Life and Death in a Minefield with Kilo Two Bravo

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on October 28, 2015. It can also be found online here

Everybody has problems. If you live in Park City, you’re worried about a fungus that dampens fall aspencolors. If you live on Mars, you’re concerned about growing potatoes with your own poop. And if you live next to the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, your problem is surviving a Soviet minefield. While the inhospitable peaks and vanishing air of a Park City or Mars might be out of reach, the film Kilo Two Bravo, which comes out in American theaters next month, is a one-way pass to the ever-frustrating experience of modern combat. And anyone with an interest in understanding war should buy an advance ticket. Now.

Let’s dispense with the details. Kilo Two Bravo is the Americanized title of the British film Kajaki, originally released in the United Kingdom last year. The film adapts the true story of a small British Army unit (call sign: “Kilo Two Bravo”), part of the 3rd  Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, that goes on a mission to shut down a Taliban checkpoint in September 2006. Instead they set off a landmine and subsequently struggle to limit the damage and save the wounded. Kilo Two Bravo is the directorial debut of Paul Katis, which has earned him a nomination for a British Academy Film Award.

My net assessment: Kilo Two Bravo is real, experiential, and reveals a truth about modern combat that is too often MIA in big budgeted Hollywood productions where the bullets are never-ending and the wounds are never-beginning. If you liked Sebastian Junger’s documentary films Restrepo or Korengal, you will feel the same about Kilo Two Bravo.

Afghanistan, check.
Swearing, check.
Tattoos, check.
Cursing, check.
Pornography, check.
Expletives, check.
Heavy weapons, check.

The parallels one can find between Junger’s documentaries and Katis’s film are Kilo Two Bravo’s center of gravity: authenticity. It feels real.

For one hundred excruciatingly tense minutes, this film conscripts you into one of the British Army’s elite units. Their problems are your problems, so much so that as I watched I wanted to redirect the real helicopter I heard outside my window to pick up the wounded in the film. Hearing “10 minutes to CASEVAC” for an anger-inducing fourth time, I wanted to get the wounded out as much as the four or five British soldiers lying limbless in the wadi. That’s the experiential value of this film. It gets you to think about what you would do, how you would react, and imagine making these decisions, while covered in dust, sweat, blood, and yes, even tears.

You feel every second. Kilo Two Bravo has tactical patience — a yogic ability to tread slowly over every cringing, hot-coal moment. No matter how uncomfortable it gets, neither you nor that soldier on screen gets to leave or opt out.

This film reveals a truth about war. Nothing is fair. Combat is where Murphy isn’t a law — it’s a certainty. In Kilo Two Bravo, the radios do not work, one casualty becomes another and another (and another and another), the wrong evacuation helicopter shows up, the guys are constantly running low on necessary medical equipment, and morale slips away as blood runs into the sand. All this serves to knowingly nod the military professional’s head. My unit’s first death in the Iraq War was a tank driver that got stuck turret-down in a wadi. His hatch filled with water, drowning him in the desert. This cruel irony is surpassed only by the practical message that no matter how well you’ve prepared for combat, the mission’s exigencies will always exceed your preparation.

While American audiences will note minor differences in the British way of warfare, such as a more casual informality, these are subsumed by the universal lesson on offer. America and Britain might well be two nations separated by a common language, but our forces, like all uniformed military, are united by a common experience: the fight against “friction,” which theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult” in combat.

Hollywood typically prefers telling stories about a more positive kind of Force. Or great successes, like The Martian’s harrowing tale of an astronaut (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and brought safely back to Earth through his own wits and the efforts of a star-studded supporting cast. While luminaries like Neil deGrasse Tyson have praised The Martian for a commitment to scientific accuracy, it falls far short of Kilo Two Bravo’s realness. Yet the two films do feature one fascinating crossover point. At the end of The Martian, Damon gives a short speech on the nature of space, which, slightly adjusted, makes for an ideal description of combat:

This is [war]. It does not cooperate.

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, “this is it. This is how I end.” Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the [work]. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

Only, in Kilo Two Bravo, as in real war, not everyone gets to come home.

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