In a scene from National Geographic’s upcoming documentary series, Chain of Command, U.S. Army Col. Patrick Work addresses his command staff via video teleconference from a tent in an unnamed location in Iraq.
“Courage is willpower,” announces Work, who at the time, served as the brigade commander for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, which assisted the Iraqi army in dislodging the Islamic State from the Mosul, the country’s second largest city. “Courage is when the doors open the aircraft and you’re like, man, I hope I don’t die tonight, yet you still walk out. And you can’t do it alone, it’s a lot easier if you’ve got a whole bunch of people with willpower around you.”
On laptops and television screens, Work’s soldiers watch and listen from separate hooches, command posts, and duty huts stretched across the area of operations. Many are near the outskirts, or in, Mosul where the fight to retake the city still rages on. It’s not long after a March 2017 American airstrike left more than 100 Iraqi civilians dead.
“We have to be discriminate, we have to be proportionate, it must be necessary,” Work continues. “And on the 17th of March, some atrocity happened, and God’s going to judge me too someday … What I’m telling you is that there’s no guarantee this is going to go their way or our way. We have a mission.”
With that, the credits begin to roll and the series’ second episode, which premieres in a two-part installment on Jan. 15, draws to a close. Work adds: “I’m very proud of you. I’m proud to be among you. I’m proud to serve with you. No place I’d rather be than right here, right now.”
The first two episodes of the eight-hour series, which Task & Purpose screened ahead of the premiere, are laced with moments like this: commanders and their troops, linked by sprawling formations of laptops, holding tablets and manning phones, while they coordinate air strikes and monitor suspected enemy combatants. As the series’ narrator, actor Chris Evans — yes, Captain America — points out frequently: “This is what war looks like for [insert service member’s name and rank here].”
As you can gather from the title, Chain of Command tracks what daily operations in the Global War on Terror, now entering its 17th year, look like from the very top to the very bottom of the military hierarchy. It’s funny: The command chain is a simple, dominant fact of every service member’s life every day, but it feels novel to see the whole chain documented this way on camera. “What eight hours of television allows us and provides us with is the opportunity for the viewers to understand and see the difference for themselves,” Scott Boggins, the showrunner and executive producer for Chain of Command, told Task & Purpose. “For us, it was really important to show the stories behind the links in that chain.”
It’s a pretty enlightening perspective — though how interesting you find it may depend on your own position and rank. Like the military chain itself, the first two episodes are top-heavy with high-level deciders and meetings and discussions and pep speeches. They largely take place inside JOCs, TOCs, COCs, and CICs — and whatever other three-letter acronym you can imagine for that hut with all the radios and screens. This lends Chain of Command an air of exclusivity, assuming you’ve never spent hours standing watch in one.
The documentary series spans the tenure of two commanders-in-chief. Filming began at the end of 2016 and wraps at the end of this month, when Marines currently deployed as part of Task Force Southwest in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province return home, Boggins said. But it starts in the halls of the Pentagon, where conversations with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, provide a top-level view of the Global War on Terror.
From Dunford, the focus slides down the chain link by link. There are the different combatant commands, and then T2C2, the Transregional Threat Coordination Cell — a military think tank, glimpsed in brief roundtable discussions about curtailing the spread of violent extremism. And then, finally, to the men and women deployed across the globe.
Chain of Command covers ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger, South Africa, and… Trinidad and Tobago, some 1,600 miles from the U.S. coast, where the Islamic State has found a potential recruiting ground.
Though National Geographic has worked closely with the Department of Defense on previous programs like Restrepo and Inside Combat Rescue, this series’ approach — O-10 to E-1 — is something Boggins said has “never been done before, at this scope.”
The scope isn’t quite that sweeping so far, with all of the first two episodes’ principal interviewees being O-3s or above. But this likely changes as future episodes venture farther afield in the Global War on Terror. That said, there are some advantages to leaning on the military brass: Chain of Command smartly throws into contrast the Washington-eye view of war and the in-theater perspective.
In one scene, Dunford — no stranger to the infantry or combat ops, but now running a vast, politically charged bureaucracy — is dropped off by a black Escalade. An aide hands him his bags as he juggles his coffee mug and briefcases before making his way indoors. A few minutes later, the series cuts to an Army infantry officer in Iraq, leading his commander through the compound where his troops are billeted — the frames for bunk beds are piled up in the hallway, having just arrived. Until then, the grunts had been sleeping on the concrete.
Given the U.S. mission in Iraq at the time of filming emphasized providing support to Iraqi troops, many of the scenes take place behind LCD screens or in the back of MRAPs, but it’s still a warzone, and one with no clear lines — made evident when a camera following one of the soldiers and his commander pans upward to reveal a gaping hole in the ceiling where an enemy mortar round had previously impacted, just above U.S. troops.
These moments offer grim reminders that while U.S. missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan may now be primarily “advising and assisting,” they remain incredibly complex and dangerous. Last year 33 service members were killed in conflict zones overseas, according to an analysis of U.S. combat deaths by Buzzfeed.
For avid consumers of Iraq and Afghanistan war documentaries, especially veterans of those wars, the early episodes of Chain of Command may disappoint: They don’t capture moments of frenetic combat in places like Fallujah, Marjah, and Korengal. They capture the deliberate, complicated, compartmentalized opening of a new stage in an aging war, one in which the U.S. military isn’t leading the charge — but its members are still shouldering immense risks.
“What is sometimes a little less understood is that the Iraqi plan is what’s unfolding,” Col. Brett Sylvia, the brigade commander with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne, remarks in the first episode. “This is their mission, it’s their operations, and we support them. They’re the ones that are all the way forward on the front lines, and we are not.”
In some ways, Sylvia adds, it “is very difficult to watch others go forward and do the fighting while you stay back. That’s a tough one.” But that’s how most service members stationed across the globe actually experience war: watching others go forward, as they assist from afar. And that’s what Chain of Command captures so well.
Chain of Command premieres Jan. 15 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.