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Battle for Marjah, The (Blu-ray Review)

1 Sep, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 9/6/11
$34.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.

The HBO documentary The Battle for Marjah depicts the February 2010 mission to push entrenched Taliban insurgents out of Marjah, a rural district in southern Afghanistan. It represented the largest military operation undertaken by the U.S.-led coalition since the war began.

Battle follows Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, commanded by Capt. Sparks, who prepares his men with a pep talk that may as well be spoken by a coach before a championship football game.

It’s very apropos, as a lot of the troops seem to be treating the operation like a game, and there’s a certain amusement in seeing the Marines taking pride in their kills and complaining about the enemy using bush league tactics such as using women and children to cover their escape.

The deadly stakes are not lost on them. These are men who are fully aware that they or their colleagues could be killed, yet they always speak of their future plans and seeing their families “when” they get home, not “if.”

Battle eschews narration in favor of a few informative title cards, maps to detail location and tactics, and the raw footage of Marines under fire. U.S. forces were joined by the Afghanistan army, but to call this a “joint” operation gives too much credit to the Afghan forces. The Afghan soldiers seem like a parody of an army — undersized, unsure of their training and hesitant to act. They look like children who put on daddy’s uniform, and the Marines seem to be using them as cannon fodder.

And here we begin to see several of the challenges inherent in the overall effort to create a free and stable Afghanistan. The Marjah mission was one of counter-insurgency, which involves convincing the local populace that the Taliban is their enemy while trying to minimize collateral damage.

Except mistakes happen, as when another Marine unit mistakenly fires on a house where several families were told to wait until the fighting ended.

In the film’s most awkward scene, a group of Marines pays $10,000 to one man whose family was wiped out as a Marine PR guy gives his spiel about everyone working together to create a better world. It must be small comfort to this guy, and the whole thing kind of symbolizes the question of what kind of difference American efforts can really make in the region if people think they were better off under the Taliban.

And even when the Marines take the city, the Afghan government sends no support, letting the U.S. forces handle the bulk of maintaining services and order.

For many of these people, the Taliban is the only way of life they know, and they have more ethnic ties to them than to the American outsiders. Many seem ungrateful for American intervention because they don’t comprehend how their lives are supposed to see improvement. Or, as put another way by one of the Marines, they let the Taliban beat them, so what do you expect? (Which is another way of saying that they didn’t fight the Taliban, so the Coalition has to do it for them.)

Regardless of how you feel about the war — and there is plenty here to fuel arguments on both sides — the focus of the film is on the troops tasked with fighting it. And this is as real as it gets.

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