Certainly, in comparison to the United States’ losses, others suffered far fewer casualties overall. Yet, their sacrifices were no less real.
Given my passion for military history and my background in national security, my children have come to accept that Hollywood’s latest offerings with a military theme are prime time viewings in our house. Most recently, their cinematic education (or, “indoctrination,” in my wife’s words) included The Outpost, Rod Lurie’s film adaptation of Jake Tapper’s book of the same name. While watching the film, my son and I were taken aback to see a soldier with the Latvian flag on his shoulder. As the father of dual Latvian-American nationals, any time their (our?) small Baltic nation gets a proverbial ‘shout out’ in popular culture, it’s a cause for celebration. Had I read Tapper’s book, I would have known of the roles that two Latvian military advisers, First Sergeant Jānis Laķis and Corporal Mārtiņš Dāboliņš, played in the grueling battle to defend combat outpost ‘Keating’ in Afghanistan. The two were there as part of a NATO mission to train Afghan soldiers. Both fought bravely alongside their U.S. counterparts. Laķis’ and Dāboliņš’ heroism is now rightly a part of Latvia’s proud martial history. That brief glimpse of a flag onscreen sparked a conversation with my son about the contributions of NATO allies’ in Afghanistan during nearly two decades of war.
Like many Americans, my son was unfamiliar with the significant combat roles certain allies and partners had played in the war in Afghanistan, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and, of course, Latvia. Certainly, in comparison to the United States’ losses, others suffered far fewer casualties overall. Yet, their sacrifices were no less real. The parts they played there, in response to terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, should remind all Americans that we have – and still need – close compatriots in what is sure to remain a dangerous security environment. Democratic civil authorities’ decisions to spend blood and treasure on securing our interests will increasingly depend on international support and the legitimacy that such solidarity confers. If anyone’s in doubt that such camaraderie can come at a high cost to others too, I recommend giving Denmark’s experiences in Afghanistan a visual tour to remind ourselves of the ways in which many who joined our ‘family’ of nations inside Afghanistan after 9/11 also served.
Denmark now has around 150 advisers in Afghanistan, a number well below the 750 or so mechanized infantry and other personnel it deployed there at the height of its combat operations a decade ago. It holds the unfortunate distinction of having suffered 43 fatalities in Afghanistan, the highest per capita death rate of any troop-contributing nation. Along with American and British allies, Danish forces played an important role in combat operations in southern Afghanistan during a very high operations tempo from roughly 2009 to 2011.
Another unique distinction that Denmark shares with America is that its combat experiences in Afghanistan inspired a number of films. Thus, in my own effort to help my son appreciate the too-often unacknowledged role that NATO’s small states played in that war, we took a deep dive into Denmark’s engagements in Afghanistan, as captured through the camera’s lens.
We started with a 2010 documentary, Armadillo, which tracks a unit of the Guard Hussars deployed to the war-ravaged Helmand Province for six months during the 2009 spike in combat there. From their affinities for shoulder tattoos and heavy metal music to their bonding over first-person shooter video games, the Danes in the film appear little different from their American compatriots, portrayed in similarly powerful films such as Restrepo and Korengal. (The latter’s pre-deployment party will surely be familiar to many American soldiers – it’s one that this father decided his son should wait a few years to see…). Like most young people who land on the sharp end of decisions that faceless generals and politicians take, the soldiers depicted were often neither interested in the high politics of the conflict nor curious about the intricacies of Afghan tribal life. Instead of fighting for grand objectives, they tested their own mettle and, most importantly, fought to protect their comrades.
Perhaps the deepest public realization from Armadillo’s release was that the asymmetric conflicts into which Danish soldiers were regularly deploying were by nature morally ambiguous and relentlessly violent.
Armadillo’s release provoked a strong reaction across Danish society, with many Danes shocked that their military was engaged in far more than winning ‘hearts and minds’ and performing civil engineering projects. One particularly brutal engagement prompted allegations that Danes had killed wounded Taliban fighters. It’s hard to believe anyone watching from the comfort of a living room or a Copenhagen theater – the film was rushed into release because of extensive public interest – could conclude anything definitive about that particular moment beyond the sheer chaos that defines most firefights. According to the film’s director, Janus Metz, a military inquiry recommended no action be taken against the soldiers. As Metz put it in 2011, “…the film depicted an incident that is potentially a war crime and revealed not only the difficulties, dilemmas, and paradoxes that underpin[ned] the conflict in Afghanistan, but also how war and military logic threatens to end in savagery.” Perhaps the deepest public realization from Armadillo’s release was that the asymmetric conflicts into which Danish soldiers were regularly deploying were by nature morally ambiguous and relentlessly violent.
This reality was also captured in striking terms in the 2015 film Krigen (“A War”), which is a fictional account of the trial of a Danish officer after he ordered an airstrike that killed Afghan civilians. The film screens like a reaction to the disquiet Armadillo stirred. Here was an effort, with a Hollywood touch, to strip away the fig leaf that hid Danish missions under names like ‘reconstruction and development.’ The portrayal asks how Danish viewers would react if they faced the same split-second decisions their fellow citizens did downrange. It exposes the wounds war inflicts on families, too, with its raw portrayals of the burdens that separation forced onto single parents and children back home. Perhaps even more so than in America – where ‘Support our Troops’ rhetoric is at least part of the national conversation – the experience of Danish military families is portrayed as one of loneliness and detachment from a population that has very little familiarity with the military and even less with its foreign operations.
In 2014, Danish public television released the visually jarring series Min Krig (“My War”), which triggered little of the consternation Armadillo had just a few years prior (though both depictions showed events from the same period). This was in spite of the fact that My War relied almost exclusively on helmet camera footage of Danish soldiers deployed to southern Afghanistan. It’s just as visceral in its display of fierce firefights and of the shattering impacts these had on combatants. Could it be that, after nearly fifteen years of combat deployments, Danes – like Americans – have grown accustomed to their soldiers fighting and dying in a forever war?
One scene in A War lingers: It depicts the moments leading up to and immediately after an improvised explosive device tears through the legs of one of the platoon’s respected veterans. Wrenching footage of the blast, the horror on his comrades’ faces, and their scramble to carry him back inside the wire is all deeply moving. It recalls startling footage from the Battle of Hué in 1968 or similarly devastating scenes of American forces in Afghanistan, captured by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington in Restrepo and Korengal, respectively.
Afghanistan’s war is NATO’s albatross. Watching any of these films can lead one to wonder rightly whether the sacrifices displayed are justified by the dubious political gains of the past two decades. Yet, in a period in which the strength and efficacy of the Western alliance system is frequently called into question by political leaders, the footage of these Danish soldiers is a vivid reminder of the courage and commitment of America’s allies and friends. There is a Spanish proverb that says, “An ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship,” meaning a family’s natural bond is stronger than any other. But at war, those words can take on a whole new meaning. The collective blood shed among friends fighting for each other creates a bond unique in its depth and durability. With Western democracies facing a myriad of threats from state and non-state actors alike, America needs allies like these more than ever.
Todd Johnson is the risk and intelligence leader for a leading multinational manufacturing firm. He has previously held roles in corporate strategy, political and partnership risk management, and in the U.S. Government as a political-military intelligence analyst. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: (L) The Memorial to Danish overseas military deployments in Kastellet, Copenhagen. (R) Soldiers with the Danish Contingent stand in formation during their end of mission ceremony aboard Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, May 20, 2014. That year marked the 17th rotation and final major deployment to Afghanistan for DANCON. Since their first mission began, more than 18,000 Danish soldiers have deployed to the country.
Photo Credit: (L) Zymurgy via Wikimedia Commons (R) Sgt. Jessica Ostroska, USMC