Hell and Back Again is a touching film following Sergeant Nathan Harris and his regiment in Afghanistan, documented by photojournalist Danfung Dennis in 2009. As a sequel to the World War II documentary of Audie Murphy, this documentary depicts an important aspect of war that is often forgotten or under-articulated in the media. Danfung Dennis was working in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years prior, taking pictures for the media, he felt that society was becoming numb to the horrific events of the war due to the monotonous way they were shown. Dennis was determined to obtain a different perspective, one where people could actually understand what was occurring on the ground in Afghanistan, so as to bring renewed interest and a personal aspect. In achieving this goal, Danfung Dennis found Echo Company 2nd battalion 8th regiment. The documentary goes back and forth presenting scenes of Marines fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and the post-service life of a Marine from Echo Company who was injured in battle. Sergeant Nathan Harris, with the support of his wife Ashley, works to heal a gunshot wound to his hip that left him unable to walk normally. This rare combination of first-hand live action, coupled with the opportunity to see the candid, direct effects of war on a Marine once he has returned home is both an honor and a heart-wrenching experience. Hell and Back Again has won the Grand Jury Prize and Cinematography Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has gained praise from many critics. AMC’s filmcritic.com calls it “one of the greatest war films of this generation”, and the New York Post’s Vincent Musetto said it is “stunning… a breathlessly paced look at the realties of war”.
The Marines of the United States are trained to be experts in the application of violence, as voiced in the documentary. Their strategy is to become the offensive player and take control of the population outside the grasp of the Taliban. In the first of the numerous battle scenes shown, shooting erupts from an unknown area and we experience the first death of the film. Lance Corporal Sharp, nicknamed “Sharpie” by his comrades, had been shot. His fellow Marines carry him out of the gunfire and tend to his wound; however, he is unable to be revived. Sergeant Nathan Harris becomes his successor, leading the platoon through the next 6 months as Dennis’s journey with them begins. The film alternately turns to the future when the Marine’s return home on a bus. Their loved ones are waiting for them while holding up signs. There is a overwhelming abundance of hugging, kissing, and tears of joy shared within the group. However, Sergeant Nathan Harris has been severely wounded just prior to his planned return home and is not able to attend the homecoming. Sergeant Harris is not brought home with his fellow men in a spectacle of celebration, but sent home from the hospital in a wheelchair with a handful of addictive prescriptions such as oxycontin and morphine.
After his injury, Sergeant Nathan Harris is no longer able to be completely independent. He relies on his wife for many things, such as helping him change clothes or getting his medicine from the pharmacy. He has to use a machine on his leg for 8 hours each day to stretch the muscles, and the intense pain makes him physically sick. Even through this, Harris says at the Pain Management Clinic that he does not have a problem with his injury because he was prepared and knew what it would be like to come home, and later he reiterates that he is just glad it wasn’t a chest injury. From the soldiers’ perspective, the importance of defending the United States is unquestionable; however, the methods being used to wage war are leaving a generation of men with physical and psychological hindrances. This is shown in the documentary through the course of Nathan Harris’s physical training, which makes him ill from the pain, as well as his unprovoked aggravated behavior. The physical toll is exampled after touring a potential house with a realtor; Nathan Harris finds himself in too much pain to walk and must take pain medication. In a very sobering scene, Harris goes to the funeral of thirteen fallen soldiers. There is a long line of Marines seen honoring their dead comrades. To look not only at the major physical damage, including the deaths and injuries, Mrs. Harris describes her husband’s behavior since his injury. She acknowledges that he has become a completely different person, his temper has left him as someone whom when she looks at she sees emptiness instead of her husband.
In the Bonus Feature, Invisible Wounds, a professional stresses to the soldiers the importance of seeking help instead of keeping everything inside. Stress injuries are nothing to be ashamed of. As spoken by Sergeant Harris, these men must accept the possibility of death as a real option. No matter how well prepared, there is still the possibility that you could lose your life on a daily basis.
Harris’s change of emotional stability is clear with his quick, aggravated mood changes. As Nathan Harris and his wife search for a parking spot at the local Walmart, a frequent action of daily life, Nathan becomes abrupt and frustrated. He says looking for a parking spot while it is crowded stresses him out and he would rather be back with his platoon in Afghanistan fighting then worrying about such stressful things. This statement is not logical to people who have not suffered such trauma. This odd behavior is brought up again when going through a drive–though and Sergeant Harris becomes unnecessarily aggravated when people talk over each other or interrupt; unable to function with his frustration he simply puts his head between his hands. Another strange habit of Sergeant Harris is his unique relationship with his gun. He constantly has it with him throughout the documentary, whether in the car or at home, and even chooses to keep it under his mattress with the handle ready for him to grab. Gun use is an extremely controversial topic in today’s society but Sergeant Harris does not shy away from displaying his weapon. This could be emulating his fear that built during his active duty and his current need to feel protected. Physical wounds are clear and there is a exact way they must be treated; however, psychological problems are equally as pressing while socially less recognized. The possibility of a stress disorder or other psychological impact is quite real when soldiers return from the war, a consequence that is brought up in the bonus features Did You Kill Anyone? Families ask how to handle their newly home soldiers; this is an excellent source for anyone who has had a loved one in the military.
There is a significant disconnect between the goals of the United States to help Afghan villagers and how these locals perceive the militia‘s presence that is brought up in Hell and Back Again. This can definitely be partially blamed on the cultural and language barriers that exist. The United States Marines constantly reiterate what President Obama says during a speech in the documentary. The United States does not want to occupy or rule Afghanistan, such as the Soviets or Al-Qaeda fighters did; they simply want to end the suffering and become partners. In this sense, the ultimate goal is long-term and results in peace, whereas the villagers see the short-term threat of being moved from their villages, unable to farm, and fearing the safety of their children. They see the temporary occupation as a bother that continuously brings the Taliban into their region. Each side has a valuable point. Afghanistan has long been under foreign occupation and needs encouragement to build a sustainable infrastructure; however, the use of firefights and violence is costing lives of many American soldiers as well as disrupting the lives of the innocent civilians. After his time in the Marines, Sergeant Harris explains his belief that the big picture is lost within the fighting. He supports that the Marines are rightfully dedicated to defending America but using this form of defense also has major costs, as he first-handedly experiences.
Lauren Mooradian, MPT Intern
- Hell and Back Again. Dir. Danfung Dennis. Perf. Sergeant Nathan Harris and Ashley Harris. Docuramafilms, 2011. DVD.
- Willie Nelson – Hell and Back http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXAmeY0b52M – Comments by Marine’s in Echo Company during this period
- Bonus Feature– Blue Star Families PSA: The experience of war is unimaginable to those of us who have not experiences it first-hand. Your loved ones may not know what it’s like but there are people out there who do, contact them.
- MSNBC Interview (Dylan Ratigan) with Danfung Dennis http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31510813/#44792225
- Hell and Back Again Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luoc9UM-G40