'Combat Obscura' Review: Demythologizing War

Former US Marine Corps combat cameraman Miles Lagoze presents the footage that was never meant to be seen.


War is ugly, but beneath all of the ugliness, there is a shred of humanity. Miles Lagoze‘s Combat Obscura aims to reemphasize how truly awful war is and always has been, and the effects it can have on those who fight. The documentary shows what daily life is like during wartime, and how ambiguous war can be from an objective point of view. Combat and the soldiers that engage in war have long been painted as stalwart heroes, the doers of good with a gun in their hand. There is little of that mythology here. War is stripped bare and shown for what it really is: a paradox of all things sad, boring, chaotic, deadly, and, at times, deeply human.

Lagoze, a United States Marine Corps combat cameraman, compiled footage from his time in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012 into Combat Obscura. And I say compiled because there is no general pacing to the film. Bits of footage, all outtakes or extra material that wouldn’t be used for official military or media purposes, are placed one after the other. That is the point, but it makes the film feel slightly rudderless — as rudderless as the US’s involvement in Afghanistan. The film’s emphasis on the mundanity and routine pointlessness of the day-to-day life of these soldiers is what makes it stand out from other war documentaries.

Lagoze lets his film revel in the anxious mundanity of war because no one ever really gets to see that side of conflict, and he does this because he was originally sent to Afghanistan to film the war to fit the Marine Corps’ message, but he saw what his camera could capture and the effect it could have on the men in his platoon. It stands apart from other war films because it is raw, comedic, and troubling. The viewer gets an intimate look at how young men cope with wartime trauma and how they express themselves during the all-consuming and structured lifestyle of a Marine in a combat zone.

These men, some look barely old enough to drink, seem indoctrinated by their training. Their sense of self was lost to the routine and strict hegemony of the Marine Corps. For example, one soldier, a scout sniper, is asked what he does. His answer comes off as if it is something he once read in a combat pamphlet that he committed to memory. After the man recites his litany of purpose, Lagoze asks him to say it in his own words. He verbally stumbles and looks dumbfounded, and he provides no answer. The young soldier is a scout sniper, and in the eyes of the Marine Corps, that is all he is.

Furthermore, these young men seem fraternized by war. They joke of causal violence and they wish for combat because their normal time on base is so boring that getting shot at can be seen as something to wish for. One of them, after taking a drag from a joint, says, “You think the Marine Corps is full of perfect individuals, but it is full of the most fucked up individuals that I have ever met.” And this all comes before we see any real combat.

Lagoze’s camera captures everything. Not a word is edited or minced, and in moments of respite, these soldiers present themselves as exactly what they are: young men whose sense of innocence and youth was lost the moment an M16 was put in their hands. These soldiers are not cut-and-clean heroes. They are people with faults, who don’t always say the right thing and are sometimes compelled to do wrong, but they are people all the same.

When the bullets start flying, they look out for one another, they care, and their training renders them into effective weapons of war. They care for and love one another like siblings. They are commendable, and it is here where their day-to-day repeated training on base pays off, and the human bond beneath their training just further emphasizes their fraternal nature. They work as one, as a collective unit of soldiers with one main purpose: to keep each other, and those they fight for, safe. They are assets, tools even.

But Lagoze never lets his film grapple with the fact that they were and are tools of war because, at the moment, none of them were thinking about that. Everything is so matter-of-fact. Gunshots are scarily loud, blood is shed, and Lagoze’s camera captures some truly grueling sights in an intimate yet blunt way. But why? He just shows his experience but never grounds it or gives it any context beyond what is happening in the frame.

And I believe that this is purposeful. Lagoze can only show his own and his fellow troopers’ experiences in Afghanistan. His camera cannot capture the greater political machinations at play, it can only capture people and how they live during wartime. And what do some of these young soldiers know of what they’re doing beyond what they’re told? Leaving the viewer in ignorance of the greater cards at play plants them in the mindset of the common soldier. They fight because they are told to and because their country needs them to. They do not ask why. They should, but they do not. A lot of them probably don’t even know that they could ask why they are fighting the war that they are fighting.

The moment when I do wish they had asked “why?” is when Lagoze and his fellow Marines come upon a dead Afghan person in a small hut. The man’s fingers are blown to bits and he is laying in a pool of blood and urine. The Marines taunt the corpse and it turns out the man was nothing more than a shopkeeper. Upon realizing this, the soldiers do not seem sad or regretful. This is normal to them; loss of life has become so commonplace that an innocent bystander being shot is just another familiar sight. They just state that they should probably hide the body because “no one needs to see this now.” Yet, the viewer is watching and the viewer sees this no matter how compelled they are to look away.

The closest that Combat Obscura comes to being directly reflexive is when Lagoze turns his camera on a fellow combat videographer. This cameraman’s head is wrapped in gauze, as he took a hit from shrapnel in the firefight that has just occurred. He looks sad, terrified, and solemn. His face says so much, but it is his words that gave me pause, that cut me to my core. He just simply says, “I don’t want anymore combat. I think I’m done.” The camera lingers on his face as he grapples with this, and then he says, “When you look through the camera viewfinder, it is almost like it is not happening.”

This moment is when the film reaches its reflexive nexus. It is always brimming beneath the surface but here it truly becomes part of the text, rather than subtext. We, the collective viewer, can never truly know war because we are just in front of a screen, which is at even more of a disconnect then being behind a camera. Everyone thinks that they understand war, but only those who experience it truly do.

What follows that harrowing interview is CNN coverage of the war over some of the footage that Lagoze took while stationed in Afghanistan. The one-two punch of the interview with the videographer being directly followed by CNN footage directly condemns those who think they understand war because they see it on TV. These are young men at war. They are experiencing death on a daily basis, but we can only ever view their world from a distance.

Combat Obscura is a purposefully disjointed and harrowing documentary, but it is more than the sum of its parts. It shows that war is never, ever kind. There is no victory in most victories, and defeat is always near. Yet, the film finds the time to show how humanity can bloom on the battlefield, or maybe it was always there and we’ve just never had it shown to us. American soldiers play soccer with Afghan children, soldiers laugh at each other’s jokes and sing self-deprecating songs, and when one soldier gets shot, 10 more come to his or her aid. But these fleeting moments of humanism are bookended by extended scenes of combat and ethical conundrums — that is just the dichotomy of war.

War is confusion on a mass scale, and Lagoze does not ask us to find answers amidst it all. He merely means for us to see it all as it truly is, from long spells of mundanity to quick and frenetic firefights. Combat Obscura is a collection of fragmentary moments that, when played together, create a multitude of emotions rather than a cohesive narrative. These moments weave a rich tapestry of feelings that can only be found on the battlefield, and we may not understand them and/or what is going on. But they exist, and it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to grapple with them and truly see war for what it really is: a living hell. But soldiers live in this hell, and Lagoze asks us to never lose sight of that.

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.