On our first day, one Marine died and several collapsed out of exhaustion. The fighting focused on this rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill. This is where I first met Nathan. We had all run out of water so he handed me his and lent it to me. So I followed his platoon as he pushed further into the stronghold. That’s when I really got to know him.
The veterans have borne the burdens of war but come back with emotional and psychological challenges to a country that does not understand them.
As Hell and Back Again begins, the marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment are entering Afghanistan in 2009. They will be enacting a “new” counter-insurgency strategy. Their commander reminds them of their essentially contradictory function. “Every interaction you have with the people is crucial,” he says, “We have to develop trust in them.” You see marines loading gear amid the dust of a landing zone as he goes on: “Make no mistake: we’re experts in the application of violence. When you move, move with a sense of purpose, and aggression intent on finishing the enemy. Your conscience should be clear and your honor should be clean.”
Echo Company will be making history, the commander asserts, and in the next scene, you see how: men amid a swirl of gunfire and dust and confusion. “You see ‘em man,” one marine shouts, “Shoot ‘em!” And so they do, the camera set back, observing the battle, that is, men aiming and shooting their weapons.
Just a moment later, several of the men confront a consequence they may have anticipated but could not have imagined, exactly. Lance Corporal Seth Sharp is shot by the Taliban, bleeding as a friend cries out in anguish, urging Sharpie to hang on. When the litter they need doesn’t appear, several men gather him up, his arms hanging and his torso ragged, and run him along a road, the camera jogging behind. They reach a building and head inside, where the camera stays back and low while men crowd and crouch. A title card tells you what happens next: “Medics were unable to save Lance Corporal Sharp.”
Though the sequence doesn’t show the dying man’s face, it makes vivid not only the horror of the event, but also, its effects on Sharp’s fellows. Living with death, even when you know it’s possible or even likely, never makes sense. “Most of the men accept the fact that you could die, you don’t think about it,” says 26-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. “Except, to the point of not being foolish.” Harris stays in Afghanistan some six months after that first scene, and then he heads home—after he’s “severely wounded in an ambush.”
Back in North Carolina, Harris is dealing with therapy and frustration. By way of introducing the difficulty of the adjustment, the camera rides along in the backseat as Harris and his wife Ashley go to the mall. The sequence begins in their driveway, as Harris makes his way to the car with a walker; once situated in the passenger seat, he pulls out a plastic bag filled with prescription pill bottles, from which he selects a several. As Ashley guides the car into the parking lot, Harris groans: “There’s not a single parking spot,” he begins, “You can’t even park at Chuck E. Cheese, so you come home and you’re constantly stressed out because of all this stuff.” The “stuff” is endless, and it’s small, he knows that. Still, it’s mounting. “I would rather be in Afghanistan, where it’s simple,” he sighs, before he convinces Ashley to give him a kiss and they head inside the mall.
Here, en route to the electronics store. Harris explains to a woman who asks how he was wounded, describes the bullet that went through his hip and “took a piece of the bone out.” The woman listens, nods, asks to give him a hug. “Oh, it’s okay,” Harris says, “I’m here and I’m home now.”
He is and he isn’t—here or home now. As the film suggests, he’s also transported back to the war repeatedly. Because Dennis, a professional photographer, spent time with Echo Company during Harris’ deployment in Afghanistan, the film provides specific scenes that approximate flashbacks. While some of these scenes are introduced with audio cues (chopper sounds, shooting), others are premised on sound, as audio layers approximate memories and muddle the present moment. Still other flashbacks are thematically connected to home scenes, as Harris faces confusion at Wal-mart or a trip to the fast food drive-in becomes a sensory jumble. None of these wartime scenes is precise; most help you to guess at what he feels.
While some of these scenes show battles or Harris and his team breaking down a door, others are not so much about “action,” as they are about effects. As a village elder speaks with a U.S. officer, neither quite gets the other’s point. The translator does his job: “The biggest problem is when British or Americans come into the area,” says the officer, “We start fighting with the Talibans and the villagers have to leave their homes? That’s what he’s saying?” The bearded villager looks away, waiting for the translator to address him again. The translator speaks from off-screen: “Yeah.” If this interaction is “crucial,” as the first commander told E Company, it’s also going nowhere. The Americans will stay, a captain says. “This is gonna be a long process for us to work together to provide security.” As he speaks, it’s not clear who’s working “together” on anything.
Once, he says, he “wanted to kill people,” that was why he joined the military. Now he sees something else. Now, on his couch in North Carolina, Harris describes the mission he believed in, while Ashley works on her laptop and a friend listens, her face worried. “It’s the big picture” that everyone misses, Harris says, “Even the guys over there fighting don’t know.” This would be “our freedom,” he goes on. It’s “definitely worth it and the Afghan people deserve it. They just live in such depression and horrible lives,” repressed by the Taliban, who “don’t want modernization, they don’t want any of that stuff, because they think it’s worldly, or ungodly, like us, infidels, you know.”
This jumble of reasons for fighting, both heartfelt and well rehearsed, seems removed from Harris’ daily life. Though he says he wants to stay in the military, to continue to serve in some way, he’s also bothered by pain, the meds he has to take, the threat of addiction down the road, as well as of a never-ending effects—emotional and physical and financial.
Again and again the image shifts from Harris playing videogames to Harris back in country, from Harris with his head in his hands to Harris making his way along a village wall. Here he looks back at the camera as if to make sure it’s still following, a moment that reminds you that you’re part of this construction, participating in the memory-making even if it’s never going to be yours. In both places, Harris’ face might be obscured—by his hands or his helmet and glasses—and he doesn’t narrate either. The film isn’t explaining what you’re seeing, only asking you to see it. And by not explaining, by leaving the trauma an impression, a series of fragmented moments, the film asks you to do some work.
That work will never come near the work Harris or Ashley has to do, just to survive each day. And Hell and Back Again is upfront about this: it doesn’t pretend to tell you Harris’ story so much as it solicits your effort. If, as a recent Pew Research Center report on war and sacrifice, veterans report struggles with PTSD and ambivalence about whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been “worth it.”
Walking into the drugstore to fill prescriptions, a routine she could not have foreseen, Ashley says that sometimes, “He gets so mad, just like he turns into a different person… just rage, not my husband.” It’ a shared sacrifice now, she knows: “I guess if you’ve been through that, you can get through anything, we’ve been to hell and back.” It’s her journey now, as much as her husband’s. It’s a journey they share with the filmmakers, in this intensely collaborative effort. It’s a journey that affects the rest of us too, even if we never understand it.