Yesterday, November 7th, my friends and I saw the U.S. release of Louie Palu and co-director Devin Gallagher's documentary at the National Gallery of Art.
At least 200 people, spent over an hour of their rainy Saturday afternoon traveling through Kandahar with Louie as he framed his experience of five years covering the war in Afghanistan.
The audience went on "road sweeps" with Louie looking for landmines, survived contact (attacks), hung out with villagers and had an uncomfortably good view of the medical teams who struggled to encase stumps where legs had once been.
Of course, we could not feel the heat of the Afghan sun or smell the burning flesh that Louie says was seared in his mind. We could not feel the boredom of war or fear for our own lives. We could only look with awe at what he and others experience.
He danced the difficult line of documenting his experience without portraying the U.S., Canadian and Afghan forces as solely saviors or victims. He showed the complexities of their role and stronghold of the Taliban.
Looking at soldiers collapsed on the ground with heat and fear exhaustion, I thought, "We ask so much of our young men."
We not only ask for their time when they serve in the military.
We ask for their whole bodies.
Beyond their bodies we also ask for their souls.
We ask them to suffer enormous emotional traumas, witness horrific acts, and then be the best versions of ourselves.
One soldier put so poignantly that he never knew how to prepare for the day because either he could be engaged in combat or sitting with 12 hours talking to villagers. I cannot imaging preparing for those extremes.
We ask so much.
War asks so much.
Identity of the Taliban
The interviewed soldier also highlighted another aspect of the Taliban that I had never considered. He said that all kinds of people claim they are part of the "Taliban" in order to incite the fear and benefit from compliance that that word often demands.
He said many of these folks may be individual gun runners or be carrying out other tasks not necessarily related to the overall mission of the Taliban. With no jobs, said the soldier, he could almost understand why people go to extreme measures to feed their families.
From an identity standpoint, his commentary on the Taliban is powerful and salient. The U.S. media, politicians, and public contribute to the construction of "The Taliban." We help make them the terrifying enemy they want to be. Then other groups can appropriate the name and simply borrow the attributes.
Group affiliation is not always very solid and group identity isn't always clear or acquired for the same reasons.
We know this from religion. People have varying degrees of commitment to their religious group.
Words have power.
Louie's work is to show us the war. In Conflict Resolution, our job is to say what the images mean. By making meaning, we frame, orient and respond.
Saying one is part of the "Taliban" does social work -- work that an individual does not have to do oneself. The same with gang membership.
A takeaway here is that just because someone says they are a part of something does not mean their commitment to the group or its ethos has the same gravitas as the most extreme member.
Some who affiliate with these extremist groups may affiliate themselves for financial reasons rather than ideological ones. It's not necessary to assume that the identity is fixed. They might shift their story in a day or week were conditions to change.
When I hear that folks ascribe the Taliban identity for various purposes, I am reminded that we can work with the many folks on the edges. There are many, I suspect, not deeply committed to destruction. We can provide people with alternatives but only if we stop storying all of them all as enemies with a fixed identity.
Identity is mutable.