Monday, May 25, 2009

"At War": Stunning.

I've been waiting for months to review Scott Kesterson and David Leeson's film, "At War." I finally received a copy for review purposes and took awhile this afternoon to sit down and screen it all by myself.

I'm glad that I was alone.

I have permission to share it with family, which I will do, at least with my immediate family and my older children. I am still glad that the first time I saw it, I saw it alone. I've read that when it was screened at the Milblogging Conference, many Afghan vets were deeply affected by the film. I was immediately engaged by "At War," but about a third of the way through it, I was wondering what was different about me that it wasn't affecting me so deeply.

At the end of it, I sat there stunned; a tear rolling slowly down my left cheek, glad to be alone. It's that good, that powerful.

It wasn't a single moment that took me there. It was the entirety of it. There was so much of my experience in it. Scott Kesterson and his collaborators have captured the unique experience of what was like to be there, especially as an ETT or PMT. The only thing missing was the gritty taste of the Afghan dust and the distinct smell of cooking fires in the villages.

Kesterson's ground-level visuals are more than just documentary. He captures the impressions. He captures those moments that I think that all of us who have served as advisors have had. He captures the simple truths about working with Afghans. He captures the frustration and even the humor of dealing with the Afghan personality as advisors work to convert the raw warrior into a soldier. He captures the drawbacks and the small joys; finding your influence making little differences in the way that these men, whose fierceness cannot be denied but whose disorganization is just as marked, do their jobs.

"At War" also captures the sense of caring that develops between an advisor and his charges. You can see the duality of the cat herder and the brother-at-arms who speaks only a few words of his brother's language yet gets the intent of so many communications. As one advisor goes "grocery shopping" for hamburger on the hoof for his men, you see the paternal aspect of the mentor.

The soundtrack is unique and, I thought, very well done. This is not a soundtrack done twenty years later, seeking to evoke a sense of period via aural memories; it is a distinct soundtrack made for this movie. At times folksy, at times the edgy metallic background that draws one more deeply into the tension of the moments when death can suddenly materialize like an entity in your midst, this soundtrack adds shading to the color. It is not an attempt to shoehorn popular culture into what is not a popular experience. It is seasoning, adding to a flavor so few have tasted. It gives this film a flavor as distinctly different from the standard American experience as kabuli pilau is different from McDonalds.

Kesterson captures the Canadians doing a fantastic job as well. He captures Canadians advising and as maneuver forces, showing that the Afghan experience is the Afghan experience, not just an American Afghan experience. The Canadians do themselves proud, and Scott Kesterson's videography captures it.

Kesterson's triumph transcends the excellent capture of the moments that bring the Afghan experience home. It's also what this film is missing. While the editing carries the veteran viewer like the current of the deployment, you cannot edit some things in or out. Kesterson is a participant, and he's accepted. He's just like another rifleman, grenadier, or gunner... except his weapon system is a camera. There is no friction between the journalist and those he is with. You can just tell that he is accepted as a professional in a soldierly sense. It's hard to explain how you can accept someone as a professional and still feel burdened by them when you have to carry them along with you operationally. There is no sense that Kesterson is viewed in this light by those with whom he embeds. He's another combat system operator. This comes out not only in the way that he operates around teams of men under fire, but also in the way that they speak as if they are not talking to a camera. They aren't. They are speaking to Scott Kesterson, a guy they know and accept, who just happens to have a camera on.

It's hard to explain how rare, and therefore how brilliant, that is.

"At War" is a film that I can point to and say, "That's it. That's what it was like. That's a sample of my experience in Afghanistan." There is a total lack of judgment in "At War." It's not a morality play or a political message; it's an experience captured.

Afghan veterans, beware; this film may kick your ass. For those who want to get a sense of what it's like, "At War" is the best you can do without deploying.


  1. Having watched this at the conference, I have to agree with your last sentence, "At War" is the best you can do without deploying. I could see more of what your eyes saw when you were in country. It added another layer of color and depth to the word pictures that you painted exquisitely from there. I don't think I'll ever be able to read yours or anyone else's blog in the same light again. I know there were times when some of the things you said suddenly made more of an impact. Not that your words didn't affect me before, they did. They do. "At War" enhanced your words to a different level. Does that make sense?

    Scott and David did a wonderful job on this. I hope that everyone has the chance to watch it so they understand better what 'Our Guys' do and endure while deployed. Granted not all of those in country will be doing the same type of things this film depicts. Yet, it brings those who do the actual engaging of the bad guys into sharper focus and removes the cataracts from the general public's perception to what has long been named "the Forgotten War in Afghanistan. And that's always a good thing.

  2. Will this film ever be available for viewing in Canada or on DVD? I would like to see it.

  3. Thanks for the review Blue. I agree with Ky Woman about your exquisitely painted word pictures during your embed as a PMT. I've been waiting for a long time to see this documentary.

    elengreywriter, Scott and David are planning a June release of AT WAR, I believe and it will be available in Canada.

    You can watch an interview with Scott on THE HOUR, with George Stromboulopulous at:

    It's a must see interview. Especially when Scott talks about sitting in the Tim Horton's in Kandahar when this Canadian tank drives up.....

    Thanks again Blue.

  4. membrain - Thx for the response and the video clip. I just finished watching it. Canadians love their Timmies! lol

  5. Hey all,

    I recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, and was replaced by some of the very same soldiers in Kesterson's At War.

    I've emailed Scott myself numerous times, as well as anyone else that I've managed to track down that might be close to this--and yet i have not been able to get a copy.

    Do you know where I might buy one? I know for a lot of the guys that I served o'er there with, it would mean a lot.

    Much thanks,

    -Cpl. D. Sileika
    2R22R, A Coy, 2 Pl
    Attached from the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders of Canada)


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