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Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires_The Ninth Company

There is one thing about laid up with an injury for a period of time-it provides opportunity to watch your stacked up movies on your Netflix list.

So it was one recent Saturday when I finally got to watch the 2005 release of The Ninth Company a Russian production about a paratroop company that served in Afghanistan in the 80s. The movie was subtitled in English.

Russian paratroops wear a distinctive blue and white striped under garment.

Russian paratroops wear a distinctive blue and white striped under garment.

The 9th Company was a reminder of a historical truth and that is Afghanistan has never totally been conquered. The country is known as the Graveyard of Empires. The British were there for more than a century protecting India mostly from the Russians. They found a hostile population that became the grave site of many a British and Indian soldier in the days of the Empire.

Afghanistan is home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth as well as home to a primitive and traditional people who were fierce warriors even prior to Islam something that made them even more fanatical.

A Soviet era officer  in the movie reminds the young, largely uneducated paratroops during their training that they will be fighting an enemy that blends in with the population so well that you cannot tell friend from foe and indeed there was little difference between the two.

The Mujaheddin were supplied with Stinger missiles by the US to fight the Russians.

The Mujaheddin were supplied with Stinger missiles by the US to fight the Russians.

The movie is a recreation based loosely according to some reviews on an incident involving the Ninth Company of a Soviet era Guards Paratroop Regiment, an elite force still today in Russia’s military.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 ostensibly to prop up a friendly pro-Soviet government in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. The Soviet’s and the few Afghans that truly supported them were never able to control much of the countryside. Afghanistan was and is a country of tradition with a pretty thick coating of Muslim fanaticism, something our own country has learned since we invaded in 2001 to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban who supported him.

The US under President Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics that were held in Moscow because of the invasion. The boycott let to the US supporting the mujaheddin (Afghan and Arab fighters) with weapons and other support. Ironic now, but the Cold War was still going on and the West at that point probably didn’t understand the depth of Muslim fanaticism. Besides, and I don’t know who said it, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Politics and war can make for some pretty strange bedfellows.

The incident involving The Ninth Company occurred shortly before the Soviets vacated the country in 1988. The Ninth Company was ordered to hold a ridge in order to protect supply convoys. The highlight of the movie is an enormous battle where the mujaheddin come within a whisker of over running the position.

Scene toward the end of the movie as the Russian position is about to be over run.

Scene toward the end of the movie as the Russian position is about to be over run.

From what I read the movie over states the casualties suffered by the paratroops but even so the historical record of the engagement shows that few paratroops emerged unscathed from the ordeal.

The movie is long at almost 2 1/2 hours. It has some similarities to other movies in the genre. The one that came to my mind was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that traced the training of a US Marine unit from basic training to battles in Vietnam.

Like other war type movies within the last 30 plus years it totally lacks a spiritual dimension and does not deal with larger questions of life and death. The references to Islam are not spiritual and merely a commentary on the fierceness of Islam’s warriors for Allah.

One of the things the movie has in common with western movies about soldiers is the idea of the cross-section of recruits. The movie begins with young Soviet-era men enlisting in the Army and more specifically, in the paratroopers. There is a guy from the mean streets of some Soviet city who is the bully. Another was raised in an orphanage. Another seems weaker than the rest and is made fun of and still another is a painter who is made fun of because he is loyal to his girlfriend (to  a point). This diverse group of men are slowly molded into a unit by an Afghan war veteran who is slightly messed up in the head having suffered the loss of his entire platoon and getting a head wound in the process.

The Ninth Company was similar to Full Metal Jacket in many ways.

The Ninth Company was similar to Full Metal Jacket in many ways.

The movie accurately portrays the beatings by their own sergeants that Soviet-era armies were noted for. This is something not tolerated in western armies.

One of the other things the film has in common with American or British war films is the comradeship that develops between the men who have been through hell together. In fact, that is the number one redeeming quality of the film. Soldiers do not die for their country or a cause usually, but they will die for their comrades, a point that comes across loud and clear in The Ninth Company.

In the American production of Hamburger Hill, a film about elite American paratroops taking a hill in Vietnam there is a “what was the point of it all” type theme at the end.

Both The Ninth Company and Hamburger Hill had a "what was the point" type closure.

Both The Ninth Company and Hamburger Hill had a “what was the point” type closure.

A few days after the unit  takes Hamburger Hill they are ordered to leave it. In the Ninth Company after holding the ridge they are ordered out of Afghanistan. One of the surviving Russian paratroops tries to make sense of it all, gives up and simply says, “we won our war.”

As I write this I think of ours and our allies involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq the latest manifestation of the mujaheddin have already retaken Fallujah, a city our Marines had wrestled from them in a bloody fight in 2004. Now they are back and the Iraqi Army, retrained by the western powers are unable or unwilling to stop them. I suspect that once we leave Afghanistan the Taliban will be back there as well and our military will ask “what was the point?” Their answer will echo the words of those Soviet paratroops, “we won our war.”

I think the phrase sums up what any professional soldier of any country might say especially in a “lost cause” type war where they just did what was asked of them.

I would not recommend this movie for everyone. It’s harsh and the language is brutally realistic and crude. If you’ve ever been in the military you know what I mean.

And if you are relatively history ignorant you may see it as just another war movie which clearly is not. The movie is first and foremost about the comradeship between soldiers fighting in a war they barely understand and simply doing what is asked of them. I think the movie’s other redeeming quality is that  it raises the question of why fight a war if you really do not intend to win and then what does that “win” look like once you’ve won it.

The Ninth Company is rated “R” mostly for military type language and the bloody horrors of war. Ninth Company does have brief nudity when part of the unit takes advantage of a willing female camp follower during their training. That incident occurs shortly before they embark to Afghanistan and they take the opportunity to “party” one last time.

I gave it 4 stars on Netflix because it does a great job of emphasizing the comradeship between soldiers, the futility of an unclear war, and the differences in a western type culture (I realize that Russia is not quite Britain or the US but it’s closer to our culture than it is to Islam) versus a fanatical Islamic State.

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