By the time the new Danish documentary Armadillo screened in its native country and elsewhere in Europe — picking up acclaim and awards — the film had already set off a political firestorm. In this cinéma vérité portrait of a platoon of Danish soldiers fighting under NATO auspices in Afghanistan, the final dizzying, gut-wrenching firefight filmed by director Janus Metz and cameraman Lars Skree (and by a camera strapped to one soldier’s helmet) appears to show the soldiers executing wounded Taliban.
Armadillo shows hardened soldiers, who six months earlier had been impressionable youths willing to believe in their mission to help Afghani civilians, but now are conspiring to justify their actions. Who can be sure, after all, that a movement by a wounded Taliban isn’t an attempt to detonate a bomb? And who can be sure that an Afghan isn’t a secret or potential Taliban fighter?
Filmed over six months in 2009, Armadillo takes its name from the forward operating base in Afghanistan’s embattled Helmand province, only half a mile from Taliban positions, where the Danish soldiers were sent in February of that year. Danish and British soldiers are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was formed by NATO in response to the U.S. call for support in Afghanistan. But the political mechanism that is sending them to a far-off land to fight appears to matter less to the young soldiers than what they are told is the gist of their mission: to protect the Afghan people and help them rebuild their country.
Armadillo begins in Slagelse, Denmark, as Mads, Daniel and their friends prepare for their first tour of duty. ISAF’s simple and humanitarian mission statement, along with the usual military appeals to solidarity and fighting spirit, are enough to put the inexperienced soldiers in a mood of excited anticipation mixed with vague dread. They prepare as soldiers have since time immemorial. Mads, Daniel, medic Kim, platoon commander Rasmus and the others carefully pack, write letters and say goodbyes, have as much fun as they can and speculate about what they will encounter and how they will react.
Armadillo sticks close to the soldiers, as jarringly captured in repeated scrambles for cover by Metz and Skree under audible fire. The film faithfully renders the soldiers’ point of view but, in true vérité fashion, neither approves nor condemns what happens, allowing the ambiguities and contradictions of the battlefield — and the soldiers’ evolving attitudes — to speak for themselves. What is clear is that the soldiers find a harsher climate and geography than anyone anticipated, and an enemy more determined and skilled than anyone told them to expect.
More critically, relations with local Afghan civilians quickly deteriorate. Giving food scraps to begging children and explaining to wary village elders that they are there to protect them earns the soldiers little good will. Afghans complain about fields, livestock and homes destroyed by the soldiers’ actions and say that it is the ISAF’s presence that is bringing the war upon them. They complain most bitterly about civilian deaths caused by the troops — and not without cause. A mortar spotter, Martin, mistakenly lands a grenade on a little girl. Even the children begin to chant, “Go home!” as the soldiers pass on patrol.
With their primary mission, helping Afghan civilians, in tatters, the soldiers — now harboring a hardened suspicion of all Afghans — are also frustrated by their inability to engage the enemy in close combat. Under daily fire and in constant danger from ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Danes exchange long-distance fire with an elusive enemy whose strength, make-up, deployment and local relations they can never fully discern. It is in the last fight captured in Armadillo that the soldiers, cornering a group of Taliban fighters in a ditch, are able finally to take the fight to the enemy — and they do so with gusto.
Whether they go over the line in killing wounded Taliban is in the eye of the beholder, and the soldiers immediately begin justifying their actions to themselves. The wounded men moved and who could take a chance that they weren’t reaching to detonate a bomb? There is even a suggestion that the shootings were mercy killings for men dying slowly. The most potent aspect of the men’s solidarity in the face of criticism is their own accusation: How could anyone who was not there presume to judge them?
In fact, a Danish investigation absolved the platoon of any criminal actions, and at least two of Armadillo’s more prominent personalities — Mads and Daniel — expressed a desire to go back to Afghanistan at the end of filming. This may be the most surprising twist in the story, given the reality experienced by these men and witnessed by the film — a war freighted with moral and political contradictions that the soldiers on the ground cannot begin to resolve.
“With Armadillo, I was curious to explore how the micro level of war — where human interaction takes place — affects one of the greatest conflicts of our time,” says director Janus Metz. “I’ve always been interested in making films about people who go through life-altering experiences. This film involves a rite of passage where the men are ultimately faced with themselves and their own humanity — it is universal and basic. In the context of war and the young men who are fighting, I was interested in finding out how the perception of masculinity — the good, the bad, the civilized and the barbaric — is reflected in action and how these concepts are adapted in this coming-of-age story.”