The Hornet’s Nest: Our Longest War and the Americans who Fought It

September 16, 2014
Enduring Freedom

For many of us that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, this year has brought with it a sense of Déjà vu. The Iraq Army, trained and equipped to carry the fight forward after U.S. forces redeployed, vanished as the civil war in Syria spilled across the border and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) captured town after town, bringing with it levels of violence not seen since the height of U.S. operations in Iraq. Meanwhile, the multi-national coalition that made up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan began making preparations for redeployment while policymakers debate the number of troops the U.S. and NATO will leave behind. The question now, is whether Afghanistan will mirror Iraq, spiraling into a cauldron of instability and violence. Afghanistan sits at a precipice. If the country survives as a stable, secure, and unified country, it will be in no small part due to the courage, hard work, and sacrifices of a generation of American servicemembers.

On September 10, as politicos and experts debated the U.S. response to ISIL and the world anticipated President Obama’s national address, and on the eve of the anniversary of al-Qaida’s attack on 9/11, the Center for a New American Security sponsored a special preview of The Hornet’s Nest, a film that takes viewers on a tactical-level ride inside the war in Afghanistan. Mike and Carlos Boetther, a father and son reporting team, spent a year embedded with a Marine Corps and two Army units, filming the dangerous, tiring, and dirty work that goes on daily in the war zone.

Over the previous several months, I had attended numerous discussions on future U.S. policy in Iraq and the broader region. These discussions are critically important, but they have slowly metastasized into a stagnant debate between supporters of the former Bush administration and those of the current Obama administration. This is frustrating in its own right, because important questions about whether the U.S. needs to be engaged in the region go without proper examination. But there are more fundamental questions about the experiences that policy discussions will never fully address. For example, why do our young men and women keep coming to the fight? And what do individual servicemembers want to accomplish in these far off places? The Hornet’s Nest offers a window into the combat experience, and in so doing provides answers to these questions.

The movie illustrated the adrenaline rush of a firefight, as the cameras recorded the heavy breathing of Mike and Carlos while they filmed the young soldiers. It captured the emotions of soldiers as they air-evacuated a young Afghan girl injured by a roadside IED to a U.S. field hospital, where American doctors and medics fought to save her leg. It also makes clear the commitment of the female helicopter crewmembers — several of whom had children back in the states — that carried the girl off the battlefield. It reveals the connection that a battlefield commander has with his troops as he speaks to them before setting out on an operation, and the raw emotion he feels when he calls in a medevac to carry his wounded soldiers off during a heated firefight. And it shows the love that each soldier and Marine has for his brothers.

After calling roll at the memorial ceremony for members of the 101st Airborne Division killed during Operation Strong Eagle III, and after the soldiers had said their goodbyes, Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Fields approached the memorials alone, knelt, and with tears streaming down his face reached for the dog tags of one his soldiers. Mike Boetther asks the question why — “why do young soldiers and Marines” keep coming back to fight? The most basic answer from the young troops is always the same: they are fighting for their brothers, for the guy next to them in the mud. But there is also a larger and equally accurate answer: “they want to do something important, to make a difference, to leave their mark on the world.”

After the movie Gen. John Allen, USMC (ret) and Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (ret), both former commanders in Afghanistan, participated in a discussion about both the movie and U.S. policy, along with Mike Boetther and the producers. The statistic is often given that 99 percent of Americans do not know the horror of the battlefield. Gen. Allen reflected that during his tenure as commander of ISAF, 561 Americans died in Afghanistan, and the average age of those killed showed that many were just 9 or 10 years old when the war started. Mike Boetther called them “A new second greatest generation of Americans! America has to be the shining light; we have been given a great gift which comes with sacrifice.” These soldiers and Marines are the shining light. Regardless of whether you support this longest war in our nation’s history, it has been fought with courage and selflessness by a generation whose story should be told. This film does just that.

The Hornet’s Nest is showing on AHC several times through Veterans Day and is available online for purchase.


David A. Mattingly served at U.S. Central Command Headquarters 2001-2003 in Tampa and CENTCOM Forward in Qatar. He also served as a Senior Analyst at Multi-national and U.S. Forces-Iraq in 2005, 2008-10. He is retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer and is now a consultant on National Security issues.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army