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Reckoning with the Legacy of Afghanistan

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U.S. Marines provide assistance at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, August 22, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sergeant Victor Mancilla/Handout via Reuters) A 2015 film on the war’s aftermath is worth revisiting now that America is out.

Tobias Lindholm’s 2015 film A War (Krigen, in Danish, and currently streaming for free on TubiTV) opens with a fictional group of Danish soldiers patrolling the desolate countryside of Helmand province, Afghanistan. An IED detonates as a soldier walks over it, and he dies after an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate him. While the film is fiction, Denmark did lose 43 soldiers during the Afghanistan War, no small number for a country of fewer than 6 million inhabitants. (By comparison, Colorado and Wisconsin each have almost identical populations to Denmark, and lost 38 and 36 soldiers during the war, respectively.) A War asks uncomfortable questions, explores the myriad ethical dilemmas facing soldiers, and explores the burdens of soldiers’ families. It may be the best film made yet about the Afghanistan War.

The central theme of the film is the moral burden that falls on soldiers tasked with fighting an unwinnable war. We can debate the specifics of the Afghanistan withdrawal and whether it might have been handled better. We can debate whether staying in Afghanistan to prop up a corrupt government, with the goal of preventing the return of the Taliban, might be in America’s strategic interest even if we come to terms with the notion that the country will likely never be democratic or liberal in our lifetimes. But the immediate collapse of the Afghan government is the ultimate proof that the war’s stated objectives were unachievable, and it was the soldiers on the ground who suffered the consequences of that truth.

Like all countries involved in the Afghanistan War, Denmark, too, had to maintain the fiction that its soldiers were making things better. “You are here to safeguard and help civilians, so they can have a life,” A War’s main character, Claus Pedersen, a unit commander in the Danish

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