31 August 2016

Film Review: 'Citizen-Soldier' Documentary

Film review: "Citizen-Soldier" (2016)

Before I offer a few insights and impressions regarding the new documentary "Citizen-Soldier," a few caveats up front:

1. The movie explores a recurring theme in U.S. history: How citizens routinely pick up their muskets to become soldiers. This is a theme fraught with tensions, between state and federal powers, and between those who argue that the United States must at all times maintain a large, standing, "professional" military, to those who who argue for a smaller active-duty military, augmented by citizen reservists in times of need. This is a central engine that drives much of my own research and writing.

2. The documentary depicts a unit that replaced the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division shortly after my media embed with the latter in May-June 2011. For a 9-month period, Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.) was made responsible for all U.S./coalition missions in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province. Together with Iowa's 2-34th BCT and Vermont's 86th IBCT, this represents the only times a brigade-sized U.S. National Guard unit was assigned as a "battlespace owner" during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

3. There are other connections. Afghanistan was not the first time, for example, that the Red Bull and Thunderbird fought and trod the same ground. In World War II, both units were at the battles of Anzio, Solerno, Sicily, and Mount Cassino. To my particular delight, each unit boasts unique artistic pedigrees, too. The Red Bull shoulder patch was designed in 1918 by Marvin Cone, a citizen-soldier who would later become a well-regarded regional artist. Famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin was a Thunderbird.

I am, in short, a big fan of the 45th IBCT. I am probably genetically predisposed to like this movie.


I like this movie. A lot.

That's not to say, however, that it's easy to watch. Or even fun. It is, however, necessary.

Released earlier this week on DVD and Blu-ray, the documentary "Citizen-Soldier" accurately captures the trials of people just like you and your neighbors—police officers, marketing directors, X-ray technicians—who are routine trained and transformed into soldiers. With this deployment, they tasked with fighting waves of unseen enemies, while traversing unforgivingly brutal terrain. Along the way, they adapt, improvise, and overcome.

"[O]ne thing the Guard is able to do very effectively," says Sgt. Jared Colson, who is a corrections officer on the civilian side. "We're able to look at things practically, and not just according to a manual."

Members of Oklahoma's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment (1-179th Inf.), deployed to Combat Outpost ("COP") Najil in Laghman Province. Through footage shot by Oklahoma and attached combat camera soldiers, as well as other sources, "Citizen-Soldier" tells the story of a few platoons, follows them through various dismounted and mounted patrols, as well as an air-assault—Operation Brass Monkey, into the Saygal Valley. There are laughs, and there are tears.

An important note: Not everyone introduced at the beginning of the film survives the deployment. It does need to be said, however, that the violence is edited tastefully, and the reverence and respect Oklahoma has for its fallen is apparent throughout the journey home. These are sights that may be unfamiliar to active-duty communities: Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts and flag-bearers. Highways lined with Guardsmen and women, rendering final salutes. Citizen-soldiers have their own traditions, their own customs.

The "Citizen-Soldier" project was managed by the directors of "The Hornet's Nest" (2014), which told stories of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan through the eyes of an embedded civilian reporter. The Oklahoma documentary, however, is framed by two elements: First are scenes of present-day Thunderbird soldiers taking part in a live-fire training exercise, which provides a thematic connection to the National Guard's "Minute Man" history and culture.

Toward the end of the exercise, and at the end of the film, Command Sgt. Major of the Army National Guard Brunk W. Conley addresses a group of Oklahoma soldiers. "Think about 1775 […]," he says. "'The British are coming, the British are coming.' And blacksmiths, and inn-keepers drop their hammers, drop their plates and towels and bedding. They drop what their doing. And they run to the greens at Lexington and Concord […]"

"We've been doing this stuff since 1636 […]" Conley tells the troops. "We need you […] to keep the title of 'citizen-soldier.' There is something noble, something honorable, something romantic about that term."

The second framing device is an off-duty gab session among former platoon mates. A casual conversation alongside a river creates a space for reflection. There, the soldiers joke, for example, that their mobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss.—a relatively flat place located near the Gulf of Mexico—was exactly like Afghanistan, except for maybe the all the mountains.

As Colson says earlier in the film, "Everywhere is up. Everywhere you walk is up." And the bad guys hold the high ground.

If you are an adult friend or family member of a U.S. National Guard or reservist who deployed to Afghanistan, you will want to see this film. If you are a veteran of Eastern Afghanistan, you might also enjoy the added bonus of seeing some of your old stomping grounds. (The usual trigger-warnings apply, however: While the film is rated "R" only for language, there is plenty of bang-bang and roadside boom here. The kind that might keep your mom up at nights. Depending on your own deployment history, maybe you, too.)

If you are a U.S. citizen and taxpayer, seeing this film should be a requirement. This is what you sent your neighbors to do, on your behalf: Leave their jobs, their friends, their families, the comforts and safety of home. Engage an enemy. Climb mountains. Search out bombs. Build a nation.

More important than what they did, however, "Citizen-Soldier" shows you who they are.

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