'Hell and Back Again': I Don’t Know What They're Shooting At

In Hell and Back Again, Sergeant Nathan Harris is, as he says, home, most of the time. He's also transported back to the war repeatedly, in his memories.

Hell and Back Again

Director: Danfung Dennis
Cast: Nathan Harris, Ashley Harris
Rated: NR
Studio: Docurama Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-10-05 (Limited release)
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.

-- Danfung Dennis

The veterans have borne the burdens of war but come back with emotional and psychological challenges to a country that does not understand them.

-- Paul Taylor

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.