What do you do if you’re the Mad Duo and a new military movie comes along? You point Chris Hernandez at it and say Sic ’em! Chris was actually canonized as the patron saint of wry scorn; if you read Breach-Bang-Clear regularly you already knows how he feels about Hollywood. But what if he says the documentary is the documentary you secretly yearned it would be? Read below and find out. Mad Duo
The Hornet’s Nest – not a Movie, a Mission
At first glance, The Hornet’s Nest seems a straightforward documentary about American troops on a combat mission. Second glance, it’s the compelling human story of a war correspondent’s mission to reconnect with his semi-estranged adult son in, of all places, wartime Afghanistan. But when you look further, you realize what the movie actually is.
The Hornet’s Nest is not a movie about a mission. This movie is a mission.
I admit to being biased as hell toward this movie. I’m an Iraq and Afghanistan vet, and spent almost a year in Kapisa province before the troops from The Hornet’s Nest arrived. Whatever my feelings about the wisdom or conduct of the Afghanistan War, my pride in service is without reservation. But I like to think I’m objective enough to criticize what needs to be criticized. I’ve written with frustration about the deliberate fabrications in Lone Survivor, tried and failed to like the comic-bookish Act of Valor, and don’t even want to get started on The Hurt Locker because I’ll have a BS-induced heart attack.
So when I sat down to watch THN this past weekend, I wanted to like it. But I knew I might walk out of the movie disgusted. And I only knew the basics about it; 101st Air Assault soldiers, Kunar province, 2011-ish, combat footage filmed by a father-son team. What I didn’t know were the histories of 34-year war correspondent Mike Boettcher (pronounced “betcher”, as in “you betcher ass”) and his son Carlos. I didn’t know they repaired their relationship by risking their lives together as embedded journalists. I didn’t know the Marines of 2/8 in Helmand province figured prominently in the movie, or that it would give an almost all-female Blackhawk medevac crew well-deserved recognition. I didn’t know the movie is a non-profit project, or how passionately the men and women behind it, both military and civilian, believe in it.
I did not walk out of The Hornet’s Nest disgusted. I left with reddened eyes, reminded of rough days in Afghanistan, marveling at the dedication and bravery I personally witnessed years ago and had now witnessed secondhand on a theater screen. I fought the contradictory emotions many veterans have about the war: “I’m proud I was there” versus “We shouldn’t have been there”, “We lost good men for nothing” versus “These men’s deaths hold more meaning than most people’s entire lives”, “I’m glad it’s over and never want to go back” versus “I miss everything about it.” I felt anger at the same tired, worn-out “We’re here to save Afghanistan” platitudes I heard too many senior leaders parrot during my deployment. I remembered our sense of purpose as I watched a real leader scream “Follow me!” and lead soldiers through a hail of gunfire. I heard the guttural, supercharged sounds of my memory as men returned fire and shouted over the buzz of passing bullets. I fought to control my emotions as the “No Slack” 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Air Assault mourned six men lost in a single fight. Had I been at the movie with men who served beside me, I surely would have left the theater in tears.
After the movie I had a phone interview with David Salzburg, one of THN’s directors. I’ll admit to having a serious prejudice toward anyone connected to Hollywood. As movies like Lone Survivor show, Hollywood types generally view us soldiers as vehicles to enrich themselves. The reality of our experience doesn’t matter, our dedication isn’t understood or appreciated. They’ll twist or embellish the true story to make it more dramatic (in other words, “make more money”), and generally couldn’t give a damn about us as individuals. I’m a tired, cynical 20-year cop and 25-year soldier, that’s my perception of Hollywood, and I’ll probably feel that way the rest of my life.
I don’t feel that way about David Salzburg. Salzburg is a patriot. Not the kind that waves flags while cradling a bald eagle and shouting “’murica!”, but the kind that actually takes action for what he believes.
The talk I had with Salzburg restored some of my faith in humanity. He spoke passionately for over an hour about the stories behind THN, his reasons for getting involved with it, the lives of the men and women in it, the casualties, everything. He described one of his main motivations for joining in the THN mission: years ago he met a young soldier at a race, was impressed by the soldier’s politeness and took him to the VIP area to meet the drivers. Two years later, Salzburg heard from the young man’s mother; her son had been killed in action, and the night before he was killed he was still talking excitedly about that race.
Salzburg considered that young soldier’s sacrifice, and decided, “When people thank the troops, I want them to know what they’re thanking the troops for.” He also discussed a bit of filmmaking wisdom, of being told “At some point in your career, you’ll find a story that’s more important than a movie.” For Salzburg, The Hornet’s Nest was that story.
Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Chris Fields, who I also interviewed by phone, has even stronger feelings about THN. Which makes sense, because he’s in it. One of the most memorable, and heart-wrenching, scenes is near the movie’s end, when he’s holding roll call at a Fallen Comrade ceremony. Standing in front of the too-familiar inverted rifles, helmets and boots memorials, CSM Fields calls the names of his lost soldiers.
“Specialist Jameson L. Lindskog!”
Not a sound from the assembled men. Tears creep down faces. CSM Fields pauses, then moves on to the next lost brother, six in all. After the ceremony, photographer Mike Boettcher captures Fields in a private moment, kneeling before the memorials, crying unashamedly.
Command Sergeant Major Fields retired after THN was filmed, ending a 30-year infantry career that started with guarding Rudolph Hess in Berlin in the 80’s, took him to Pyongyang to search for MIAs and saw him zip-line into an Olympic opening ceremony. Fields loved his troops, and still does. In my many years of service, I’ve met too many E-9s whose major concerns were uniforms and reflective belts. I haven’t met enough E-9s like Fields.
CSM Fields shares my distrust of Hollywood (we had a good laugh when he told me he was only able to stand about ten minutes of The Hurt Locker). He doesn’t want any movie to make his troops look bad. He calmly told me, “If you screw with my soldiers, I will stick a number two pencil in your eye.” That was probably a figurative statement, but I wouldn’t test him on it. And he had some negative experiences with embedded reporters; one feigned friendliness, then went to a different unit and talked trash about Fields’ troops. Another demanded that unnecessary missions be conducted just so she could go out on them. Those reporters were unceremoniously booted from the unit. The Boettchers, however, gained the unit’s trust, and Fields had nothing but praise for them. He also spoke in glowing terms about David Salzburg and his co-director Chris Tureaud.
CSM Fields told me The Hornet’s Nest should show our country that the military, the fewer than 1% of Americans who serve, are living up to the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation before us. He talked about his new job at Operation Restored Warrior, a nonprofit group dedicated to assisting veterans. And he gave me THN’S mission statement.
“The Hornet’s Nest is a way for people to begin healing.”
Without question, healing is still needed. Operation Strong Eagle III, the fight shown in the movie where the No Slack battalion lost six killed, took place just sixteen days before the unit was scheduled to rotate home. Each of the six casualties died bravely, each loss was a tragedy, each death left a gaping hole in the unit and in families back home. Any combat death leaves a scar that takes at least years to erase, but one from the movie stung me more than others; Specialist Jameson Lindskog had a nice, safe job as a medic on the battalion commander’s security detail but volunteered to go on Strong Eagle. He charged through enemy fire without hesitation to reach friendly casualties, received a mortal wound, directed the treatment of others as he was dying, and even apologized for his own impending death. Those who stood beside him as he faded away, and those who loved him back home, need what The Hornet’s Nest offers. This movie will help the soldiers who were there heal by showing the entire country what they went through, it will help families of the fallen heal by showing their loved one’s heroism and dedication, and it will help other war veterans heal by reminding us that we’re not alone in our experiences or grief.
The Hornet’s Nest is, in the end, a remarkable and remarkably honest exposure of the cost of war. There is no political slant, there is no hidden agenda. The combat footage is breathtaking, the stories of men and women who usually but not always dodged the bullets are inspiring.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the movie was too short. I wanted to see more of the final battle. I wanted to know more about the casualties and survivors. I wanted to know more about Captain Kevin Mott, who was shot in the head, fell 400 feet down a mountain and came back six months later to lead troops in Operation Strong Eagle III. I wanted to know why a warrior who bravely endured days of intense combat fled in panic when another soldier threw a chicken at him. I really wanted to hear more about the young soldier who danced as he searched Afghans and their truck at a checkpoint. I want to hear their stories. I wanted to know more about their war.
But more important than my minor criticism is my new desire to join the THN mission. Most military movies butcher the truth, supposedly in order to “honor the troops” (in other words, “make money”); THN doesn’t. THN tells the truth behind our choice to voluntarily charge toward enemy, to place our comrades’ lives ahead of our own. THN is a mission to tell our great nation what we did in her defense, to praise America’s fallen heroes, to honor soldiers like Captain Mott and the 150+ No Slack soldiers who received Purple Hearts during their deployment. It’s a mission to pay homage to the handful of 101st soldiers who were wounded, fought to go back to their comrades and were wounded again.
The Hornet’s Nest’s mission is to spread our truth. Nobody has to be in the military to take up the burdens of this mission. We can all, veterans and civilians alike, make this mission a success.
Join the mission at www.thehornetsnestmovie.com. Follow the movie on Facebook. Release dates and cities are here. You can support Operation Restored Hope here and read what the Army said about it here.
Mad Duo Chris
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest old member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. A police officer now for over two decades, he is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to his military deployments he spent a long (and eye-opening) time as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. Rumored to have been the inspiration for that look of disapproval on the faces all those frowning Easter Island Maoi, Chris is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army, The Insufficiency of True Valor and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine and Kit Up! You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!