By **Eline Gordts**
Mads and his mom are standing in the kitchen, discussing his imminent departure to Afghanistan, as part of a Danish platoon in NATO’s ISAF-force. He with his back against the sink, she right in front of him. She doesn ’t understand why he volunteered to go; she ’s crying. He looks away and tries to avoid her gaze. He says it ’s a comrade-thing.
Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz traveled with Mads and his platoon to Forward Operating Base Armadillo in Helmand, southwestern Afghanistan. In the award-winning documentary Armadillo the filmmaker introduces us to platoon commander Rasmus, medic Kim and star soldier Daniel. He accompanies them as they walk through ocher fields, along clay compounds, as they make conversation during lonely hours of night watch, play violent video games or watch porn during time off.
Armadillo is a lone ISAF-spot in a Taliban-controlled area, and the platoon is constantly on watch. Patrols take place with a metal detector in hand, soldiers frantically searching for IED ’s every step they take. Conversations with the Helmand population often turn grim, when farmers demand compensation for destroyed fields or two young boys ask the soldiers why they shot their cows (in Pashto, none of the soldiers understand what the boys are complaining about). An older man explains to the translator that the Taliban are everywhere, that he can’t help the troops as the Taliban will remain present once the soldiers return overseas.
Metz films how the platoon embarks upon a surprise mission after three Danes were killed a few days before. Dozens of women veiled head to toe must run for their lives as their homes are caught in a crossfire between the Western soldiers and the Taliban. After a heavy firefight, the Danes return to base gloating how they killed five Afghan combatants at a time, finished them off with a grenade.
Armadillo is filmed adeptly. The intimacy Metz achieves with the Danes inscribes each scene with strong, indelible images, like that of a tattooed platoon commander Rasmus in the camp’s white-tiled shower, of Daniel laughing like a small child when wheeling on a motorcycle in the sunset dust.
Some scenes startle, as when twenty soldiers walk in a field buried with small bombs strong enough to blow away their legs. The comments of the soldiers, in Afghanistan on a “humanitarian” mission, remind us viscerally of war’s dehumanizing and traumatizing effects on its participants: in one scene, medic Kim insists he would “feel worse shooting a stray dog ” than an Afghan fighter; in another a soldier complains that patrols without shooting are “like going to the fun fair without trying the roller coaster.”
Armadillo premiered at a time when few Danes felt involved in the NATO mission abroad. Yet the film raised serious questions about the war that Denmark, and other European nations, are helping the US and Great Britain wage. Can there be a “humanitarian mission” where fighters are bored and disillusioned when a patrol doesn’t involve a fight, the taking of possibly innocent lives? What security does a NATO-mission bring, if villagers are too scared to talk to the security forces for fear of repercussions from the Taliban? How successful is a “humanitarian mission” if it destroys farmers’s fields, drives villagers out of their houses and regularly bombs inhabited compounds?
Copyright 2011 Eline Gordts
Eline Gordts is an editorial assistant at Guernica.