “Thunderbirds” fought their way through. The documentary’s focus on the trials of National Guard soldiers in our present conflicts, however, ignores the wider consequences of a repeatedly deployed and increasingly depended-on reserve echelon. The continued reliance upon and the “regularization” of the National Guard should force the Army, Congress, and American society to examine the role of the Guard in our current and future military operations, whether we want to watch it or not.
Andy Forney is an active duty Army officer and is currently assigned to the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). A Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University, his articles have appeared in The Small Wars Journal (where he works on their editorial staff), Political Science Quarterly, Essays in History, and other electronic and print journals. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Image from Citizen Soldier (Gravitas)