“Okay buddy, how ya doing today?" a Marine asks as he stands over the body of a dead Afghan man. “You look like you just got fucked."
A cameraman with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment stands nearby, rolling tape. He zooms in to show the man's mangled right hand, where a round impacted before entering his torso.
It's sometime in 2011 in Kajaki, Afghanistan. A scout sniper team has been cleared to take the shot, suspecting the target of being a spotter for Taliban fighters in the area. When the patrol arrives to inspect the body, they find that the now-dead man was a local shopkeeper, and he was unarmed. It's unclear whether the man, whose killing was cleared under the rules of engagement, was an observer for the Taliban, or an innocent bystander.
“Yup, he lived for a little while, then it went in and fucking hit where his liver woulda been," a member of the squad says. After the Afghan National Army soldiers attached to the patrol suggest moving the dead man out of sight, the body is rolled up in a rug.
“It's not good for people to see this," one U.S. Marine says.
After the patrol, Lance Cpl. Jacob Miles Lagoze, the combat cameraman who filmed the scene, returned to the patrol base to file his daily footage. As a Marine, Lagoze enjoyed the kind of unlimited access journalists rarely get. But as a member of the military, and part of the Marine Corps' combat camera field — which gathers footage for historical documentation — he was charged with portraying the war, and the Americans who fought it, in a certain light. It wasn't until he'd been a civilian for a few years and enrolled in Columbia University's film program in New York that he thought to look back at the hours of footage he'd collected.
In one moment, we see young grunts engaged in heavy combat, carrying wounded comrades to casevac choppers as rounds clap overhead. In the next, they smoke pot from an empty Pringles can that they've MacGyvered into a bong.
“When I got back, I didn't really know what to do with it," Lagoze, who left the service in 2013, told Task & Purpose. “I had this footage on my computer, sort of like a weird diary, with a lot of fucked up shit — dead civilians, wounded Marines — that never got released."
He spent two years putting it all together, and the result is Combat Obscura. The hour-long documentary is raw, visceral and candid — offering a rare glimpse of what deployed life was actually like for the Marines and sailors of 1/6. It's pieced together without a clear narrative arc or voice-over explanation that might tell viewers how to feel about what they're seeing. It offers no judgments, raises many questions, and provides few outright answers.
“Who are these kids, where do they come from, what is their moral compass at times?" Lagoze asks. “I mean, there's some rough boys in the Marine Corps, so being able to give people this insider's perspective is really important to moving forward in understanding this conflict, and what these young kids are out there doing, and what that experience is like."
Lagoze knows this unfiltered footage will anger the Corps, and possibly draw the ire of some of the Marines he served with, but he says that exposing the reality of that war is worth the risk. And the risks are substantial: The Navy is conducting an investigation into the documentary over concerns about criminal activity it depicts, and the Marine Corps is trying to determine whether or not the service has proprietary ownership of some of the footage used.
Combat Obscura isn't about “painting these guys as heroes or victims" or “painting this war as an ultimately good thing in the long run," Lagoze said, adding that it's about “showing an honest to God depiction that doesn't cater to either side of the political spectrum, and humanizing these guys and showing, ultimately, the futility of this whole experience."
The result is one of most genuine looks at what the Forever War was like for those who waged it. Gunfights mingle with moments of extreme honesty, sadness, humor, confusion, rebellion, and boredom. In one moment, we see young grunts engaged in heavy combat, carrying wounded comrades to casevac choppers as rounds clap overhead. In the next, they smoke pot from an empty Pringles can that they've MacGyvered into a bong. Later, they pack hash into cigarettes while on patrol.
In other words, Combat Obscura is the flipside of the carefully vetted, promotional videos Lagoze was creating every day as part of the Marine Corps' vast public relations operation.
The documentary was compiled from footage shot during a seven-month deployment to Kajaki, a swath of hamlets and farmland along the Helmand River where I, too, deployed in 2011 as a combat correspondent attached to 1/6, and sometimes worked alongside Lagoze, taking photos and writing news stories. The film includes clips from Justin Loya, another combat cameraman attached to the unit, as well as helmet-cam footage from infantrymen in the battalion.
Lagoze's warts-and-all approach evolved slowly. In early cuts of the film, he found himself leaving out some of the more troubling scenes. Eventually, he realized he was “self-censoring" the footage — keeping out “the stuff that I felt civilians wouldn't understand." Lagoze decided that what was really missing from our understanding of the war was precisely the material that viewers might find hard to watch.
Jacob Miles Lagoze after he was hit by grenade shrapnel in Kajaki, Afghanistan in 2011.Courtesy photo
“When I finally said 'fuck it' and stopped trying to explain the shit and show it for what it is — how gritty and ugly it was — it brought a much more honest feeling about the whole thing, and my memories of it," he said.
Because the footage was shot while he was on active duty, Lagoze sought clearance last summer from the Pentagon's Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review to use it. The Defense Department's media review process determined that no classified or privileged information was in the the footage they reviewed, according to a DoD statement Lagoze provided to T&P.;
However, because of what's shown in Combat Obscura — Marines smoking hash, for one — and how the video was obtained, the query was passed to the Corps for a service-level review.
“It was pretty eye-opening and provoking, to say the least," Lt. Col. Christian Devine, the director of the Marine Corps Entertainment Media Liaison Office, told Task & Purpose.
“We never had to answer this before. This is new territory."
Devine explained that because of the “possible nature of some alleged criminal activity that's captured on the segments that we saw," the Marine Corps promptly flagged the footage for review by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which launched an investigation. On March 6, NCIS declined to provide Task & Purpose with any details on that investigation due to its ongoing nature.
Devine insists the film contains footage that was never approved for release by the service and that only a rough "technical cut of the documentary" was provided for review. The service has also raised the issue of ownership, arguing in a December statement Lagoze provided to T&P; that that the footage “was filmed using Marine Corps equipment" and therefore might legally belong to the military.
“All of the video content that was captured in the video segments that we saw were obviously from different cameras, but a lot of the content that he captured — the direct action, the casevac, and the patrols — we believe those were captured on government equipment," Devine told T&P.; “And for him to now use that content and make his own documentary, that's where we were kind of pulling layers of the onion back, in order to discover: Who actually owns that content?"
The service hasn't answered the question definitively yet. Lagoze's case, it turns out, is unprecedented.
“It brought up a lot of questions about the role of the individual service member capturing content and making their own documentary when they're in a combat zone," Devine explained. “We never had to answer this before. This is new territory."
Lagoze insists he has every right to screen his film. "They're not really saying I can't show the movie," Lagoze said. “Obviously they would prefer it not to be shown, but their only legal argument is that they have proprietary ownership because they say I shot it as a combat cameraman with Marine Corps equipment." Lagoze declined to say how much of the documentary was filmed using service gear.
Whatever the Corps decides, Lagoze remains determined. “Documentaries don't make any money in general… but it's definitely worth the fight," he said. “I did my due diligence. I sent it through the review process through the Pentagon, just to make sure there was nothing classified."
While his decision to submit this for review has triggered the scrutiny his film and its subjects are now under, Lagoze remained hopeful that the Marine Corps would eventually see the film for what it is — an honest portrayal of deployment to a distant and austere patrol base. “It's not some kind of anti-military thing," he said.
When you're a 20-something enlisted Marine at the bottom of the totem pole, waging a counterinsurgency campaign that's a split between combat and nation-building in a Taliban haven, tidy narratives can be hard to come by. And the questions “What are we doing here? Why? And to what end?" don't receive ready answers, if they're even asked. The day-to-day largely equates to stepping off on patrol and thinking let's see if we'll get shot at today.
“I'm not trying to simplify or explain that situation," Lagoze told T&P.; “I really want to give it the complexity that it deserves, because war is obviously a lot of different things."
In that spirit, Combat Obscura can seem confusing to many viewers. It's meant to be.
Afghanistan “wasn't simple or black and white," Lagoze, who received the Purple Heart after he was wounded by a grenade during a firefight on that deployment, told Task & Purpose. “It was funny, it was strange, it was terrifying, and really, just to be able to show it in its full absurdity, I think, is the most powerful way to show it. The vast absurdity of the whole experience dwarfs any narrative you try to create around it."
In an agonizing scene near the end of the documentary, a Marine is shot in the head and mortally wounded. When the movie abruptly cuts to a Navy corpsman's ode to Afghanistan, sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells," the viewer has no idea what to think — especially when you consider that Lagoze was ostensibly deployed as part of the service's public relations apparatus, what he calls “this weird perpetuation of propaganda."
“I'm not pissed off about it; that's not why I'm making this movie," he said. “But being a cameraman and being out there, you've got such incredible access, at the same time that you're filming the complete polar opposite, which is the PR stuff. But you have all this other stuff that the guys want you to film."
Lagoze decided that what was really missing from our understanding of the war was precisely the material that viewers might find hard to watch.
But combat cameramen ultimately work for the Corps, not themselves or their buddies downrange, Devine, the Marines' entertainment liaison, told T&P.; “We have an active duty, military member, a combat cameraman, who is ordered to go and support the unit in combat to document their actions in combat," he said, “and at the same time, puts together his own personal documentary about the combat experience in that unit that is not in concert with our core values whatsoever, and what we expect our Marines to be doing in combat."
One thing they don't expect is for deployed Marines to be getting stoned in a warzone — an offense for which the penalties are severe. Loya, the other combat cameraman on that deployment whose footage is included in the film, was separated by the service in 2012 with a Bad Conduct Discharge after testing positive for cannabis while deployed to Kajaki.
Getting high downrange was “really just another kind of rush, I guess," Loya said. “It was just such a crazy place to find yourself in life — on deployment, in a warzone — and so why not?"
Since Loya is now separated from the Marine Corps, he can't be disciplined further. But neither, it turns out, can any of the other Marines smoking substances in Combat Obscura. “Unfortunately," Devine told Task & Purpose, “we are past the statute of limitations for pursuing disciplinary or criminal action" — even though the Corps got NCIS involved.
That said, the service isn't about to let the documentary pass without comment. “The criminal activity captured in the documentary is inexcusable and selfish, and endangered the security of the Marines in that unit," Devine said, adding that “the depiction of any DOD personnel or equipment in the film should not be misconstrued as a service endorsement of Mr. Lagoze's documentary."
While the Marine Corps might not like it, Lagoze wants viewers to be able to make their own judgments about the young servicemen in his film, knowing full well that they don't fit the tidy stereotypes of American combat troops.
“People seem to have a very formulaic idea of the uniform," Lagoze said. “On the right, you're a hero, a sacrificial lamb, you're god's gift to America, and on the left, it's that you're probably just naive and too dumb to know what you're signing up for."
Now that the documentary is done, Lagoze said he hopes “that people stop looking at us like we're victims... or part of the greatest generation or something. It was a lot more muddled and complex than that."
“I think it will be kind of hard for people to watch," he said. “But sometimes that's kind of what it has to be."