war on the rocks

Kajaki: A War Story with No Enemy

December 15, 2014

Kajaki is a powerful new war film about the British campaign in Helmand; it is surely the best of all the films about the 9/11 wars (read a previous WOTR review of the film by T.S. Allen here). The film depicts a notorious incident in September 2006 in the early months of the British campaign in a small outpost on the Kajaki reservoir. Attempting to engage Taliban fighters, a sniper team patrolled out from their base on high ground to reach a good firing position. Unfortunately, one of the snipers, Corporal Stuart Hale, tripped an old Russian mine which had been washed into a wadi and loses a leg. An emergency team comes out from the base to evacuate him, but in the course of preparing a site from which to have him winched to safety, a second soldier, Corporal Stuart Pearson, trips another mine losing both legs. Panic now begins to set in as the soldiers realize the density of the minefield which they are in.

Yet, worse follows [Editor’s Note: SPOILER ALERT!]. In a terrible sequence of events, a series of further mines are triggered fatally wounding Corporal Mark Wright and injuring several other soldiers.

The intense professionalism and corporate pride of the paratroopers constitutes a central motif in this harrowing film. The Parachute Regiment is one of the most famous regiments in the British Army, originally raised as commandos by Winston Churchill in 1942 to conduct raids on Nazi Europe; its soldiers are the Army’s most highly selected and elite infantry. They are renowned for their tough aggressiveness and their proud, sometimes arrogant, fraternal exclusivity. Throughout the film, the paras use the salutation “hat” in conversations with each other, an abbreviated reference to their term of abuse for all non-paratroopers: ”craphats” is the term they reserve for soldiers who have not passed parachute selection and are, therefore, not allowed to wear their maroon beret. Yet, in the minefield, as the troops are gored and mutilated, and their innards are exposed to the Afghan sun as they bleed into the sand an alternative account of contemporary masculinity is represented. In stark contrast to the sentimental detours into the romanticized lives of the male heroes which punctuate the action in Hollywood blockbusters, the film dissects the compromised dependence of real soldiers on their families. A damaged and troubled masculinity is exposed by their wounds, for which the dense brotherhood of the paras perhaps offers some compensation.

There are four loud minestrikes in the film, at which audiences visibly jump in the theatre. There are also four critical moments of masculine self-exposure. Detonation one is perhaps the most poignant: In order to prevent the injured from falling asleep and to maintain morale, Dave Prosser begins to discuss his childhood and particularly his eighth birthday. It is, by misfortune, his birthday on this same day in Kajaki. He describes how his parents completely forgot about his birthday, and how, having been thinking the whole day that they had some surprise for him, as a small boy he burst into tears once he had gone to bed — realizing the real surprise was they had forgotten him entirely. They did not love him. He concludes sardonically that even that birthday was better than this.

Detonation two: As the hours pass, Stu Hale has a collapse of morale and believes he is going to die. He tells his comrade, Smudge, to tell his wife that he loves her and the names he would like his children to be called — Alexander and Sophia. At this point, Smudge rages at him to shut up and that no one is going to tell his wife that he loves her or to name his children because his comrades have not given up on him and will not allow him to die.

Detonation three: In order to attend the new casualties from the Chinook downdraft, Tug, the lead medic, has to go back across the minefield. To do this, he simply throws a heavy rucksack in front of him, ducking as it strikes the ground. He then jumps onto it. As he does so, and in one of the many examples of black humor throughout the film, one of the soldiers shouts at him that it is as unpleasant as watching him have sex with his wife. There is general laughter, but, significantly, Tug does not laugh. He is visibly wounded by the mention of his wife: an expression of suffering and loss of a quite different register to the fear, anger, and frustration he shows as he tends his disfigured comrades. For all the horror in front of him, the worst pain is to be reminded of his separation from his spouse.

Detonation four: Mark Wright lies dying, with a terrible wound to his left chest, near his heart, which exposes his pink viscera. He repeatedly calls on his comrades to act like paratroopers. Yet as he fades, he turns to Tug, who tends him, and quietly insists that he tells his wife and parents that he loves them. Lying next to Stu Pearson, his close friend in the Blackhawk, and with the wadi below them, he repeats the request. They are his last lines in the film.

Kajaki is a war film. And yet, it is successful precisely because it is not one. There is no enemy here. There is no military action. There is no victory or defeat. The film is an anatomy of manhood, not a demonstration of it. It dissects the damaged and mutilated physiology of contemporary masculinity; a physiology elaborately concealed by the muscled, tattooed bodies of soldiers depicting their corporate, fraternal commitments to the Parachute Regiment. But beneath the skin, the film reveals that these men are finally defined, determined, and sometimes damaged by their complex private, domestic relations. Their mothers, fathers, wives, and children finally make them what they are.

The film is simple; some of the scenes in the early part of the film are perhaps not quite as slick as Hollywood. However, as a treatise on masculinity, the film far exceeds the hollow bombast of apparently grander projects like The Hurt Locker, The Green Zone, Zero Dark Thirty, or Fury.


Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press) is out next year. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present. He has been a mentor and adviser to the armed forces for a number of years, working in the Prism Cell of ISAF’s Regional Command (South) in 2009-10.


Photo credit: isafmedia