The British War Movie America Needs

British Forces in Kajaki, Afghanistan

War movies matter. The American military is responsible to the American people, and the American people’s image of the experience of war is largely shaped by cinema. To them, winning (and indeed, everything else) looks like what the movies tell them it does. And since our democratic political processes, not the military’s own standards, ultimately will judge whether we are “victors” or “losers” in war, it is imperative that we see what that image of victory looks like.

The release of the movie Patton to widespread popular and critical acclaim in 1970 provides us with a postmodern moment at which we might examine the relationship between reel and real life in modern America. General George S. Patton, as played by George C. Scott, was brilliant, swaggering and hard-charging to a fault. In the film he and his men smash through every Nazi between Morocco and Germany, running into only occasional opposition from American generals and soldiers who fail to appreciate Patton’s methods. President Richard Nixon named it his favorite film and repeatedly screened it in the White House. “Americans play to win all the time,” Patton said in 1944, to be echoed by Scott in 1970, “That’s why Americans have never lost, and will never, lose a war: because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” Scott’s portrayal of Patton won him an Academy Award for Best Actor—but, ironically, Scott turned down the thespian laurels offered to him for the very role in which he had defined what American victory spoke and swaggered like. He declared at the time that there was no victory to be had in the “unnatural competitiveness” of the awards.

Obviously, much has changed since 1944. Already by Patton’s premier, Americans had stomached a stalemate in Korea. Our soldiers were just then battering the North Vietnamese army while assisting South Vietnam in a complex counterinsurgency campaign, seeking a victory that was meant to look radically different from the fall of the Third Reich. Patton seemed anachronistic. “Christ,” the American commander in Saigon, General Creighton Abrams, griped in 1971, “talk about traditionalists… And this movie on Patton, you see—it comes at the wrong time. It just reinforces all that. You’ve got a war on, [and the traditionalists think conventional war is] about the only way you can run it.” The American people needed to stop pining for clear victory, Abrams thought, because it simply wasn’t to be had. In the context of the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, even hard-charging tanker Abrams couldn’t dream of assaulting Hanoi, for fear of unleashing uncontrollable escalation. When communist tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975, it was a traumatic blow, especially because so many Americans had put so much into a counterinsurgency effort that ultimately proved irrelevant.

Today, our war art seems increasingly isolated from our wars. The only notable American film on the post-9/11 counterinsurgency campaigns has been The Hurt Locker (2008), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture with an intense but militarily absurd portrayal of the campaign against Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq (it was, incidentally, also the least commercially successful film ever to win that award). Abrams’ complaints aside, Hollywood seemed much more helpful during the Cold War. Back in the day, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) explained the cold, necessary logic of Mutually Assured Destruction to the masses with the help of advisors Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling. Similarly, John Wayne’s critically-panned but commercially-successful The Green Berets (1968) emphasized that only South Vietnam could “win” the Vietnam War. It was not until after most American soldiers left Vietnam that anti-war films such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) found audiences. The 1970 Korean War movie M*A*S*H, which everyone knew was really about ‘Nam, was the only significant celluloid critique of the conflict while it was ongoing.

The military’s strategy for engaging with film cannot be faulted for the general decline of jingoism in American cinema, but it should be faulted for simply being bad. The Department of Defense devotes significant resources to supporting Hollywood films through the Film Liaison Unit in the Pentagon. It has picked such winners as the Lifetime TV show Army Wives (since 2007), the hilariously bad Transformers series (also since 2007), the Iron Man films (2008, 2010, and 2013; which, at least, do make the military look cool), Battle: Los Angeles (2011), about U.S. Marines fighting an alien invasion, and Battleship (2012), about the Navy doing the same. They have also supported a string of films about Patton-esque victories by special operators, including Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013). The long, hard, and significant ground campaigns have been ignored by everyone but documentarians, who have produced such brilliant works as Restrepo (2010) while embedded with units overseas. The only Hollywood film I have ever heard applauded for playing a role in the fight is 300 (2007), which portrayed Persians in such a terrible light that their Iranian inheritors lodged a formal complaint with UNESCO. Americans in Baghdad, many of whom saw Iran as their most dangerous enemy, loved the film. It was inadvertently the best and worst piece of American propaganda since the ‘40s.

Britain has almost entirely shied away from making films on modern wars. Its much smaller film industry instead focused on films about the Second World War, many of which reflect a gritty, uncomfortable, yet still distinctly proud interpretation of war (the very approach that has proven popular on American screens in this year’s blockbuster Fury). The film Kajaki: The True Story, released on November 28th in the United Kingdom, carries on this tradition, and succeeds in being the best film on the post-9/11 wars released yet. Debut director Paul Kakis and writer Tom Williams have produced an absolute masterpiece. Funded and distributed with the help of veterans groups, portions of the film’s proceeds go to support veterans’ charities in the UK. It has no U.S. release date, which is a true tragedy. If any film might help explain to the American people how the military has come to experience and think about the post-9/11 wars, this is it.

Kajaki follows a group of British paratroopers through a dramatization of a real-life incident in which a patrol from the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment wandered unknowingly into an old Soviet minefield in 2006. Lance Corporal Stu Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony) steps on a landmine, and he and his fellows find themselves in a situation too cruel to be fictional. His “mates” cannot maneuver quickly to provide medical aid, yet they do their best to help. Sergeant Stu Pearson (Scott Kyle) is wounded by another mine in the process, and he is not the last victim during the four agonizing hours the Paras wait for medical evacuation by helicopter.

The Paras get through it with the grit, courage, and the famous gallows humor of the British soldier. The portrayal is self-consciously Kipling-esque and brutally realistic. This makes understanding the dialogue a challenge for anyone not accustomed to British regional accents and Para jargon, but the challenge is an enjoyable one. The wounds are gory, realistic, and the only thing that makes the film hard to watch. “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face,” Patton and Scott said, “you’ll know what to do.” Kajaki proves Patton’s point, and its realism forces the viewer to confront just how hard it is to do the right thing in such a traumatic situation.

Like John Wayne’s Green Berets, this film is meant to reflect on rather than make a statement about the issues of the day. Executive producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin called it “politically agnostic.” This is an easier task today than it was in 1968: everyone in mainstream society on both sides of the Atlantic “supports the troops.” There are plenty of opportunities to pick fights in the plot, but Katis takes none of them. American contractors protecting the Kajaki Dam construction team get a sympathetic portrayal and their casualties are honored in the concluding credits. The lack of British helicopters capable of lifting the soldiers out of the minefield goes unmentioned, although there was an inquest into British medical evacuation capabilities after the real event, and reviewers in the Economist and Spectator have read undertones of British military “incompetence” into the film. Soldiers on the popular British Army Rumour Service forum have as well. The American aviation assets who eventually come to the rescue look positively heroic. Afghans, who the British are there to help, play no role in the plot, because the impact of Britain on Afghanistan is too political to touch. This is not meant to be a movie about how men affect politics, but about how politics affects men.

Allegorically, though, Kajaki can be read as being about how men affect politics, or at least their limited ability to do so when all of their actions are limited by the friction of war. In that minefield on that day, all action was hazardous. Every move might prove explosive. It was the epitome of war where at times even killing the enemy seemed counterproductive. Carl von Clausewitz’s most quoted insight is that war is an extension of politics, and that normatively, it should be. But he also noted that “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Never has this point been made more perfectly than in Kajaki.

Force also seems futile in this film because it is so hard to tie to political aims. The Soviets plant a minefield to kill mujahedeen and end up blowing up part of the British Army. The Taliban launch a failed night raid early in the film, but the Paras scare it off without a trace of adrenaline, for the Taliban still can’t touch the British center of mass at the Kajaki Dam. Afghans, maybe Taliban, are then shown manning an illegal checkpoint, but the film is ambiguous about whether or not the British patrol that unknowingly wanders into the minefield was routine or moving towards the checkpoint itself. One asks throughout it (as retired Lieutenant General Dan Bolger has in his recent book, Why We Lost, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan): Who is whose enemy? It is a question that almost everyone but the maddest zealots in our world find themselves routinely beggared by today, and no one has a good answer.

This is not to suggest that the use of force is inherently futile; it is not. In Britain, the film’s reviewers have made favorable comparisons to American “flag-waving” war movies, forgetting the American tradition of brutally realistic war films that goes back somewhat further than Britain’s, to the 1930 Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front. Americans, however, are much more sure than Britons today that when the sword is forced into our hands, we should wield it swiftly and terribly. But using it will be terrible for us as well, even as it brings out the best among our soldiers. If in our wars today, as Andrew Bacevich has argued, “the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of [military victory],” Kajaki’s events furnish an excellent allegory about the politics of war today. The problem isn’t force, per se, but that no one seems to be able to figure out how to direct it—or at what.

Regardless, this film is not a work of history or an intellectual exercise. It is a work of art, and as art it is shocking and perfect. The story is engaging, the acting superb, and the cinematography beautiful. The tension builds to epic proportions, and the resolution leaves the viewer grasping for more—but there is no more, not in Afghanistan, not that day. Some died and others lived. Many were decorated for valor, and all behaved valorously. Hopefully, the soldiers themselves find some conclusive solace in the fact that their actions have been memorialized as perfectly as they could be.

I went to see the film in central London, with three other American military officers. We left the pitifully empty theater in silence, only the second time a film has left me without words (the other was 2012’s The Act of Killing, a truly disturbing documentary about political violence in Indonesia). There is no greater endorsement I could give to a work of art than that silence.


Second Lieutenant T.S. Allen in an intelligence officer in the United States Army. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he is currently studying for an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. His work on Afghan corruption and counterinsurgency theory has appeared in Small Wars Journal. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense or any other part of the United States Government.


Photo credit: isafmedia