Whilst embedded as a journalist in Afghanistan, John D McHugh was shot in the chest. From that moment on he wanted to show what life is really like for US troops there. From managing a dysfunctional Afghan army, to countering sophisticated Taliban attacks, to disposing of their own excrement - this intimate documentary brings together a series of films, which have come to define the Afghan conflict.
‘I will admit I was hooked on the story in Afghanistan’ recalls John. After he was shot in the chest during an embed, John was determined to film the dust-off team who saved his life. He discovered that ‘80% of the people they rescue are Afghans’. Even so, when an American soldier is wounded, we may not know about it. ‘If the rules in Iraq are applied to Afghanistan you may not see this again’ John says over a photo of a bleeding and confused US troop, ‘is it so bad to see a wounded soldier?’
‘You’re the first reporter I’ve seen here in 8 months,’ says Staff Sergeant O Brien, in a rare break from the Taliban’s incessant fire. John has moved on to a remote combat outpost, where the reality of the Taliban gaining ground is heavily felt. ‘We’ve got the most sophisticated equipment in the world,’ O Brien says, frustrated, ‘but we can’t pick up on one guy shooting at us from 800 metres away’. His men have spent 9 months under fire and complain that ‘a lot of the reports you see are out of the big bases, where it’s secure and there’s not a lot of fighting.’
For the troops on these ‘secure’ bases there’s a more psychological battle to wage. John finds them roaming dusty villages, haunted by Taliban ghosts. ‘When the enemy is hiding in the shadows you have a lot of time for thinking’ says Captain Workmen ‘people don’t think about what it means to kill’. Back at the outpost, Sergeant O’Brian and his men are training the Afghan army. ‘It’s like having 26 kids’ he says. Whilst an Afghan General himself admits ‘these men are only here because they’ve been driven out of their villages'. Smoking hashish and struggling with basic soldier skills, these men have no chance against a well trained and highly motivated enemy.
When John is invited into a Taliban compound he sees this advantage for himself. 'This is the Taliban way' says the commander, 'when one is killed another comes in'. With Kabul under fire from both government and Taliban rockets, poverty and disillusionment has turned many Afghans into Taliban recruits, ‘Jihad is the only way for us, Jihad’ declares one young recruit. But the majority of ordinary Afghans are caught in the middle, under constant pressure from the Taliban and the US troops. ‘Somebody in your village knows what’s going on’, accuses one soldier ‘you have to decide what side you’re on’. Having risked it all for this fearless, fascinating portrait, John goes a long way to answering the questions that still surround the Afghan war.