*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on February 11, 2016. It can also be found online here.
Something is revealing in Denmark; Hamlet would be proud. In this case, it is the third film from writer/director Tobias Lindholm (English title: A War, Danish: Krigen — Danish with English subtitles). This Academy Award-nominated Best Foreign Language Film opens in the United States on February 12 and stars Pilou Asbaek as Capt. Claus Pederson, a Danish officer, leading an infantry company on the Afghan front, and Tuva Novotny as Maria, Claus’s wife, leading her three children on the home front.
As with most foreign films, some anchoring is helpful as Denmark seems only to come up in America as a political football or potential nuclear target. For comparison, Denmark shares the rough physical size, population, and economic weight as Maryland, and has lost an eerily similar number of soldiers in Afghanistan (Denmark 43, Maryland 46). As a country that has not encountered intense combat since the Second World War, Denmark’s experience in Afghanistan has been brutal — the Danes have lost more soldiers there, relative to population, than any other fighting coalition country — topping even the United States and United Kingdom. For filmophiles, A War bears resemblance to the award-winning Australian movie Breaker Morant. For fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Asbaek is set to star in April’s upcoming sixth season. For fellow students of war, the core readership of War on the Rocks, there is much, much more.
A War’s strength is it’s authentic setting — as the title suggests, an archetypal atmosphere is on offer: soldiers from diverse backgrounds, young death, survivor’s guilt, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and soldiers pushing dusty weights around an austere gym. The ambiance is just right. Moreover, to Western military ears, the jargon requires no translation: “pax,” “9-line medevac,” “contact,” “SITREP,” “HLS,” “RPG,” “TOC,” “PID,” and, a regular, resounding chorus of “Fuck!” While these characteristics give the movie a gritty realness that will captivate audiences, the film’s soul is a sharp focus on two of war’s universal questions.
What is it like to make uncertain judgments with severe moral consequences? For military professionals, being the state’s lethal instrument necessarily entails ethically perilous, life-or-death choices. A War invites viewers into Capt. Pederson’s four judgments of such magnitude: to fire or not to fire on a threat; to retain or not to retain a soldier; to protect or not to protect a family; to call an air strike or not to call an air strike that will safeguard his wounded. These judgments, made instantaneously from unsure parts with far-reaching consequences, form the core of the military profession. On reflection, as a military officer myself, knowing the ramifications, I wish I could say we were perfect, but we’re not: You cannot cross war’s bloody river without getting wet. A War carefully depicts this struggle, generating echoes in my own mind, forcing me to recall the sins of my service in Iraq, the suffering that came from my own misjudgments. Like Capt. Pederson, my wife was the first, and only, person I told of the unpleasant things I’d done at war, which leads us to the second meaningful question raised in the film.
What does the soldier owe to the country versus family? This was the toughest part of the film for me, because it spotlights the fact that military service is often a zero-sum game for the family. The nation’s gain in utilizing a soldier at war is consequently the family’s loss at home. This is common in today’s U.S. Army. A recent report found 118,900 soldiers currently serving overseas. As demographic statistics report 56.1 percent of the Army is married and 44.2 percent have dependent children at home (average: 2), these numbers suggest that when the sun sets on the U.S. Army each day, 66,703 spouses suffer an empty side of the bed, and 105,108 kids receive roughly half their natural allotment of bedtime stories.
Claus and Maria’s fictional family deftly depicts the harsh reality of married military life. The film’s first half balances the troubles Claus faces in pacifying the Taliban in Afghanistan with the troubles Maria faces in pacifying the kids in Denmark. They both encounter firefights; just as the lid is sealed on one problem, another emerges. These struggles, the long-distance phone calls featuring the word “fine,” the child acting out at school, and the single-parent/multiple-child rush to the emergency room — it all feels genuine. I should know. My wife and I are living through it right now. And for soldiers serving overseas, a certain persistent guilt emerges: If the definition is “failing to meet the family’s emotional needs,” then I am at least the functional equivalent of a deadbeat dad, in the letter (if not the spirit) of the law.
The film’s second half features a riveting court-martial, pitting Claus’s guilt against Maria’s family concerns, and reaches a steep crescendo when Maria asserts, “You may have killed eight kids but you have three living ones at home.” Maria’s thirteen words nail the two questions — on judgment and family — directly to Claus’s soul, and yours will feel a prick too. The outcome, I swear, I couldn’t forecast with less than five minutes to the end. You just cannot predict this one: You can hope for an outcome, you can have a sense for an outcome, but in the end you can’t control or wish it into existence and so you just hope because the end is as uncertain as the any of the battlefield judgments that caused the court-martial’s existence in the first place. That’s the precise moment when you feel profound sympathy for Claus and Maria, military families, and the torturous way home from A War.