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A War: Afghanistan Through a Danish Lens

Denmark’s nominee for Best Foreign Film confronts hard decisions, at home and on the battlefield.

Magnolia Pictures

Titling a film “A War” is a bold move. It feels almost irresponsibly vague, a claim that wars are interchangeable and that it is only to justify them that we adorn them with specifics—dictators to be deposed, weapons of mass destruction to be found. Yet at their core, wars are all the same, a calculus of violence and human suffering solved in a thousand variations depending on which side you ask. So A War is the best possible title for Denmark’s Oscar nominee, which, scrubbed of the patriotism and politics that define American war films, transcends the war in the Middle East to interrogate the struggle of all conflicted decisions, military or otherwise. 

Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is a Danish army commander in Afghanistan leading a group of coalition soldiers offering humanitarian aid while keeping the Taliban at bay. Back in Denmark, Claus’s wife Maria struggles with juggling their three children on her own. For the first half of the film director Tobias Lindholm splices expertly between husband and wife, so that the film feels like a series of vignettes linked by repeated images, like helicopters buzzing above both the Afghan camp and the Danish homeland. The film feels content for a while to jump back and forth between the two, making it clear that the war is fought on all sides at all times—until Claus orders an air strike that inadvertently kills three Afghan civilians and eight children. He is sent back to Denmark for a court-martial, and the rest of the film follows his struggle with his guilt: If killing children is wrong, is spending years in jail, away from his own children, even more wrong? 

The war in Afghanistan is one of the greatest shapers of America’s contemporary cultural identity. But there were troops from 50 other countries fighting in the NATO coalition, all of whom had fundamentally different experiences. Denmark, which deployed 9,500 soldiers between 2002 and 2013, had not been in a war since World War II, during which they were under Nazi Occupation for five years. When they pulled out in 2013, after twelve years, Danish forces had lost 43 men, the highest per-capita casualty rate of any coalition member. But for most of that time support for the war had remained relatively high. Unsullied by the confusion that came in America with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, Denmark’s war remained tied to the defeat of the Taliban, and politicians framed it from the beginning as a humanitarian campaign rather than, as it was in the U.S., a retaliation for September 11.

It is only natural, then, that a Danish representation of the war would feel fundamentally different from an American one. Movies about America’s involvement in the Middle East have more often than not been mired in controversy: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) was ensnared in a fierce debate about whether the movie condoned torture, while American Sniper (2014) came to be seen as a validation of America’s military ego. In A War, however, individual responsibility, not politics, is the question. Each scene, beginning with an IED explosion that blasts off a soldier’s legs, hones in a decision that must be made: Snipers must decide whether to shoot a Taliban fighter using a child as a human shield; Maria must choose whether to lie to her hospitalized son about his father’s return; Claus must determine if it’s safe to take in an Afghan family seeking shelter. Instead of stacking up into a grand indictment of the Afghan war, these scenes emphasize the sheer mass of decisions, big and small, that people make every day, and how difficult it can be to gauge the weight of the outcome. 

As is often the case in war films, children play a particularly poignant role in A War. In a film mostly devoid of patriotic imagery, Lindholm uses children to emphasize both the innocence and the cruelty of war. The Afghan boys playing near the site of an IED mirror Claus’s son Julius playing soccer with his classmates. But the repeated image of a dead child’s foot poking out from under a blanket and Julius’s foot hanging off his bed as his father tucks him in at night makes the chasm between the two countries clear.

“The issue is not what you should have done, but what you do now,” Maria tells Claus as he ponders whether to lie in his court martial to avoid a guilty verdict. This more than anything is the message of the film: There was a war, as there always is. We did terrible things, even if we did them to stop other terrible things from happening. What now? 

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