I recently watched American Sniper and responded strongly to it. The Texas culture of sports and faith that gave rise to Navy Seal Chris Kyle felt accurate, as did the American wrath after 9/11.
What also struck me was how familiar the scenes and emotions felt when lined up against another film about an elite military unit dropped into a different world in the Middle East, where the men were fighting to protect each other. That movie was The 9th Company, a 2005 Russian movie about Soviet troops in Afghanistan near the end of the Soviet incursion into the country, which started in December 1979 and ended in early 1989. Like American Sniper, 9th Company had a factual base, about a 39-man Soviet unit pinned down by mujahadeen attackers in a mountain outpost.
While 9th Company deviated farther from history for its dramatic punch, the two movies track closely in their emotional arcs. It starts with bravado and tough training, the families left behind, the arrival in an Asian country (Afghanistan for the Russians, Iraq for the Americans) where the foes don’t wear uniforms and use children for attacks, and where the local culture sometimes shows an eerie and chilling politeness to the military forces. Both movies feature tough operational lectures by commanding officers. 9th Company is especially striking with the in-country professional outlining what’s “haram” — forbidden — in Afghanistan and he stresses the women. That’s not an issue in American Sniper, but the cultural context is similar. Out against the enemy, the geopolitical forces that drove the interventions vanish into the background and the motivation force narrows down to protecting your squad and yourself while executing the mission. The western technology edge, especially the helicopters, looms large.
The films share a climactic battle, with Russians stranded on a hill, Americans isolated in a building under attack. The Russians get the worst of it in the movie (although the reality wasn’t quite as Alamo-like as film version with the Russian version of the Lone Survivor) and the Americans, with Chris Kyle, do what Americans do in a howling sandstorm.
I wondered what the discussions would be like if U.S. and Russian veterans met to talk about their war experiences. The U.S. government opposed the Soviet invasion and imposition of a Communist regime in Afghanistan, and funded the mujahadeen, with fateful results. The Russians came and went, and then 12 years later the Americans came and threw out the Taliban, but we’re still there. What would they say? What did they accomplish, what bonds, if any do they share?
I won’t push the parallels too far; The U.S. Army is by no means the Red Army in training or combat approach. Still, the overlap of the experiences as strangers in a strange land is striking. I can only hope the genre does not grow larger.