First to Fight Back: A Review of 12 Strong

Warner Bros. Production: Lionsgate

Release Date: January 19th, 2018

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig Written by: Peter Craig, Ted Tally

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban

Sometimes it’s important to go back to the basics. On September 11th, 2001 malevolent forces brought destruction to New York, Arlington, and Pennsylvania. 2,977 innocent people, guilty of nothing more than going about their day, were indiscriminately killed. In addition to the dead, over 6,000 innocents were injured, and over $10 billion dollars in infrastructure and property damage occurred. Al Qaeda, the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, perpetrated the attacks. Their accomplices included the Taliban, the brutal regime in Afghanistan who sheltered them. America, her people—and several hundred foreign guests—killed by those who had every intention to go on killing them, had no choice but to strike back.

12 Strong hit movie theaters on Friday. It portrays the early moments when we began to fight back. Based on the book Horse Soldiers (republished 12 Soldiers) by Doug Stanton and directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, the film tells about what happened when a twelve-man U.S. Special Forces (SF) team was inserted into Afghanistan just weeks after the towers fell. The events depicted are just one part of the larger Joint Special Operations Task Force North, also known as Task Force Dagger, which on the American side comprised elements of the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (a part of the Green Berets) and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), Air Force Special Tactics, and the CIA Special Activities Division. The aim was to link up with local warlords of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and to push to, and liberate, several Taliban-held cities in the north of the country. The men of Task Force Dagger were the first U.S. boots on the ground in the War on Terror.

Necessarily having to keep a narrow focus, 12 Strong truncates the book and centers on the SF team led by Captain Mitch Nelson (played by Chris Hemsworth), a character modelled after the real-life SF Captain Mark Nutsch–who, while quick to note that his team represented a much larger combined effort, nevertheless admits to being stoked that his semi-fictional stand-in is Thor. The primary story here involves the 12-man team joining forces with an Afghan militia led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to take the stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, a key enemy-occupied city protected by mountainous terrain largely impassable except on horseback. In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Nutsch captures the extraordinary scenario:

It was incredible, we had essentially a 19th Century force on horseback in the rugged terrain, they’re armed with 20th Century weapons: Ak-47s, assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades. And then our Special Forces teams brings in 21st Century technology with satellite radios, with global position devices and night vision goggles, lasers, laser-target designators, and then of course, above us, we had this incredible aerial armada of every manner of inner-service aircraft that was at our back.

The combined force would indeed take Mazar-i-Sharif, accomplishing in mere weeks what Pentagon planners thought would take several years.

In reading other reviews, it quickly becomes clear–though not surprising–that not everyone finds this extraordinary story praiseworthy. At the time of this writing, 12 Strong is at 53% approval among “all critics” at Rotten Tomatoes. As an aside, however, it’s interesting to note this low-mark is qualified by a 61% approval in the search category “top critics” and 73% among the general “audience.” To my mind, this suggests a distinction between, on the one side, professional critics and happy hoi polloi who either actually know how to watch a movie or whose critical judgments are grounded in common sense and, on the other side, those cynical cranks whose professional viewing of the film is hopelessly compromised by their preconceived political agendas.

Among the cranks would appear to be the LA Times reviewer who whines that 12 Strong suffers from ‘rah-rah’ oversimplification, “macho bluster”, and “all-purpose American jingoism.” He should watch movies in the company of the reviewer at NBC who apparently can’t be bothered to get the main character’s name correct (he refers to Mitch Nelson throughout his review by the name of his senior NCO) but is well-prepared to doubt 12 Strong’s sincerity when showing concern for anything except American characters. Never mind the film’s sympathy for Afghan victims of Taliban atrocities—portrayed in one horrific sequence in which children are forced to watch the execution of their school teacher because she had to the audacity to teach girls to read. Never mind the film’s clear concern for the fate of several young Afghan fighters—several of whom are mere children themselves—on whom the narrative lingers. And ignore as well the film’s portrayal of General Dostum, who, along with Captain Nelson, is the second of only two characters to be given significant emotional depth. None of this matters to NBC’s ideologue, convinced as he is that the suffering of foreigners in the film only serves to provide “a valuable growth experience for the Americans.” He slanderously avers that 12 Strong continues Hollywood’s penchant for depicting Americans in film as if they are “the only people on earth who have stories worth telling, and…whose lives are of real consequence.” This crass view, the hectoring reviewer asserts, underscores 12 Strong’s “logic of colonialism” and its status as “colonial propaganda.” What’s that they say about you and the horse you came in on?

Had he been willing to let the film speak for itself, he might have noticed something more. One quick caveat. 12 Strong is, admittedly, first and foremost a film about an extraordinary military achievement. But it does occasionally pause to comment, however briefly, on war’s complexities. On one such occasion, early on, we find Nelson—who prior to Task Force Dagger had never been in combat—sitting alone after his first firefight during which he killed several enemy combatants. Into the room comes a teammate, a more war-grizzled veteran who recognizes without asking that Nelson is dealing with the moral hurt of having killed a man. Nelson’s warrior brother reassures him that the hurt is appropriate and that it’s to be preferred to apathy. It’s a part of what makes and keeps us human, he suggests.

This moment serves a kind of thematic frame for 12 Strong. Throughout the film we see grief and anger as appropriate responses to what’s happening in the world. General Dostum admits that every time he loses a man in battle it’s “like a cut” to his heart. By now, after two-decades of war, his heart is “butchered.” He grieves too for his lost village, and the lives of his family that have been stolen away. In the book Horse Soldiers, we see this same sorrow as one of the American horsemen, Sgt. Ben Milo, grapples with whether God can forgive him for the lives he took. It’s not only the masculine grief of those in battle that is portrayed. We see too the grief of those who send them into battle. The wives who see their husbands deployed into harm’s way, the angry sons who hurt because their fathers leave them.

The beauty of the handling of these things is that no one tries to avoid the hurts, no one tries to deny them. Our culture–within the church as well–has become cripplingly pain averse. We too often poultice over wounds—real and imagined—with aphorisms that are meant to dull the pain before its done the work it sometimes has to do. At other times we protect ourselves by creating safe zones or suppressing the actions of those who disagree with us, thereby avoiding discomfort altogether. 12 Strong reminds us that some things ought to hurt. Hurt, grief, and even rage may often have epistemological value—they help us know what’s going on. In such moments we let what ought to hurt hurt–and meanwhile we get on with doing our jobs.

The LA Times reviewer, for his part, doesn’t propose a problem of empathetic vision per se, but rather an offense of memory. In his words, what makes 12 Strong “objectionable” is the film’s

Attempt to induce a kind of amnesia in the audience, to ask that we forget about the subsequent moral and strategic failures of America’s “war on terror” or the limits of military retaliation when it comes to the pursuit of justice.

We’ll have to save for another day the question of moral and strategic failures of the American-led response to those who want to use civilian aircraft as missiles to knock our buildings down. Suffice it to say there have been moral and strategic failures—though not in the measure such critics presumably assume—just as there are moral and strategic failures in any war or, indeed, in a good many of the non-violent attempts to avoid kinetic action altogether. But the film is in no way asking for us to forget anything. Indeed, our task is the opposite: it is to remember what we ought always to recall.

Linking my opening paragraph’s reminder of what happened on 9/11 to the need to feel strong emotions when appropriate to do so, 12 Strong brings us back to the basics of that clear-sky September day when a sadistic regime weaponized innocent human beings to indiscriminately slaughter other equally innocent human beings. Some things really are black and white. There really are occasions when certain fights are clearly just. Any catalogue of the atrocities of the Taliban renders the moral calculus of evaluating a fight against them easy math. To the reviewer’s last point, there are, indeed, limits to military retaliation in the pursuit of justice—and the just war tradition illuminates them. But those limits were not even approached in the events depicted in 12 Strong. Task Force Dagger had just cause and right intention in its pursuit of a proportionate and discriminate response to evil. To insist that the film somehow also acknowledge certain unjust actions in the future of the War on Terror is incoherent and morally silly. In any case, it pays to remember that even when a war that was just to fight is subsequently fought unjustly, it does not reverse the original judgment of just cause or right intent.

Especially in the face of the moral ineptitude of such reviews–and there are many of them in this case–films like 12 Strong will remain essential. They remind us that the rage we felt that September day is included among those strong emotions that are appropriate to feel. We were right to feel it. We interpreted the event correctly. We needed to feel the hurt. We ought never to forget it. 12 Strong provides a kind of service to the viewer, it helps to kick off the twaddle that has settled on our moral memory.

Speaking to the Daily News about his original story, Doug Stanton illuminated the narrative core.  “At its heart,” he said, “it’s really about people that walk among us that have the same fears and hopes that we have, but at the same time are dealing with these epic, kind of global, moments because they’ve been trained to do something and they’re called to go into action.” This is a salutary reminder that every global, regional, or national crisis, before it ever becomes a shared experience, is intensely personal. Men, women, and children—each with names and personal stories—endure the horrors that flash across our television screens. And men, women, and children with names and stories send love ones off to fight those horrors.

Wanting to deflect attention from himself, Cpt. Mark Nutsch hoped aloud that 12 Strong would “Shed some light on the other great, incredible stories that are yet untold of other SF teams.” In a culture increasingly blind to basic truths—including quotidian distinctions between good and evil—such light shines brightly indeed.

Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence.

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