The war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was one of the shortest conflicts the United States had ever fought, but the subsequent war against the Taliban insurgency is now the longest in American history. Superpowers like the U.S. can dispatch armies as incompetent as the Taliban’s with ease, but not even the best fighting force in the world can quickly vanquish guerrillas. Ben Anderson’s HBO documentary The Battle for Marjah, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Athena, shows why.
Counterinsurgency is a political war as much as a shooting war, and politics in Afghanistan are even tougher than they are in Iraq. Marjah is a medium-sized city in Afghanistan’s battleground Helmand Province, the heartland of Taliban territory. What happened there last year is a condensed version of events in the country over the last decade. In February, 272 men from the Marine Corps’ Bravo Company led by Captain Ryan Sparks dropped into an insertion point where they found themselves completely surrounded, spread out like an oil spot, and quickly took the city, though the enemy had months to prepare. The Taliban weren’t strong enough to take the city back, but they successfully waged a low-intensity guerrilla and terrorist war that bogged the Americans down amid a suspicious and semi-hostile population and prevented local authorities from assuming control.
The subject matter is grim, but everything else about The Battle for Marjah is fantastic. The film quality on the Blu-Ray disc is vastly superior to that of most documentaries, whose filmmakers tend to be strapped by tight budgets. The images are so vivid and clear they made my TV seem like a dimensional portal to Afghanistan. The music, far from being overdone and sensationalist like so much “reality TV” dreck, is understated and haunting. And aside from a few spectacular satellite images of Afghanistan from outer space, all the footage was shot on location before, during, and immediately after the fighting. This is boots-on-the ground, you-are-there combat journalism shot in HD by a man being shot at himself.
Anderson seems to have no agenda aside from documenting what happened. His portrayal of the Marjah Marines exactly matches my experience with Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province during the “surge” there in 2007 and 2008. The Marines in Marjah do everything right—assuming that what worked in Iraq is right for Afghanistan—and Anderson doesn’t try to distort their tactics, their strategy, or their character. He clearly was not shopping for quotes or images to fit a preconceived narrative.