Like every soldier who ever went to war, Janus Metz has, technically, tried to die. Though they only shoot with a camera, embedded filmmakers go through the same rites of passage as ordinary Danish soldiers when the time comes to fasten their chinstraps and grab their guns. Like the rest of the regiment, Metz wrote a farewell letter to his girlfriend and family, basically saying "I'm dead now, these are my last words", a combination of a thank-you note to those you remember and miss and to those who remember and miss you back, and last will and testament with practical instructions about funeral arrangements, who will inherit the car and, in Metz' case, what would happen with his film.
I had to say goodbye to my family and my girlfriend, too, basically without knowing if I would ever come back again.
Luckily, the filmmaker made it back in one piece and completed the first Danish documentary ever to really take the audience into the field and look the Taliban in the eye. Literally.
In a key scene, a platoon of Danish soldiers from sorely tried Team 7 survives a close call and kills a group of Taliban fighters. That's war. Someone has to die. It's them or the Danes. This time, ten holy warriors would be needing their farewell notes.
That could just as well have happened to a Danish soldier. The way it sometimes does. And that's why the Danish camp is triumphant, like a dressing room after a big football victory. High fives, loud music, badass attitudes. Pure euphoria. "Release," Metz calls it.
A misunderstood tribe
When he started the film, the 35-year-old filmmaker hadn't really thought through that doing a film from the front lines naturally meant that he, too, would have to learn how to "snake run" and "pancake" or that he would eventually find himself lying in a muddy ditch, being all too familiar with the sound of whizzing bullets.
"Armadillo" is the name of a Danish outpost in Helmand Province, where the filmmaker clearly turned on his camera at crucial moments. He's there during violent combat action. He's there when Mini says goodbye to his deeply concerned parents at their nice exurban home before leaving on his first tour of duty. And he's there when the shit-faced cadets are having a going-away party and the stripper suddenly tries to talk the gung-ho boys into staying in Denmark and saving themselves.
"The film was possible because I'm willing to be there on the same terms as the soldiers, saying, ‘I'm doing this with you and I'll try my best to tell your story.' I made it clear to them that this wasn't an ad campaign but an attempt to depict the war the way it really is. For good and ill. A nuanced tale, not some slapdash, highly spun story of the kind that often misrepresents soldiers. They feel a bit like a misunderstood tribe," Metz says, cocking an eyebrow.
"The soldiers often feel that a lot of people are too quick to pass judgment on the war. It's romanticised or over-simplified. The soldiers were really upset at a headline in a Danish tabloid newspaper that went, ‘Another Life Wasted in Afghanistan'. They find that to be too easy. The media isn't adequately covering what they are really trying to accomplish over there," he says.
A soldier's fall from grace
Metz and his cameraman Lars Skree did meet some scepticism. One soldier called them "war tourists" and told the well-meaning filmmakers to go home.
"Those we didn't know through our research were unsure of our motives and worried about exposing themselves," Metz says. "The turning point comes the first time they go into combat. And get their release. Everything had seemed a bit distant to the soldiers until they defeated the enemy at close range. That's the day they are all still talking about. The day the distant war came close for real, along with fear and cynicism."
Killing for peace triggers all sorts of conflicting emotions in a soldier. Metz mentions a jumble of fear, callousness, euphoria, pride and all the medals awarded after bloody skirmishes.
"You have to understand that the euphoria comes from the mental pressure and the psychological development the soldiers are undergoing. Of course, it's a huge release to strike back and defeat the enemy when all the time they are firing at you. These are people who have seen combat 10 or 20 times. Suddenly, the enemy is lying right there, close up, and they're dead. That's a release," he stresses.
While most people have seen scenes like this in American war movies, they obviously make a much bigger impression in real life.
"War is about killing," Metz says. "It's as simple as that. Let’s face it. If a film does its job well, it will add nuances to the issues and the characters to a degree that makes you understand why the soldiers act like that. You don't have to sympathise with them, but at least you understand the mechanism that makes them act the way they do," he says.
"As a nation, we're pretty innocent when it comes to war narratives, and so this film is a kind of fall from grace. We're innocent in the sense that we're not used to dealing with what it means to send people to war. We haven't really seen the pictures yet, because the Danish media haven't been allowed to photograph the real war," he says.
Many in the military are naturally concerned about the effect that real-war images would have on people at home in their living rooms. "Some of the images we get to show in "Armadillo" will seem new and shocking to a lot of Danes. But it's important to take a position and accept co-responsibility when we send our soldiers to war with daily combat, where not only soldiers are wounded and killed but civilians as well."
We're not doing Kelly's Heroes
The director is referring to an incident where an Afghan girl is killed by Danish mortar fire. In military jargon, that's collateral damage. There's nothing more tragic than civilians, especially innocent children, being killed by bombs, but it happens in all wars and from all sides. Including from the Danish forces.
However, while Americans are confronting their own brutality in films like "Battle for Haditha", the TV series "Over There" and the mini series "Generation Kill", tough features and raw documentaries about Danes at war have yet to appear. The reason is the inherent complexity of war, Metz says.
"War is breakdown, but at the same time it's exactly where an attempt is made to most stringently uphold certain international laws. And still things go wrong. For me, it's a question of showing life the way it is and not covering it up so much that it becomes just words we can't relate to. After all, we're not doing 'Kelly's Heroes' here," he smiles.
"For me, the soldier as a stereotype is split in two. At one pole, we have the hero. On the other side, there's the killer – one who has been made cynical by the system. Some prefer to hold up the heroic image. That tends to be when we're burying our dead. Others go for the killer. That's what we talk about every time we kill civilians. The soldier's work is about killing to make peace. That paradox and that split interest me. A little girl who dies as a consequence of Danish mortar blasts is, sadly, an unavoidable part of the war.
Metz points out a long line of filmic references. There are the classic, disillusioned antiwar films, like "Apocalypse Now", "The Deer Hunter", "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket", which are about desensitisation, alienation and a fall from grace. He also mentions "Jarhead", a more ironic portrayal of the modern soldier's total lack of release during the first Gulf War where laser-guided missiles took care of the enemy. All these films influenced Metz' work on "Armadillo".
"They are all about lost innocence, and on many levels they are religious films. That narrative exists in our war, too. Our experience may be that we're in Afghanistan to help. To do good. That narrative provides some meaning a good deal of the way, but it's also a narrative that struggles with its own legitimacy. For what do the Afghans want? Does it even make sense to speak of the Afghans as one people? Every time someone is killed, especially civilians, those questions pop up and come to a head."
The checkout line
Metz gladly admits that he, too, felt the intensity, the adrenaline rush and the release when the Danish soldiers struck back and got the Taliban.
"I used my own feelings as a tool to understand how the soldiers are doing. I had to be embedded do get to do the work, but I made a virtue of necessity and used the fact that I was going through some of the same emotional stages as the soldiers. I had to say goodbye to my family and my girlfriend, too, basically without knowing if I would ever come back again."
Metz throws in that the tagline of Oscar-winner "The Hurt Locker" is "War is a drug". "That film is a really good portrait of the dependence that can emerge when you get out where you are at the centre of everything and everything is thrown back at you. That's enormously powerful. Sure, the soldiers in 'The Hurt Locker' get a kick out of it, too, but they also have to shut off their humanity and that desensitises them. As an embedded filmmaker, I had to juggle a difficult dual role. I couldn't shut off when things got rough. I had to maintain my openness to be able to record and report."
At the same time, Metz experienced a new kind of clarity in Afghanistan. "Everything becomes so loaded with meaning. Whether it's the way you're drinking coffee with your buddy in the field or something an officer says or the chaplain's speech. It comes from being in such a basic situation. It's about basic needs and ultimate choices. What does it mean to do the right thing? What does it mean to be a real man? What does it mean to fight for what you believe in? When you get down to those basic pillars of our humanity, you experience the world as abysmally big. As one soldier put it, 'Nothing could be more boring than waiting in the checkout line at the local supermarket back home'."
"Also, there's an interesting intensity about everyone being afraid of losing you and you being afraid of losing them. That you're risking your life. Every phone call suddenly becomes important."
"And, no, I'm not going back," Metz says. That would mean writing a new farewell letter. Very few people want to die. Or even act like they do.
This article is an abbreviated version of the original Danish article published in the film magazine Ekko, #48, 2010.