More and more we see our wars “documented”, just because we can. We have correspondents “embedded” with units in the middle east. We have unprecedented access to the troops themselves who want to tell their stories. In Hell and Back Again the documentary camera follows 27-year old US Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris in the field in Afghanistan. But what makes the film so powerful is that we also see him in rehab back home after having his hip shattered. Without the home front footage, this would be just another war diary, but seeing Harris along with his implacable wife deal with all the things they are required to deal with gives pause. The director masterfully cuts back and forth between the war zone, and back in-country.
Whether it’s the pain meds he’s taking, or whether this is just the way he was brought up, the culture that nurtured him, Harris is one scary dude. Back home he just can’t seem to be natural without a weapon in his hands. He’s constantly aiming and taking off the safety, ejecting a round into the chamber and back out again. You half expect him to pop someone, or off himself. Harris, who says he always wanted to “kill people” has found his niche in life, as a killing machine. No longer able to fight, he feels his worth as a man slipping away.
We see him interact with villagers regarding his units presence there, their mission, in their view is to bring freedom to the villagers. They are having none of it, which encapsilates the problem of outsider nation building. American soldiers? Taliban fighrtd? It’s all the same to the villagers. They just want to be left alone to tend to their crops and raise their children. One is left to wonder what will become of Sgt. Harris if he never makes it back into the action.