“The plan that we’ve rock-drilled over and over: as soon as you get out of the bird, it’s not worth anything. Every single one of you will have to make a hundred decisions that there are no right answers to. But guess what—you have to act.”
Those words are part of a brief speech Captain Ryan Sparks gives to the U.S. Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Marine Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, as they are about to be airlifted into Marjah, a city in Helmand Province in the south of Afghanistan, on February 13, 2010. Some 270 men—Marines, accompanied by some Afghan Army troopers—are dropping into the heart of a town where as many as 1,000 Taliban fighters are waiting for them.
Embedded with the attack force is Ben Anderson, a multi-award winning journalist from the United Kingdom. He previously produced such BBC Panorama documentaries as Taking on the Taliban, the story of a British unit in Afghanistan, and has written about Afghanistan for The Times of London and other publications. He is with the Marines to film them for The Battle for Marjah, a documentary currently on HBO about the fight for the city and its aftermath. The production was directed by Anthony Wonke, who won a 2008 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for the BBC documentary series The Tower: A Tale of Two Cities.
The Taliban in Marjah are among the best and most fanatical Taliban troops. They’ve had months to dig trenches, fortify positions and lay IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and other booby traps. They want this fight.
Be careful of what you wish for. As Capt. Sparks says at the opening of the program, “There is no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine. We’re masters of controlled chaos and violence.” Conditions in Marjah will inhibit their ability to deliver that violence, however.
The Marines been been ordered not to fire unless fired upon. Killing civilians is counterproductive in a counter-insurgency war that requires winning and holding the support of the Afghan people. After the Marines make their aerial landing, the Taliban take advantage of this situation to encircle Bravo Company, and the men can only watch as it happens.
Air support requests must be approved by a general and his staff in a command room elsewhere. During the fighting, most requests will be rejected. Others take as much as two hours to receive approval, by which time the aircraft have run low on fuel and returned to base.
The Marines and the Afghan Army soldiers with them are surrounded; the nearest reinforcements miles away. They have no choice but to depend on their inherent firepower and their training as they secure one building at a time in their advance toward their objective, the city center known as “the Porkchop” because of its shape.
The camera shots are mostly close-crops that give a sense of the hemmed-in situation as Marines fire from doorways and rooftops, scramble over walls and lope across open ground. A hand-held camera’s view bounces as they run from point to point.
Enemy combatants are rarely seen on screen because they are rarely seen by the Marines, who most often are firing at muzzle flashes. In the first two days of fighting, a single Taliban sniper uses just four shots to hit three Marines; his position remains concealed.
Occasionally, town dogs run to the Marines, tails wagging, surreal acts of normalcy against a backdrop of automatic-weapons fire. Civilians come out of hiding to tell the men that the Taliban are gone and ask them to stop shooting. These people fear beatings by the Taliban and bombings by the Afghan government and its U.S. ally. One young boy is tough beyond his years and doesn’t seem to care whom he offends, but most civilians reflect the view expressed by one man: “I like Marines. I like Taliban. I just want to be left alone.”
Anderson never offers a verbal narration. When necessary, information is presented as text onscreen. He leaves the talking to the Marines, the Afghan soldiers and the residents of Marjah.
At times, the film cuts from the fighting to scenes from media conferences featuring President Barrack Obama, General Stanley McCrystal and others, their generally confident words juxtaposed against the uncertainty of the fighting in Marjah. Excerpts from news reports are heard occasionally while the screen shows satellite views of Afghanistan. This detached style effectively communicates how distant the rest of the world truly is from the realities on the ground there.
Marjah is the largest battle fought thus far in the Afghan war. It was predicted to become the model for how to win the war. In June 2010, four months after the fighting to secure the city’s center ended, Anderson returned to Marjah and the men of Bravo Company. He finds their hard-won gains slowly eroding. They are superb fighting men but winning the war requires long-term security, a strong Afghan government presence, and improved infrastructure—none of which had yet materialized that spring. The Marines are seen by the locals as foreign invaders; the Taliban, though feared, are viewed as fellow Afghans. One Gyrene quotes the saying, “Marines fight battles. They don’t fight wars.”
The Battle for Marjah is an up-close look into the realities of urban combat in a war in which not killing civilians takes precedence over killing the bad guys, a war in which the ultimate measurement of victory will be political, not military. Anyone who watches this documentary will have a better appreciation for the challenges faced by America and its allies—including the Afghan people who must become a part of that alliance. It is at once a tribute to the courage and professionalism of the United States Marine Corps, a look into the realities of impoverished civilians caught between the Taliban and the coalition forces, and an unanswered question regarding whether or not the war is winnable on a political level.
The Battle for Marjah will air repeatedly on HBO in the coming days. The times shown are Eastern Time: February 25 (7:30 p.m.), March 3 (12:30 a.m.), and March 7 (1:45 a.m.) Viewers should be prepared for some emotionally difficult scenes and a great deal of strong language.
Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for the World History Group.