Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Legion of Brothers: The Story of the Green Berets in Afghanistan

In the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, Special Forces Team 595 became the first military unit to engage the enemy on horseback. Their heroic efforts have been immortalized with the America’s Response Monument in front of World Trade Center One. Fifteen years later, the Green Beret veterans reflect on their fateful service in Greg Barker’s Legion of Brothers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The 595 and the 574 were some of the first American boots on the ground. The 595 embedded with the North Alliance outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, while the 574 largely operated on their own in the south, before eventually coordinating with Hamid Karzai and his forces. Most Americans have forgotten—if they ever really knew—just how quickly and successfully this Special Forces vanguard completed their mission. Frankly, they had all but toppled the Taliban before any proper military chain of command arrived in-country. Then things started to get complicated.

Obviously, you cannot get bogged down in a country if you only have a few dozen military personnel deployed there. It is a different matter when you get up to the tens of thousands. The Green Berets were also effective diplomats who won the trust of their Afghan allies. They also had hard won local knowledge they could immediately apply to any tactical situation. Unfortunately, when the higher-ranking officers arrived, they started issuing dubious orders to justify their presence, which led to the horrific tragedy that dominates Legion’s third act. At least that is how Barker and the Special Forces veterans see it—and the deeply remorseful officer in question never really contradicts them. It is just painful to watch the haunted officer’s interview segments.

In many ways, Legion is an eye-opening documentary. Yet, should we really be surprised that decentralized decision-making yields better results than a rigid top-down command-and-control model? Now if Barker and CNN Films will apply these lessons to the economy, we might really start to get somewhere.

It is absolutely maddening to compare Afghanistan as the 595 and 574 left it, with the state of the country today. However, Barker and his subjects focus more on their own grief for fallen comrades. Throughout the film, Barker’s sympathies fall squarely behind the Green Berets, but he is not quite as scrupulously nonpartisan and agenda-less as Christian Tureaud, David Salzberg, and Alex Quade, whose films represent the gold standard of embedded documentaries. It seems safe to say Barker has issues with the way Afghanistan operations have been conducted during the subsequent fifteen years, which is fair enough.

Barker captures moments of soul-rending pain and healing catharsis, but the film never feels exploitative. Many of the Green Berets are quite brave in what they are willing to share, but courage is what they do. Recommended for its empathy and a trenchant analysis of what went right in Afghanistan and how it started to go wrong, Legion of Brothers opens this Friday (5/19) in New York, at the Cinema Village.