It’s an interesting paradox of our ongoing military intervention in Afghanistan that a war so firmly rooted in historical precedent should also be so groundbreaking. We chose to launch our initial response to the attacks of 9/11 in “the graveyard of empires,” an obvious mixing of the ancient and postmodern, with the bootprints of American soldiers laid over those of the Soviets, Mongols, and Greeks in a kind of palimpsest. But the Afghan battle space has also been the scene where so many revolutionary war technologies have been, if not first implemented, then at least fully developed. Drone warfare is probably the most obvious example. And America’s engagement in Afghanistan has also become our longest-running war to date, which is as much of a tragedy as it is a sign of the changing nature of war itself. It’s the place where war first began to break the spatio-temporal boundaries that have in the past separated combat from “peacetime.”
And now it’s the first war to get its own reality-TV show.
Taking Fire, whose first episode (of five) aired on the Discovery Channel on September 13, bills itself as “war as never seen before.” They mean “as never seen before by a home audience,” obviously. The show intimately follows a fire squad from the 101st Airborne Division during its 2010 deployment to the particularly dangerous Korangal Valley. The characters aren’t, of course, characters. They’re people. And since the 2010 segments of the show were filmed in Afghanistan by the soldiers themselves using a mix of GoPros and handheld cameras, the intimacy truly is raw. So raw, in fact, that you occasionally forget you’re watching a spectacle intended to make money for a media corporation.
The show flips between the 2010 footage and present-day shots of the soldiers ruminating on their experiences. There is stoicism and tears, fear and humor, all in equal proportion. As a combat veteran myself (two deployments to Iraq as an infantryman), I recognized so much in the footage: the young faces, trying on gallows humor like a protective mask. The acquiescence to the complete loss of privacy as you live cheek-to-jowl with people who are both strangers and brothers. Awe at the emotional maturity of your leaders. Shock at the realization that none of this is a dream, that people are actually trying to kill you.
The show is visceral and intimate. But I feel ambivalent about that, in the technical sense of the word. How much of the context necessary for an audience to understand the granular experiences of combat is lost in the extreme close-up?
Zoom out a bit to take in the middle distance and you realize that this is just a reality-TV show. Along a side bar, there are advertisements for another show on the same channel, Naked and Afraid, which is a show that asks people to survive in the wilderness while nude. The Discovery Channel is a leader in the genre of reality TV, and while there is surely some redeeming value in shows like Fat N’ Furious, Moonshiners, and Deadliest Catch, airing footage of Americans in combat—occasionally dying—alongside those other shows seems glib, to put it lightly. If this is the proper receptacle for American war experiences, then it’s a chilling reminder of the weight the war actually has in the minds of a largely detached public.
As much as the show avoids the bigger picture, clues are casually dropped that hint at the existence of a bigger picture, a far-distance perspective that lurks just outside the frame of your television screen. At one point in the first episode, Sgt. Kyle Petry says, “It’s usually your third [deployment] that you get messed up.” His ominous aside is used as a dramatic device by the editors of the show to foreshadow a deadly IED attack, but it obviously portends much more than that. Petry had deployed twice to Iraq before coming to Afghanistan, and a sense of dread permeates this deployment.
But the rookies feel it too. And I felt it on my first deployment to Baghdad in ’06–’07. I felt it again during my second deployment to the Diyala Province in ’08, before and after the Bradley I was gunning in was blown up by two Soviet-era landmines stacked on top of one another. The feeling isn’t a mystical notion. It’s simply the miasmic atmosphere one feels when risking his life for a cause that feels like an affront to common sense. During my second deployment, which was as rural as my first was urban, the operating logic went something like this: we continue to patrol these back-country roads in order to clear them of IED’s, which insurgents continue to emplace because we continue to patrol them.
Should we have been there? Should Sergeant Petry have deployed so many times? The show (which, to be fair, continues to air new episodes, so who knows what direction they might go in) doesn’t try to answer these questions. And without at least acknowledging them, how could it be anything more than fast-paced and consensual voyeurism?
Taking Fire has a literal value and an ironic value beyond its intended meaning. When it comes to presenting the public with faces of the soldiers who fight reckless wars on their behalf, I’ll take what I can get. But this was filmed in 2010—and the war continues, much unchanged since then. And the Discovery Channel trying to capture the amorphous and unending Global War on Terrorism in 45-minute segments serves only to underscore this pointless drift.
Sergeant Petry’s folksy line isn’t some bit of esoteric soldier wisdom. It’s just the odds.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.