So then, BBC3’s Afghanistan war documentary comes to an end with an IED, a dead British soldier, a saved kid and six dead Afghan National Police. As motifs of the war in Afghanistan go, it was pretty much a grab bag of the headline items. For that reason, it was by far the least interesting episode of the three part series.
The strength of the series has been its use of the intimate footage from the helmet cameras of the soldiers themselves. This footage, particularly in the first two episodes of the series, has been quite extraordinary. From an outsider’s perspective, the fact that the Ministry of Defence has authorised the use of such footage, which has included dead and dying soldiers, IED attacks and the “colourful” language of British infantry privates, is quite extraordinary. The power of this footage, while it has included some intense firefights (including some from the much maligned platoon houses), is the connection of the ordinary viewer to the soldiers themselves. Guns and deserts aside, much of what went on in front of the camera was entirely human, and dare I say it, civilian. Take any group of 18-20 year old men and coop them up together for six months, and the results would be largely similar to what went on, and what was said, in front of the cameras.
Even the parts that were uniquely military in character - the first patrols, the firefights, the death of comrades - were rendered infinitely more human by the interspersing of this footage with what were instantly recognisable characters. It is quite strange to watch, because it runs completely against the cultural grain of the last decade, which has been almost entirely set on shearing the military and military affairs from civilian culture at large. This has been done in the best intentions, since every soldier is now a hero, performing a super human task and occupying an idealised position somewhere beyond saintly. The conflict between this image and a bunch of lads acting like they’re on a (beer-free) stag do who talk about their job as, well, a job, is somewhat striking.
It’s the lack of this in the final episode which left me feeling that the series had gone out on something of a damp squib. Of course, contextualising the previous two episodes was important, but it felt like too much in a single episode. Whereas the prior episodes hinged on a single event, the grab bag of footage in this one seemed forced. That lack of depth also meant that there was nothing that could compare emotionally to Lt Bjorn Rose reading the letter he sent to the parents of private Chris Gray following his son’s death in episode one. The sight of a man who is meant to be the stoic face of the officer corps pausing under the weight of his own words said more about soldiering than soundbites about schools.