A few years ago, directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud were introduced to a young sergeant in the Oklahoma National Guard who had combat footage from his deployment to eastern Afghanistan in 2011. The sergeant, Eran Harrill, explained that he was hoping to make a film, but he didn’t want it to be about him. Instead, he wanted it to be about some of the soldiers who didn’t make it back from that deployment alive.
“This guy was so passionate about what he thought he had, and honoring his fallen brothers,” Salzberg told Task & Purpose. “It’s never easy to make a movie, but it was easy to gravitate towards this amazing story he had, which is a ‘band of brothers and sisters’ set in present-day Afghanistan.”
Among the slew of war documentaries produced since Sept. 11, only a few have focused on the role National Guardsmen have played in the Global War On Terror, which makes “Citizen Soldier” somewhat unique in that regard. But what really makes the film stand out is that the directors worked closely with service members and military officials at all levels to produce the film. The result is an adaption of Harrill’s deployment that was created with input from not just the men and women who lived it, but also the Oklahoma National Guard’s entire chain-of-command.
Watch an exclusive clip from “Citizen Soldier” below.
“We attack our films from the top and the bottom,” Salzberg said. “So, literally, we’ve got four-star generals, we’ve got huge military advocates, and we’ve got secretaries of defense. But we also work with the units right down to lower ranking soldiers or Marines who were there, and we get everyone together as a team and we give them an overall voice.”
The 45th Infantry Brigade, also known as the “Thunderbirds,” deployed to eastern Afghanistan in Spring 2011. Over the next year, the unit fought in the contested mountain valleys of Laghman province. By the time the brigade returned to Oklahoma, 14 of its soldiers were dead, and more than 300 were wounded, making it the bloodiest deployment for the Thunderbirds since the Global War on Terror began.
“Citizen Soldier” is the second in a series of immersive feature films about the Afghan War directed by Salzberg and Tureaud that will be completed over the next couple of years. The first was “Hornet’s Nest,” a documentary about two journalist who covered the war in Afghanistan as a father-son team. Two more documentaries are scheduled to follow, including “Danger Close,” a film about special operations soldiers that will be released in 2017.
Like “Hornet’s Nest,” “Citizen Soldier” jumps between visceral combat footage and emotional interviews with the film’s subjects, who, years later, are still wrestling with their experiences overseas.
“We are doing what we can do in our own way to serve, to help, to tell these stories, to highlight, to create charitable endeavors, and to give back to the community that gives us so much,” said Tureaud. “That’s why the name of our company is Strong Eagle Media. We’re America’s media company.”
In the earliest days of the war, the mission in Afghanistan was very clear: oust the Taliban regime and destroy al Qaeda. Then the focus narrowed down to killing Osama bin Laden, who, it turned out, was in Pakistan.
Ask a young soldier what the American mission in Afghanistan is now and chances are he’ll shrug his shoulders and say something like, “I’m fighting for the guys to my left and right.” Because that’s what soldiers fight for when the mission is no longer important to them, or if they can’t comprehend what it is. And it’s that point of view — the point of view of soldiers who are focused only on getting themselves and their men out of country alive — that “Citizen Soldier” captures well.
That was intentional. Salzberg and Tureaud were determined to make an “apolitical” war documentary — a move that, we assume, helped earn it an official endorsement from the National Guard Association of the United States.
“One of our filmmaking principles is to tell these stories apolitically,” said Tureaud. “We’re not anti-war; we’re not pro-war; we’re not Republican; we’re not Democrat; we don’t re-litigate the war. Our style is an immersive first-person experience using real footage. We take the audience there.”
Watch the trailer for "Citizen Soldier" below.
Despite their attempt to remain apolitical, Salzberg and Tureaud have made an unabashedly patriotic war film. While Sebastian Junger’s “Restrepo” gave us the occasional glimpse of soldiers making questionable decisions — calling an airstrike on an inhabited village, for example — there’s no question about who the good guys are in “Citizen Soldier.” Even the Afghan soldiers the Thunderbird are partnered with aren’t to be trusted, because, as one soldier points out, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know “who their allegiances are to.”
But that’s about as far as “Citizen Soldier” goes in trying to help the audience understand the myriad complexities that have hamstrung the American military mission in Afghanistan. The war itself only serves as a backdrop for the drama of combat. At one point, as the film moves into its culminating battle scene, a few of the guardsmen attempt to parse the intricate web of militia groups that inhabit their sector.
“If I understand this, there’s the Taliban, the new Taliban, and then the real Taliban?” a young soldier asks while jets bomb the valley around him.
“This is the Haqqani network here,” another soldier replies. “You have the Haqqani network, and you have some Taliban offshoots, and just freaking thugs.”
“And we’re battling thugs right now?”
No, explains the other, they’re battling the Haqqani network. The film then cuts to an interview with another soldier, a captain, who says, “We came to the conclusion that, you know, if we die here, the worst part of dying for us is that the hair on our arms won’t raise up during our funerals when they play the national anthem.”
A soldier did, in fact, die during the battle that day. But it wasn’t that one.
“Citizen Soldier” will be available nationwide on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as all major cable/satellite On Demand and internet VOD providers, on Aug. 30.