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'Combat Obscura': The Raw Reality Of A War Zone, As Filmed By Marines

(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Editor’s note: This hour contains audio and content that some listeners may find disturbing or offensive.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The public sees valor and heroism. But a new documentary from a military videographer captures the darker, complex, messy truth of American Marines at war.

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Miles Lagoze, a former Marine combat cameraman. Cinematographer, director and producer of the new documentary, “Combat Obscura.” (@OscopeLabs)

Former lance corporal who spent eight months in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province while assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, in 2011.

Ian Pollock, he served as a Marine from 2008 to 2012, retiring as a corporal. He was a team leader in the squadron where Miles Lagoze was a cameraman.

From The Reading List

Washington Post: “The Marines don’t want you to see what happens when propaganda stops and combat begins” — “Marines pass a joint to one another in the dark void of southern Afghanistan and, in crackling night-vision green, the question arises: Did they think they would ever be stoned within range of enemy fire?

“The grunts take a moment to contemplate the infinite chasm between what the military wants you to believe happens in war, and what unfolds in just another night in combat.

“‘You think the Marine Corps is a bunch of perfect people who don’t do anything bad, don’t curse, and they’re just really squared-away killers,’ one man says to another. ‘The Marine Corps is filled with the most f—– up individuals I’ve ever met.’

“He takes a drag. ‘Just like me, you know?’

“The Marine Corps, like other service branches, dispatches its media wing to curate its own version of war. Everyone knows the deal: The good will be widely distributed, and the violent, the illegal, the inexplicable are wiped from existence.”

A.V. Club: “The gripping, numbing Combat Obscura detonates fantasies of military heroism” — “Miles Lagoze, a former combat cameraman for the U.S. Marine Corps, opens his war documentary Combat Obscura with a revealing statement of method: ‘We filmed what they wanted, but then we kept shooting.’ As the official videographer of the 6th Marine Regiment’s 1st Battalion in Afghanistan, he was responsible for capturing footage that ‘they’ (the Marine Corps) could use for recruitment videos and military propaganda, and thus project an authoritative image of justice and and moral rectitude. The roughly hour-long Combat Obscura, assembled from material that Lagoze and other cameramen shot from 2011 to 2012 (and which he revisited years later while enrolled in Columbia’s film program), shows us what’s been left out from years of state-sanctioned publicity. Unsurprisingly, the results aren’t pretty. (On the grounds that the raw footage was captured with government-owned equipment, the USMC threatened, but did not follow through, with legal action against Lagoze.)

“Anyone who still thinks of America’s presence in Afghanistan as a heroic affair will be swiftly disabused of that notion. There aren’t any direct verbal denouncements from any of the marines, but the chosen footage makes it clear where Lagoze stands. (In one brief scene, a soldier inspecting a grisly corpse says only: ‘Oh man. We killed a shopkeeper.’) Eschewing voice-over, basic date and location cards, and really any sort of narrative shape, Combat Obscura consists mainly of disorienting flurries of brusque, brutal action alternated with stretches of uneasy repose.”

The Daily Beast: “How a Marine’s Raw, Stunning Footage of War Became the Film Corps Leaders Don’t Want You to See” — “The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

“It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

“Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

“After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

“He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

“Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.”

Stefano Kotsonis produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.