Miles Lagoze was a few years out of high school when he deployed to Helmand Province in 2011. Enlisted as a Combat Camera Marine, Lagoze found himself assigned to First Battalion, Sixth Marines, shooting and editing footage of the unit’s historic mission to take ground in northern Sangin and Kajaki districts. The battalion was going farther north into Helmand than any infantry unit had gone before. The enemy’s disposition was mostly unknown. The Marines engaged Taliban fighters and introduced themselves to villagers, starting a new project to secure a road leading to the Kajaki Dam and a local bazaar, all of this just a couple months after President Obama announced his intent for military forces to begin drawing down their presence in Afghanistan. Whatever the strategic purpose for their mission, Lagoze did his job. He recorded material for use in press releases, training posters, military archives, and other educational media. He kept up with the rank-in-file infantrymen, and he was wounded, too. But he did something else: Lagoze kept the footage. Years later, he assembled that footage into the documentary called “Combat Obscura.”
There are three things forbidden in the work of an official Marine videographer. “No cursing, no shots of guys smoking cigarettes, and they have to be in full gear,” Lagoze said. “And then no casualties. That was the big one, not too much bloodshed. Because it was supposed to look like it was over, we were pulling out.” His film breaks all these rules and more. He shows Marines smoking weed, breaking rules. He shows a Marine mortally wounded. The effect is unlike any war movie of this era. “It’s supposed to be a poem. We want to give people the experience of the war, the uncertainty of it, and the paradoxes. And it’s sort of a meditation on what it’s like to be a soldier.” I asked Miles Lagoze about these topics. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
A friend and veteran of combat in Sangin watched your movie and told me, "No one should see this footage." What do you make of his reaction?
I heard it a lot. The common reaction is that war is kind of untouchable, a sacred thing understandable by those who have gone through it, and, if you haven't gone through it, then you don't deserve the truth because you won't understand it. That's an entitled way of looking at war and condescending to the citizens of the country who sent us to go and fight in their name. Basically, it's the opinion of Jack Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men,” "You can't handle the truth." Citizens need to see the truth of war and veterans need to see its honest reflection in literature and films. Still, I can understand this perspective because it's like looking at an alternate version of yourself during a transformative time of life, and I understand the reaction because I experienced it watching myself on film. That said, demythologizing war was part of my motivation. There are so many tropes about war in our culture. The myth of the trauma hero is one I think of immediately, the guy who goes to war and cannot express himself when he comes home. War is mythologized as an almost religious experience. There's some truth in this because civilians say things like, "I could never imagine [what you went through]," and that just shuts down the conversation. Sometimes this is useful for combat veterans because it allows them to avoid engaging with what war was like. The movie is presented in a stark and ugly way for these reasons. We were in someone else's home; this was not a war zone to the people of Afghanistan. We treated the environment as something separate from the rest of civilization, but at the end of the day it was somebody's home.
You want civilians to see war unfiltered, something other journalists have attempted. Does your perspective as a Marine journalist give you special status as a "truth-teller"?
Truthfulness comes from the fact that I was a Marine, yes. I was not a civilian journalist. I was one of the Marines. You can watch a documentary about cops made by a journalist and learn one thing, but then you can watch body camera footage worn by an actual cop and you get a totally different look at the experience. When Marines are being interviewed by an outsider, we look at it as, "How am I going to be presented to the outside world?" It totally changes the experience. “Restrepo” captured a lot of truth, and some things I couldn't capture, but there's an interesting scene of a guy on post that gets at this point. The guy on post knows he's being filmed and recorded. The soldier on the other end of the radio doesn't know he's being recorded. The first guy says something like, "Hearts and minds." The second guy, probably standing post at some other end of the base, responds, "First we'll take their hearts, then we'll take their minds." This was a candid moment captured because the second guy didn't know he was being recorded. For me, my camera became a mirror for the Marines I was with, most of the time, and still it was an opportunity for performance. Marines said and did things they otherwise would not have done.
You mention the film “Restrepo.” What distinguishes that movie, made by veteran journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, from “Combat Obscura”?
“Restrepo” is trying to make sense of combat to civilians, to make sense of the unimaginable and connect to people in a way. But me? I don't give a fuck about the basic understanding of the narrative or the story. I want to show people what it's like, the good, bad, and the ugly. The big difference between “Restrepo” and “Combat Obscura” is that we showed an American soldier who dies. That's treated as off-limits in Junger's film. My opinion is this stuff has been withheld, and I wanted to break that down. In a certain way, Junger was trying to make sense of war, but I'm just trying to show it unfiltered. I'm trying to blow up the stereotypes and mythologies. The operation where LCpl Jacob Levy died was one of the last operations. I only met him once. He was just a good kid. He was a sweet kid. He had four months left on his contract and decided to go back as a combat replacement. It was tough what happened and I felt guilty for filming it. There are times I regret showing it. I met with his mom beforehand and she was okay with it, but it still eats at me. This film is out there, and people pay to see it in a way, that scene, like a sideshow.
You were a Combat Camera Marine attached to but not a member of an infantry battalion. How did that work?
I was with all the companies, but mostly Weapons Company. The guys in Combat Camera were all ex-hippies. Our commanding officer loved what we did and believed in the mission, but me and the other guy who was out there, we thought we were Hunter S. Thompson doing gonzo shit. You had two different types in Combat Camera. First was the guy who was like "gee willikers, I'm going to document Marine Corps heroes." The second type was guys like me, guys who grew up on the Vietnam movies and journalism and “Full Metal Jacket.” You could have shown me every anti-war book or movie out there and I still would have gone.
Your footage follows Marines from First Battalion, Sixth Marines on what was heralded as a historic mission into northern Sangin and Kajaki, farther north than any Marines had gone before. Tell me about the men who were on that mission.
The guys were crazy, they were nuts, but it was also a pissing contest to see who was the hardest, the craziest, and so people were feeding off each other constantly to do more outlandish things. They called themselves "1/6 Hard." Many of these guys had come from Marjah years prior on their last deployment, and the rules of engagement were totally different. One of the guys pulled me aside and said, "This is what we did in Marjah. If we saw a guy with a farming tool, we would take the shot." Marjah was framed as a big battle, and guys had come up in a system where the rule was you'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6. The whole thing was really built up. I think we really didn't understand the Afghan people. Even if you grew up there, even if you spoke the language and had all the history, it would still be very difficult to understand how the local populace related to our presence, and I think counterinsurgency was an impossible task for us. I think the counter-insurgents become insurgents themselves, so you have two insurgent groups battling one another to save the populace. It's an arrogant, white-savior fantasy that we will defeat the enemy, unload the government in a box, and change the status quo in the country. It didn't work, that's the bottom line.
These guys were bad boys. There's a conflict of ethos in the Marine Corps. On the one side, it's all about discipline, accountability, leadership, and professionalism. On the other it's tough guys and killing, a type of bad boy culture. The bad boy thing and the discipline thing kind of go hand-in-hand; you get both, that's the reality. The dark underbelly of the Marine Corps is always there. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote a critique of “Full Metal Jacket,” and he basically said, looking at Private Pyle in contrast to Private Joker: Pyle represents what happens if you take all the discipline and professionalism to heart, that you'd harm yourself or harm somebody else because you couldn't bear the strain of the system on your personality or psychology. Joker, however, is the better soldier. He had this disconnect from the military. He never really seems like a Marine; he's always this goofy guy, and he has an ironic distance, and that's necessary for the system to function around him, or else you end up with the self-destructing Pyles of the world. That was the battalion, from my perspective, guys who seemed to hate the Marine Corps but did their job well. I'm more afraid of the Captain America types. I'm more afraid of the guys who believe in their power to affect the outcome in that war.
This is the second film made about this battalion. In 2010, HBO produced a documentary called "Battle for Marjah," which depicted the battalion invading Marjah during Operation Moshtarak. What are your thoughts on that film?
I saw that movie. I was impressed with how the director made the whole war effort look, how coherent the operation and objectives look. Marine officers were explaining the operation in a way that made sense, but to me it made no sense. Moshtarak made no sense to me, but that director made it look like it made sense. The movie didn't capture the whole absurdity of the experience. The kids on the ground didn't know what they were doing half the time. If you talk to them, they didn't know what they were doing or why. Similarly, when we were on our mission in Kajaki, the Marines didn't know what we were doing there or why. We were there to secure a route, but nobody knew why or for how long. We were out there trying to survive and have fun. Films like Battle for Marjah are good but they bypass the total absurdity of it. The director builds a narrative around the operation that crumbles when you look closely. It shows the hubris of the company commander. Everybody at 1/6 idolized him because he was a good officer, but the hubris of him to think that the operation could work bothers me still.
I come at it from the perspective that war is the embodiment of life not giving a fuck. It always goes wrong, from my perspective. The officers who coordinated this mission, it's insane that they thought it would work. I'm not even talking about the long-term solutions to the problems of the Afghan military or the government, I'm just talking about providing security in Marjah proper and being able to sort out enemies from innocents, Taliban from farmers. It requires hubris to think this is possible, that a Marine company or anyone can go into a foreign country and accomplish this. The war is a playground for our own insecurities as men. It's become more insane to me as I've been out for a while.
You were wounded but finished the deployment. You got out of the Marine Corps. Years later you decided to take unused footage from that deployment and make a documentary. Why?
I was fed up with all the bullshit depictions of the war and military after 9/11. “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” are so glitzy and fake and full of misconceptions, and they make veterans feel dumb. A lot of people join the military because we're fuck-ups, not because we're budding young heroes. We wanted to test ourselves out of an inflated idea of masculinity. I think “Jarhead” captured that; I think “Generation Kill” captured it, but there were few truly anti-war films. After I got out of the Marines, I felt like we had done something good and that was mainly because of the bonds I made with certain Afghans, like, "yeah the war was a disaster, but we made friends with these people." I justified it that way, for a while. As time wore on, I started to get bitter about it and how Americans viewed the troops, how they viewed the war. It seemed that people congratulated us without knowing what we actually did, what it looked like over there, so long as we kept it "over there."
I knew the Marine Corps would be upset about the movie, but I thought it was still worth it. It was just me and an editor who was another student at Columbia. Just two guys. NCIS was calling me and calling my wife. I went and met with them just to see what they were looking at, and they wanted names, just to see if the guys were still in. It took talking to people to find my way to the Knight Institute at Columbia, and it took me a while to land with their First Amendment attorneys. It was scary before I had any legal representation. I met with the Marine Corps media liaison and entertainment office, and they're in charge of, like, working with Hollywood directors who make movies on the military, helping them get access to military gear and equipment and so on. Each branch of the military has a media liaison office to help with that. They weren't angry with me. The liaison tried to persuade me to understand his position. He was a Major. For the most part, they did understand what I wanted to do.
It's one thing to make a movie and another to share it with an audience. What did you learn from the audience?
I learned a lot. People on the political left tended to view people in the film as monolithic and systemic. When I showed the film in France, a woman got up during the question-and-answer period and said in French that this film was irresponsible because the film was harming Muslims, that they might see it and join the Taliban. She was on the far left and she was making the same argument as the Marine Corps; the film was dangerous because it would radicalize Muslims against the West and perpetuate the cycle. A lot of reactions in America were the same as usual, like "Thank you for your service." Some other people saw it as a sacrifice, like "war is hell," and so the guys who do bad stuff in the film can't be held accountable, which is another trope.
Some scenes angered people. When one of the Marines is chasing Afghan kids with a pistol and saying, "Where's the Taliban!?" People were upset with that, but we thought it was funny overseas. We knew the Taliban kids were tough as nails and nothing was going to happen, but people didn't understand. Audiences reacted to the scene where Marines kill the chicken and chop its head off, but there wasn't so much of a reaction from the dead Afghan civilian. You expect a civilian to die in the crossfire, but you don't expect to see an animal butchered, I guess. There's a weird cognitive dissonance where the chicken is more troubling than a human being.
You've been to war, thought about war, and you've made a serious film about war. What is the root of our fascination with war?
Among Americans? That war is borderline religious. We treat war like a religious experience, and you could trace it back to primitive roots, but I choose not to because I don't think man wants to kill. I think you have to work yourself up to want to kill. It takes a lot of education and training to get to that point, brainwashing as well. For me, it was like I wanted to be reborn, I wanted to be someone new and I didn't like who I was before I got into the Marine Corps. Like, I had kind of lived a dream life and wanted to wake up. War is so mythologized and there is such a stamp of masculinity, and it's alluring to people. There's a secret to war that's been drilled into us: you see something, you learn something.
In a way, war is also more simple than regular life. I always viewed it as a vacation. You get away from the rules, wives, families, internet, the rules and regulations of the Marine Corps, too. You get a chance at being born again in a new place. There's simplicity. You're just being alive. A lot of guys say they miss it because they don't have to think about what's going to happen tomorrow or in a few months, but who pays the price? The civilians. I think that should always be a bookend to the whole allure of war, that there's always someone paying the price.
John Waters is a writer in Nebraska.