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Posted on Sep 10, 2014 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Hornet’s Nest – A Documentary of the War in Afghanistan

The Hornet’s Nest – A Documentary of the War in Afghanistan

By Jay Wertz

Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the cowardly terrorist attack of September 11, 2011, an event now forever immortalized as 9-11.  American Heroes Channel has chosen this significant day for the world television premiere of The Hornet’s Nest, a documentary that takes the audience on a gritty examination of portions of the war in Afghanistan that resulted from 9-11.  This 90-minute film received critical acclaim during a limited release in theaters earlier this year.  The program premieres at 9PM Eastern/Pacific, 8 PM Central on AHC, formerly Military Channel.

This is really two stories in one film, woven together by the presence and narration of veteran Emmy and Peabody award-winning television war correspondent Mike Boettcher.  In the first story Michael, concerned that while covering conflicts around the world he had missed too much of his son’s life as the boy was growing up, takes his grown son Carlos with him as he embeds with US military units in Afghanistan.  The two leave their Oklahoma home for a one-year assignment in 2008-09.  Carlos, who was not a professional photojournalist before the father-son adventure, quickly learns how to shoot video images and care for himself and the equipment as he and Michael are immediately faced with real-time assignments.

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Early in the documentary the pair head out with a task force of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division that is sent to clear a portion of one of the two main supply roads in Kunar Province.  The first impression given by the images and sounds of the Boettcher team is of the barren, undeveloped Afghanistan landscape.  Foreboding in its stark, primitive texture, the concern any stranger has for being there is doubled with the challenge of dealing with the unseen dangers lurking all about.  The second impression is how the soldiers of the 101st approach their tasks.  There is no complacency, but there is no panic either in the dangerous work they face on, no doubt, an almost daily basis.

Afghan children, from 'The Hornet's Nest'

Afghan children, ‘The Hornet’s Nest’

The third impression is how the Americans interact with the local Afghan population.  The people seem bewildered most of the time, confronted as they probably have been over a number of years with combatants of various forces in the war-torn area.  The Americans, through their interpreter, express no impatience but are firm in taking care of potential threats to the soldiers.  They find children to be the most reliable sources of useful information.  So many ordinary things discovered around these small villages and isolated homes may be improvised household implements or they may be improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

These IEDs have accounted for 90% of US casualties in the long conflict, according to the program.  The IED is the most popular weapon for individuals and small terrorist cells that make up the bulk of combatants fighting for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s warlords and radical leaders.  One scene depicts a lone soldier scanning a dusty road with a magnetic mine sweeper.  When asked by the journalists why he says he “loves” the dangerous job his reply begins a familiar theme of this program, “Right now my job is to protect these guys [his unit], make sure they don’t get hurt.”  The IED is soon discovered and a robot blows it up.

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From ‘The Hornet’s Nest’

Nearly all of the material for the first part of this documentary is shot by cameras of the Boettchers.  Early on in documentary filmmaking this technique was called cinema verité.  This technique has become more common with the advent of digital hand-held cameras and reality television, but The Hornet’s Nest harks back to the earliest form of cinema verité in that the filmmakers become an integral part of the story. When Michael and Carlos turn their cameras on themselves or each other it is not a mere collection of “selfies”; they become characters in the story rather than passive observers of the action.  The first time the unit with which they are traveling is pinned down by distant unseen fire Michael conducts a short frantic search for his son who had become separated from him for the first time.  It’s all recorded in real time, including his relief-laced scolding of his son when he finally finds him unharmed.

Another telling sequence in the program is one in which soldiers and medical personnel struggle to save a boy who was a bystander hurt in a suicide bombing attack on an American convoy.  The activity, from rescuing him in the field, through medivac to a military field hospital, surgery and recovery shows the real concern the GIs have for his well-being and the satisfaction they have in seeing his recovery.  The people in these remote areas may not understand why Americans are there helping, many times leading, the way for their own Afghan National Army (ANA) forces, but they see with their own eyes when the US soldiers do something positive for them and their communities.  These small victories may seldom work their way into the American psyche in this confusing war, but they are very important to the US personnel in country.

'The Hornet's Nest'

From ‘The Hornet’s Nest’

From the tedious but necessary road clearing, the Boettchers move on to join the 8th Regiment, US Marines, as they venture into the region which has racked up the most casualties in Afghanistan, Helmand Province.  Here, Michael and Carlos hump along with Marines on a long, dangerous trek into the stark Helmand River Valley as they move to establish a forward presence at a Taliban base camp.  Though the mud buildings of the camp seem abandoned they must be thoroughly checked, and much war material and contraband are discovered.  The hot, grueling march pulls Michael down and he is forced to wait at the camp, apprehensive as a worried father would be, while Carlos treks further on with the advance team.  The Marines in the vanguard get into some heavy firefights, but return safely and Carlos captures some great images as his photojournalist experience rises exponentially.  What is recorded is another small part of a war in which “boots on the ground,” as one commander points out, are the only truly effective weapon.

The second part of the documentary is after Carlos’ time is up and Michael bids him farewell, thankful that the father-son bonding which had become so successful did not end in tragedy.  Michael Boettcher in a later assignment joins the 101st Airborne, 327th Infantry on a particularly dangerous assignment, an attempt to drive into the headquarters compound of an especially menacing Al-Qaeda and Taliban leader named QZR. On a large diorama the mission commander explains the importance of the task to be accomplished, and then the troops head out into the field.  Boettcher accompanies a unit in which the platoon commander had already been seriously wounded in a previous mission but has returned to lead his men again in this mission, Operation Strong Eagle III.

Landing zone, 'The Hornet's Nest'

Landing zone, from ‘The Hornet’s Nest’

Though the compound is taken somewhat easily, the soldiers soon find themselves in the Hornet’s Nest—a moniker that has been used in previous military conflicts to describe a place fighting men don’t want to be in.  The rough and rocky terrain is home to dozens of nooks and crannies where an unseen enemy fires on the holed-up 101st soldiers at will.  Boettcher documents the confusing, fragmented and frightening days the platoon spends shaking out the resistance while sustaining serious casualties.  A brief respite finds soldiers doing and saying humorous things to break the tension and show the strong camaraderie between them.  When they are finally pulled out, having successfully taken down the warlord’s command center, the victory is tinged with sadness over comrades who didn’t make it out alive.

For all the powerful combat footage, crisp storytelling and survival experience the Boettchers contribute to the program, the last act before the epilogue presents perhaps the most emotionally powerful sequence of the documentary.  The six soldiers of the platoon Boettcher embedded with who were lost during the Hornet’s Nest action are given a grand farewell, with everyone from their closest buddies to their senior commanding officer overwhelmed in the ceremony and sadness.  The spontaneous outpouring and poignant remarks embody the theme of how much these Americans will do for their families and country while, most of all, doing whatever they can for each other.

There have been a number of explorations on television and in theaters recently about the real-time war in Iraq and the longest military conflict in American history, the war in Afghanistan.  Even though Americans are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by December 2014, the war between the government’s ANA and the Al-Qaeda and Taliban militias is likely to continue.  New documentaries will probably be made examining the horror and senselessness this country had endured for so long.  In the best of them, like The Hornet’s Nest, filmmakers will step aside and allow the story to tell itself in this stark reality, leaving audiences challenged by the particulars of these modern tragedies that never seem to end.

View a trailer for The Hornet’s Nest.

About the Author
Jay Wertz is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com. He is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He authored The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publications include the War Stories WWII series published by Weider History Publications.

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