A War was the Danish submission to the Oscars this year for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015. It lost out to a Hungarian movie set in a Holocaust concentration camp, but A War is well worth seeing, with or without awards. It’s in Danish, with large and clear English subtitles—you will have no problem following the action.
A War follows a company of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. You may be as incredulous as I was—Danes in Afghanistan? And as soldiers? It turns out, however, that the Danish government and elites were able to sell the war to Danes as a humanitarian effort, to assist Afghans in retrieving their country from the Taliban and help women gain rights. Around 2010 Denmark had about 750 troops in the war, one of the highest participation rates for any country based on national population, and Denmark’s casualty rate was exceeded only by Canada and Estonia. So the idea of a movie about Danish troops in Afghanistan is not as incongruous as I originally assumed.
Denmark ended its participation in the war in 2013, disillusioned and convinced that their soldiers were sent on a “wrong” and “impossible” mission of introducing democracy to Afghanistan. Even the Conservative foreign minister when Denmark entered the war has admitted that “of course it didn’t go like we had wished.”
This background may help explain the stark realism of A War and the intense emotional involvement of a movie so spare in its cinematographic depiction of war. No patriotic crusades here. We follow a company of Danish soldiers as they try to distinguish friends from foes, keep from being blown up by landmines (which kill an estimated 10 to 12 Afghans every day), cope with a member of the company being killed or maimed, and help the civilians they came to help. War is hell, and a war like this is also confusing as hell.
These war scenes are interspersed throughout the movie with home front scenes, as the unit commander’s wife copes with their three young children, and all the travails of bringing them up alone without the presence of the daddy they need. Again, no preaching is needed. You see it in the actions as they unfold.
The commander of the company makes a decision under heavy fire from the Taliban to save his troops, but civilians are also killed in the response he orders and he is sent home to Denmark to face trial for a war crime. We in the audience are placed in a dangerous moral dilemma ourselves. Having experienced the horror undergone by the troops and their commander in the heat and confusion of battle, our natural reaction is to side with the alleged war criminal and root for dismissal of the charges against him. But was he justified, and are we justified?
The courtroom drama is as intense in its own way as what we saw in Afghanistan. And with what we now know about Danes entering the war as a humanitarian gesture, the idea of their own troops killing the civilians they were sent there to protect is—well, unthinkable.
A War did have one serious limitation for me. When the commander comes home, everything is idyllic. Dad loves Mom, Mom loves Dad, Dad and Mom love the kids, the kids love Mom and Dad. If these family relationships were so Hallmark-perfect even before, as the film seems to indicate, why did Dad volunteer for service in Afghanistan to begin with? As his wife does taunt him toward the end of the movie, he has direct responsibility for three of his own young children, so why leave them to help children he doesn’t know? There are limits to humanitarianism, she seems to say. This is a question the film does not explore—perhaps because Danes are pondering that question collectively with regrets. And perhaps the answer is to avoid getting involved in the first place with wars that don’t directly involve your country.
That was not the mood in 2002, when America’s neocon governors were pressuring European politicians to join and create a “coalition.” After 14 years of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and with refugees now flooding into Europe as a result of America’s misadventures elsewhere in the Middle East, Europeans can be excused if they now decide to pay attention to their own interests above those of the American Empire.
A War is about the true nature of war itself, however, not politics, and it is uncommonly thought-provoking for a war movie. See it at risk of grave discomfort—and your moral edification.
David Franke was a founder of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early ’60s. He was a proud follower of Ron Paul in his antiwar presidential bids, a candidate who, he notes, had more followers from the military than all the other Republican candidates combined.