"My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it," director Danfung Dennis says of his new documentary, Hell and Back Again
Ashley Harris helps Sergeant Nathan Harris, her husband, in Hell and Back Again / Courtesy Docurama Films
"We are experts in the application of violence," a commander tells a line of soldiers before they deploy. The camera cuts to men sitting in the cabin of a helicopter anxiously checking their guns and, seconds later, to a young marine bellowing on the battlefield as order disperses into the shouting chaos of war. Shot literally from the hip, the first five minutes of the documentary Hell and Back Again take place outside a remote village in southern Afghanistan, where the audience is dropped into the scuffle of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines, landing behind enemy lines and launching into battle. After the firefight, the camera quietly centers on a marine watching a heavy body bag carried by.
It is this kind of empathetic and poignant construction that won filmmaker Danfung Dennis the Sundance Film Festival Cinematography and Grand Jury Prizes for the documentary. The fight scenes screen like Platoon -- but they actually happened. Having the weight of verisimilitude, Hell and Back Again also delves into the inglorious aftermath of war, exploring the pains and challenges that face the marines both in Afghanistan and back home. The film's well-composed sequences, which have drawn comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, flash from Dennis' time embedded with Echo Company in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to his time living with Sergeant Nathan Harris in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as the young veteran recovers from a severe hip wound.
Some of the most affecting scenes are off the battlefield. In North Carolina, Harris comes across as a boy with an unnerving attachment to guns, a youthful exuberance, and a faith in God and his country that is just beginning to be challenged. At home, Harris wears an Ed Hardy-style shirt with the bold text "Affliction," tottering on his walker and joy-riding in the electronic wheelchair cart at the local Walmart. He pulls his sweat pants down to show a realtor the jagged scar across his bottom as he limps with his young wife through a prospective house.
As Harris contemplates his future, struggling to come to terms with the length of his convalescence, the audience gets a rare glimpse into the sort of identity crisis that many veterans face upon returning home. From a slump on his couch after a physical therapy session, he says, "I wanted to be a roughneck, to spit tobacco, and to kill the enemy. I was a young cowboy." It's a hard sentiment to hear, and yet somehow easy to understand. He continues, "Being a grunt is over, and that's the only thing I want to be."
Hell and Back Again is already provoking conversation. During a Q&A after a screening in New York City, a woman wanted Dennis to renounce the soldiers' violence walked out when he wouldn't. Several veterans later stepped up to shake Dennis's hand. One of them thanked him, saying in a rough voice, "I never would have thought being in Iraq would have been the easy part. I don't think anyone wanted to kill civilians, but we were put over there to do our jobs. And I appreciate you portraying what we had to go through."
Nothing about the film is sugarcoated. In one jarring scene, an Afghan soldier cut in half by a mine disintegrates on camera as marines attempt to lift him into a body bag. In another, Harris threatens his own wife with a gun. Such scenes will be new to the average American viewer, even if they're not to the thousands of American veterans of Afghanistan.
Perhaps Harris himself describes the last ten years of war the best. In a haze of painkillers, still aching from the bullet wound that shattered his hip, he tells the camera, "It costs a lot."
Yet Dennis carefully avoids preaching, focusing instead on innocuous details, whether it's the glaring lights of the pharmacy where Harris' wife picks up his medications or the sand plumes from the Marines' footsteps as they sweep surveillance in the desert. Hell and Back Again may well be the closest to the war that many Americans ever get.
After a screening on the night of the tenth anniversary of the war, I met director Danfung Dennis. He was polished and his hair neatly combed -- not what you might expect from the director of such a gritty film. The entire documentary was shot with a hand-held Canon 5D Mark II, at f2.8, on a 24 to 70 mm zoom lens with a depth of field of mere inches, a remarkable technical feat.
How did you go from taking still images to film?
I worked for a number of years as a still photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan and even though my images were being published in magazines and newspapers, I felt like they weren't having any impact. People were numb to these images, and I was frustrated with the medium and decided to move into a different way to tell the story.
In July 2009, I knew of a very large operation that was happening. Four thousand Marines were being dropped behind enemy lines in the largest helicopter assault since Vietnam. I asked to go with the Echo Company because they were going the furthest behind enemy lines, to seize a key canal crossing. After we landed we were surrounded by insurgents. Extremely heavy fighting broke out, focused around this pile of rubble that became known as "Machine Gun Hill." This is what you see in the first scene [of the movie]. That first day a marine was killed and a dozen collapsed from heat exhaustion. Almost all of us had run out of water and it was 130 degrees. This was one of the most dire situations I'd been in. That's when Sergeant Harris passed me his last bottle of water and we first met.
I didn't know it was going to be a story about one marine or a story about coming home from war; it was just a natural progression. It wasn't until 6 months later, when the marines were stepping off the buses that I realized Nathan [Harris] wasn't there. I asked, "Where's Sergeant Harris?" and the guys said, "He was hit two weeks ago." So I called him up, just as he was leaving the hospital. He'd been medevac'd back to the U.S., he'd had half a dozen surgeries, he was in extreme pain, and feeling very guilty for leaving his men behind.
He invited me back home to his hometown in North Carolina and introduced me to his wife, his friends, his family, as "this guy who was over there with me." And that carried a lot of weight. Instantly, I was accepted into this very rural Baptist community, and I essentially lived with him and Ashley during his recovery and his transition between this world of life and death, blood and dust, and this world where it feels like everyone's at the shopping mall. The story became much more about this psychological personal struggle and what it's like to transition. I knew I had that structure and so worked very closely to build those two worlds together.
Have you had people interested in what your political message might be?
This film is completely non-political. I didn't have a message, left or right. I wanted to bring this tradition from photojournalism where you simply let what happens in front of the lens unfold. My job is to witness and show others in the most honest and truthful way. I'd say I have the same number of people who see this film that are very pro-military and think this is pro-military, and others who think it is an anti-war film. I think we achieved something by creating something that is almost a Rorschach ink test, where you see what you want to see. My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it.
What was the response from the military?
I'll start with Nathan's response -- he didn't see any footage during the process, he really had to trust me to tell the story. It wasn't until the film was finished that Ashley, Nathan and I sat together in a theater and watched it. It was very emotional, very difficult for them to see. At the end when the lights came up, they looked at each other and said, "It was perfect." I've had very strong responses from many veterans and servicemen who see it. While it's the story of just one marine, they identify with it. They finally have a way to convey something that's very difficult to communicate. These experiences are extremely difficult to talk about; they're so traumatic. So I've gotten a lot of thanks for trying to tell their story.
To watch what you saw and recognize you're getting so close to the violence was impressive. What was shooting it like?
I built a custom camera system. I knew I'd be in very difficult conditions. I wanted to bring the power of the still image that I had been trained to convey, so I used a Canon 5 D Mark II. It's a stills camera that shoots very high quality HD video. But it has tremendous downsides. It was never designed to shoot film. It would overheat after a couple minutes of filming, and so I'd just have to shut down and wait for it to cool down before I could shoot again. I attached mounts and microphones, and put all of that onto a steady-cam-like device with weights on it, balanced in such a way that I could be running, and the marines could be running, and [I'd] still get steady tracking shots. I wanted to borrow from the language of cinema, combined with the power of photojournalism and photo-documentary film making. When I came home, I had about 100 hours of footage.
How's Sergeant Harris doing now?
We're still in very close touch. He's still an active duty Marine. He's in the Wounded Warriors Regiment. He's still going through a lot of physical therapy. He's not off his medication. A lot of them are no longer having the same impact as his tolerance has [been] raised. He still has quite a lot of pain. It is a pressing problem -- you come back with these horrific injuries. The body armor and the medical systems in the field have gotten so good that many of these men are coming back with injuries we've never seen before -- both physical and psychological, especially in repeated deployments. So they do need these meds, but they're the equivalent of heroin and morphine in their synthetic forms -- the [veterans] need the [drugs], but they're extremely addictive. His doctor says he's too young to be addicted to opiates. It's an entirely different struggle that comes with that form of injury.
Courtesy Docurama Films
He just recently started psychological counseling and he's still together with Ashley. She's an amazing woman, so patient, always there for him, but she's been through a lot. She's really tired. He's probably going to retire with medical benefits. But he's struggling with his identity. He was a shepherd of men; he had this purpose, a mission. He came back home badly wounded and he realizes he can never do what he did before. He's not quite sure what could fill that same sense of meaning.
By using non-documentary, feature-film techniques, were you ever worried you might lose the reality of the experience?
When I first started showing people footage without much context, almost the first thing they would ask is, "Is this real?" because they hadn't seen anything like this before. I was trying to use a lot of photography techniques: shallow depth of field, shooting in low light, and composition, making something aesthetically powerful. There are times when people almost forget this is a documentary so when it hits them -- "This is real" -- it hits them that much harder.
You can have your politics, but [veterans] should get the support they need when they get back. One of my hopes for this film is that it starts discussion about the war. That was one of the most disturbing things when I got back -- no one talked about it. We had just come back from this extremely traumatic, violent world, and back here it was something distant, far away. People thought of it as an idea, it was maybe two minutes on the news once in a while, and it was easy to think of it as an abstraction -- it wasn't real. That was very disturbing to me, it was hard to reconcile. It was very disorienting to come back and not be able to communicate.
To many white Trump voters, the problem wasn’t her economic stance, but the larger vision—a multi-ethnic social democracy—that it was a part of.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the November election for many liberals is that Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class.
In the days after her shocking loss, Democrats complained that Clinton had no jobs agenda. A widely shared essay in The Nationblamed Clinton's "neoliberalism" for abandoning the voters who swung the election. “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders said on CBS This Morning, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
But here is the troubling reality for civically minded liberals looking to justify their preferred strategies: Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.
Trump's election has reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America—including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups.
When Stephen Bannon called his website, Breitbart, the “platform for the alt-right” this summer, he was referring to a movement that promotes white nationalism and argues that the strength of the United States is tied to its ethnic European roots. Its members mostly stick to trolling online, but much of what they do isn’t original or new: Their taunts often involve vicious anti-Semitism. They make it clear that Jews are not included in their vision of a perfect, white, ethno-state.
On the opposite side of American politics, many progressive groups are preparing to mount a rebellion against Donald Trump. They see solidarity among racial minorities as their goal, and largely blame Trump’s election on racism and white supremacy. Three-quarters of American Jews voted against Trump, and many support this progressive vision. Some members of these groups, though, have singled out particular Jews for their collusion with oppressive power—criticisms which range from inflammatory condemnations of Israel to full-on conspiracies about global Jewish media and banking cabals.
Confronting racism can be crucial, even when it’s not persuasive.
In the brushfire wars since Donald Trump won the presidency, skirmishes over how to speak to his coalition of voters have consumed liberals. Leading the vanguard in those conversations is a collection of writers and thinkers of otherwise divergent views, united by the painful process of reexamining identity politics, social norms, and—most urgently—how to address racism in an election clearly influenced by it. Though earnest and perhaps necessary, their emphasis on the civil persuasion of denizens of "middle America" effectively coddles white people. It mistakes civility for the only suitable tool of discourse, and persuasion as its only end.
This exploration of how to best win over white Americans to the liberal project is exemplified by reactions to Hillary Clinton’s placing many of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” The debate about whether to classify these voters as racist or bigoted for supporting a candidate who constantly evinced views and policies many believe to be bigoted is still raging. As Dara Lind at Vox expertly notes, Clinton’s comments themselves were inartful precisely because they seemed focused solely on “overt” manifestations of racism, like Klan hoods and slurs. That focus ignores the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy can function as systems of oppression, tends to forgive the more refined and subtle racism of elites, and may ultimately lead to a definition of racism in which no one is actually racist and yet discrimination remains ubiquitous.
What it means, what the law says, and what comes next
Updated on December 5 at 12:50 p.m. ET
Surely some of the protesters believed they would prevail, but among the experts—the law professors, financial analysts, and industry journalists who pride themselves on knowing the ins and outs of federal rules—almost no one expected it. The so-called experts were getting ready to shake their heads and sigh, to lament that once again a federal agency had failed to respond to a historic protest and had failed to protect the most vulnerable.
And then the incredible happened.
On Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers legally blocked the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, denying it a needed easement to drill beneath the Missouri River.
The corps will now investigate and write an environmental-impact statement, a roughly two-year process that will assess the risks of building a pipeline so close to the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. It will specifically examine whether the pipeline should be moved or cancelled altogether.
In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed.
When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.
And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.
Without any promising answer to the problem of fake news, outlandish false claims like a pedophilia ring running out of D.C. restaurant will continue to grow.
After weeks of debate about the theoretical and abstract dangers of fake news, there’s finally a concrete incident to discuss. On Sunday, a North Carolina man walked into Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in an affluent corner of Northwest D.C. wielding an assault rifle, which he fired at least once.
The man, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, told police he intended to “self-investigate” a bogus story alleging that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophilia ring out of the restaurant. The story, dubbed, deplorably, “Pizzagate” has spread around certain fake news circles, culminating in Welch’s expedition to Comet on Sunday.
So much of the discussion about “fake news” has involved vague questions about, for example, whether Russian-backed propaganda could have been a factor in Donald Trump’s victory. A big Washington Post report suggested that Russia had played a role in spreading lots of fake news; Adrian Chen, among others, convincingly argued that one major basis for that report was extremely fraught. There’s a broader question of the extent to which a foreign power could influence the election, and the extent to which that would really be anything new. Jack Shafer suggests not.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
The High Court will hear two cases related to a crucial issue––how states draw their legislative districts.
On March 26, 1962, Justice Felix Frankfurter read a thunderous dissent from the Supreme Court bench. The case, Baker v. Carr, challenged a Tennessee state system of legislative districts that consciously awarded rural districts greater political power than urban districts of the same population. The Court’s decision was technical—it held only that a lower federal court had the authority to hear the urban voters’ challenge to districting that valued their votes far less than those of rural voters. That lower court had dismissed the case as posing a “political question,” meaning that it was for elected officials, not judges, to resolve.
The Supreme Court majority, however, held that the case arose under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause—and that it thus posed the same kind of legal, not political, question as a challenge to any other unequal state policy. Federal courts could and did decide such cases all the time, and this one should be no exception.
Open-web advocates are preparing for a renewed policy war as net neutrality’s future remains uncertain.
Talking about net neutrality is so boring, the comedian John Oliver once quipped, that he would “rather listen to a pair of Dockers tell me about the weird dream it had” than delve into the topic.
So it’s unsurprising that Donald Trump—an entertainer with a flair for the dramatic and little interest in wonky details—has stayed away from the issue almost entirely.
If you want to captivate a nation, discussing thorny telecommunications policy is generally a terrible way to do it. (For those who have managed to avoid reading up on net neutrality thus far, the term refers to open-web principles aimed at curbing practices that give certain companies competitive advantages in how people access the internet. The FCC formally established rules last year that allow the agency to regulate broadband the way it oversees other public utilities. Those rules ban internet service providers from throttling—or slowing—connections to certain content online, and prohibit providers from offering faster connections to corporations that can afford to pay for premium web services. The rules also ban zero-rating—in which an internet service provider subsidizes a consumer’s cost of going online but often does so in exchange for a competitive advantage.)
Retired officers like James Mattis who are nominated for civilian posts should be judged on their merits—not disqualified on the basis of their past service.
President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to nominate retired Marine General James Mattis as his secretary of defense has drawn criticism from those who fear that installing a retired officer in the Pentagon would jeopardize civilian control of the military. Those critics are mistaken. Previous service in uniform shouldn’t disqualify nominees, and, as the Iraq war demonstrated, civilians with no military experience are perfectly capable of making catastrophic mistakes themselves.
It is a mystery how a phrase that is both as ungrammatical and incorrect as “civilian control of the military” has become so widely accepted. First the grammar—“military” is an adjective, not a noun. The institution is the “armed forces.” When used correctly, the adjective raises real issues—“the military mind,” or “the military-industrial complex,” for example. Used in sloppy fashion as a noun, the word evokes a somewhat sinister blob of an institution, attitude, culture, and pressure group.