The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Marines don’t want you to see what happens when propaganda stops and combat begins

A documentary following a group of Marines in Afghanistan premieres in select theaters March 15. (Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Marines pass a joint to one another in the dark void of southern Afghanistan and, in crackling night-vision green, the question arises: Did they think they would ever be stoned within range of enemy fire?

The grunts take a moment to contemplate the infinite chasm between what the military wants you to believe happens in war, and what unfolds in just another night in combat.

“You think the Marine Corps is a bunch of perfect people who don’t do anything bad, don’t curse, and they’re just really squared-away killers,” one man says to another. “The Marine Corps is filled with the most f----- up individuals I’ve ever met.”

He takes a drag. “Just like me, you know?”

The Marine Corps, like other service branches, dispatches its media wing to curate its own version of war. Everyone knows the deal: The good will be widely distributed, and the violent, the illegal, the inexplicable are wiped from existence.

But the THC-laced epiphany halfway through the documentary “Combat Obscura,” directed by former Marine videographer Miles Lagoze, is something different.

Grunts posture and brood about war in the way they have seen men do in films, mindful that every second could be recorded. In this way, the camera documents reality as it simultaneously creates a version of it — a mix of therapy, confessional and a mirror held up to young, grime-streaked faces.

And it reveals shimmers of brutal honesty perhaps only possible when a Marine records comrades overcome with an urge to speak freely, confident that what they say would be too honest, and too raw, to ever find its way to an audience.

So why not be real?

“It replicates the rhythm of an actual deployment,” Lagoze said of the manic and at times confounding flow between scenes. “The chaos, the mixed emotions, the paradoxes.”

And yet, the footage found its way out of Afghanistan, and the Marine Corps has fought to keep it under wraps.

The Corps has good reason.

The brass covets images of fresh-faced grunts handing coloring books to kids with a wink and a wave, along with Marines parroting the Pentagon’s vague and confident optimism of elusive victory to come.

Lagoze had marching orders to deliver such video.

But the rest of the war unspooled in spurts of gore and mind-bending boredom over eight months, much of it recorded by Lagoze and his fellow cameraman Justin Loya while assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, in 2011. In one of the few title cards at the beginning of the film, he announces: “We filmed what they wanted, but then we kept shooting.”

The documentary, which premieres in select cities Friday, is a patchwork, narrative-free dreamscape of a film. There are no voice-overs and few hints of the mission assigned to the Marines in the sand-swept villages around Kajaki in Afghanistan’s perpetually violent Helmand province.

In one scene, a Marine huffs hash smoke out of a Pringles can bong in a flash of ingenuity. In another, a grunt brandishes a pistol at four children riding donkeys so he can search them, roaring that he’s looking for the Taliban. Then he smiles. “I’m just kidding, here, chocolate,” the Marine jokes.

Other footage captures the confusing bedlam of firefights, including the adrenaline climb-down lulls rarely seen in sanitized clips prized by cable news.

Those snippets — distributed by public affairs troops like Lagoze as fair-use video — are frantic yet distant from the end product of violence, like a horror movie that never shows the monster.

No Taliban fighters are even seen in the film. But one dead body is shown: a shopkeeper. Afghan troops mull hiding his corpse. “Just like a deer,” someone notes as Marines flip his body over to inspect his wounds. The documentary implies he was innocent, though Marines in the unit have said the shopkeeper used a radio to communicate with militants and the shot to kill him was approved by the chain of command.

Various other scenes channel surreal flashes of banal violence, like Marines gathering fingerprints from the severed and scorched hand of a militant killed while planting an IED. Lagoze said films like “Full Metal Jacket” were embedded in his mind and guided how he thought about his shots — a feedback loop of war images becoming war images becoming war images.

He brought back a cache of video and enrolled in film school at Columbia University, where he discovered he had something that could, in aggregate, approach the truth in ways that piecemeal clips on CNN could not.

He watched another veteran — Matt Bissonnette — embroiled in a scandal after his book about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden allegedly revealed sensitive information. He submitted the documentary to Marine officials tasked with reviewing books and films for classified material.

The officials found something else entirely. Lagoze was a self-interested threat to the safety of other Marines, the Marine Corps said, and his videos were evidence of crimes like smoking marijuana that have since passed the statute of limitations.

Officials sent flurries of requests to Lagoze, demanding a full account of government-provided video equipment he used to collect the footage.

Lagoze found himself in a murky gray area of free speech and fair-use government products. U.S. citizens can already go on Pentagon-operated sites and download free military photos and video. Their tax dollars fund it, and federal government creations are not protected by copyright.

So could Lagoze take the moments he filmed with government resources and make something new?

He worked with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to push back against the military’s claims of impropriety. The Marine Corps relented this month.

“While we contend that at least some of the content of the film — produced with Marine Corps equipment, during a Marine Corps deployment, and not cleared for public release by any official release authority — is rightly the property of the U.S. government, we do not plan to pursue any legal action against Mr. Lagoze at this time,” said Maj. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman.

Lagoze said he believed the Marine Corps tried to scare him with the requests in an effort to suppress the film’s release. As the grunt smoking hash noted, their behavior runs counter to virtually every military and many pop-culture created images of sharp, virtuous Marines.

The service itself has moved away from recruitment ads featuring lava monsters and toward kinetic action scenes reminiscent of “Call of Duty,” with a premium on realism. But his film, Lagoze said, was perhaps too real for the military to tolerate.

“They’re worried about their image,” he said, though Lagoze is not the first veteran to release combat videos. U.S. troops deployed in the digital age to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan with GoPros in tow and created so many raw clips that combat scenes have since become a video subgenre.

But there is apparent concern about the precedent of public affairs troops having the idea to film for a future documentary, Lagoze said.

“Combat Obscura” has been called “raw, visceral, candid,” with the implication that it gets viewers as close to war without having to board a C-17 to Kandahar, though its freewheeling narrative has not won universal praise.

Other documentaries, such as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s “Restrepo,” have depicted combat at its most brutally elemental, though that film spliced grisly war footage with interviews featuring soldiers reflecting on the event much later.

That perspective is missing from “Combat Obscura,” which some have argued risks losing perspective as one layer of truth. A former Marine from the unit, who declined to provide a name but saw the film, said a context void does not help viewers understand the substantive experience of his deployment.

Lagoze said he attempted similar interviews but was unhappy with the product.

And yet, war is at once simple and impossibly complex, and the film oscillates between those ideas in 70 minutes of run-time.

In the closing scene, a Marine scouting for sharpshooters is shot in the head, and in a maddening dash that feels like eternity, Marines rush their limp comrade to wait for a medevac helicopter struggling to land. The wounded man’s bloodied bandage unfurls from his head. The bullet was still inside his skull, one man speculates.

Viewers wouldn’t know the 21-year-old, Lance Cpl. Christopher P.J. Levy, would die of his wounds three days later unless they punched his last name into a Google search.

U.S. troops later withdrew from Helmand. In 2016, they returned to the province to help Afghan forces retake much of the same ground — soaked with blood of men and women like Levy.

Why were Levy and his fellow Marines in Helmand? Did they accomplish the mission? What was the mission, anyway? The Pentagon doesn’t have any good answers, but they do have an endless stream of carefully edited videos available to watch.

“Combat Obscura” does not have answers to those questions either.

So what is the film really about?

In a way, it’s like the Afghanistan war itself: The more you see, the less you understand, and then you start to forget the point of it all in the first place.

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