Armadillo, the prize-winning Danish documentary on a group of soldiers during their first tour of Afghanistan, is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story, albeit one that aims to work on multiple levels. On one level, we have the story of soldiers changing as they are increasingly drawn into warfare during six months on the frontline, while on the other, a subtler story regarding the psychological effects of watching hostilities unfolds without a discernible moral standpoint. From the altruistic desire to help the locals to an instinctive urge to eliminate as many Taliban as possible, director Janus Metz explores the addictive nature of fighting and why so many of the soldiers opt to return to active duty despite injury and trauma.
Like so many other war narratives, Armadillo starts at the airport with the emotional departure of the soldiers, the hand-held camera and gritty footage an instant clue to a desired sense of authenticity. On site at Armadillo, the cameraman becomes one of the boys as we are hurtled through fields, shot at, and ultimately in the same ditch as the Taliban soldiers executed after a particularly brutal battle, rummaging around blown up bodies in order to retrieve whatever weapons can be found.
We are, then, in the same territory as in The Hurt Locker, a film that markedly aims to ‘explain’ the addictive nature of soldiering in psychological terms, the addictive nature, in other words, of murdering within the context of an institutionalised force. Our sense of the purpose of the documentary itself is shaped by its ability to relatively quickly establish this context, chiefly though the juxtaposition between those soldiers who embrace the necessity to kill with uncomfortable relish and those whose traumatised and glazed expressions post-battle indicate darker and less comprehensible forces are at hand.
Situated on the Helmand frontline, Camp Armadillo becomes, like so many cinematic outposts of soldiering, a curious mixture of infantilised male camaraderie - complete with computer games and the shared viewing of pornography - and rather hollow machismo, as the increasing awareness of the futility of war is repressed. Metz takes the time to show us how emotional attachments are played out on the micro-level of male bonding and in terms of a vaguely defined patriotism. One of the most notable aspects of Armadillo, and the Scandinavian psyche may be partly responsible for this, is the way in which rank seems rather perfunctory, the hierarchy in place based more on experience and age. It is all the more noticeable then that the parameters of the battle in ethical and even practical terms seem oddly makeshift, as though the people in charge were themselves slightly puzzled over what they are doing there. Excursions into enemy territory are explained as forays designed to signal that the coalition has the upper hand, and yet the sense of Armadillo being under siege becomes more palpable as we realise that the local population more or less uniformly wants them to leave.
Some of the more remarkable and telling footage therefore takes place away from the camp, where we get a breather from the official line as presented by the commanders and get to fix our gaze - albeit an uncomfortable one - on the local population. The fact that this gaze is uncomfortable is as it should be - the locals are given cash settlements to cover for the loss of crops, animals and even, one surmises, family members. We sense a certain embarrassment in this, even when the social liaison officer explains to the locals that they have to allow the ‘good’ soldiers to win so they can rebuild local schools and roads. In this respect, Armadillo‘s sense of narrative construction is paramount in establishing what effectively can only be seen as criticism of the war’s raison d’être, but it does so, wisely, in subtle ways. When the climactic moment towards the end of Armadillo reveals that one of the recruits has phoned home with information about the ways in which Taliban soldiers are executed rather than captured, we are left guessing which soldier has retained his sense of moral outlook.
Screened to both politicians and a shocked public upon its hastened release in Denmark, the film was used politically by both right- and left-wing forces to alternately prove the futility of the war or the heroism of the soldiers. Metz clearly wants the film to situate itself between both positions, a stance that many will see as lacking the male body parts that the soldiers reference in nearly every scene. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of the film’s construction, and in particular the haunting and evocative soundtrack by Uno Helmersson, one of the best I’ve ever heard in a documentary and eerily reminiscent of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog’s best work, does a great deal to add a lyrical quality to the proceedings and thus paradoxically ensures that we feel both a sense of pathos and melodrama throughout. At one point, we see the soldiers in a moment of respite, playing with their motorcycles like boys let loose on a playing field; at another, a group of soldiers, their naked torsos marked by both scars and muscles, leap into the Helmand river, reminding us of the fact that these men are boys first and foremost.
If one wants Armadillo to clarify the moral ramifications of engagement both in terms of embedded journalism, a fact that Metz himself has drawn attention to in interviews, or in terms of whether Western troops should be there in the first place, then the film refuses to deliver. But as a remarkably exciting, and I would say insightful, reminder of what happens when nations send boys off to fight, this documentary tells a gripping, and sadly still topical, tale.