'Taking Fire' must-see viewing as Afghan war claims latest victims
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The scene is a valley in Afghanistan, where a convoy of Humvees speeds down a narrow road, far from civilization. We’re peering through the windshield, sharing the perspective of a soldier riding shotgun as he scans for roadside explosive devices.

A sudden explosion jolts the frame, and the screen goes black. In the next shot, the charred and twisted vehicle has been thrown on its side. Two men are dead and another gravely injured.

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That sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie, but it’s actually a segment from “Taking Fire,” a documentary television series about soldiers serving in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division, which began airing on the Discovery Channel this fall.

At a time when the war in Afghanistan seems like an afterthought among political leaders and the media, the series makes the nation’s longest-running conflict more up close and personal than ever before. And, as the two latest U.S. casualties are reported in fighting with the Taliban, the program is as timely as ever.

As a combat veteran, I was skeptical at first. I feared the series would trivialize the reality, sanitizing the war into just one more entry in our endless streaming menu of entertainment.

Yet after watching several episodes, I’ve found that “Taking Fire” offers a straightforward, unvarnished and complex view of the war and its effects on those serving on the front lines. It’s a story Americans need to see.

What makes the series compelling is its sense of immediacy — all the footage from Afghanistan is provided by the troops themselves, primarily from helmet cams that offer the viewer a first-person perspective on events as they unfold. (The video was recorded in 2010, so there’s no risk that broadcasting the footage will compromise troop safety or operational security six years later.)

“We knew it was going to be the deployment that people would write books about,” one participant, Private First Class J.J. McCool, explains in a voice-over. “I figured I wanted to be able to document that.” 

The events documented by McCool and his brothers in arms are frequently shocking or heartbreaking. A patrol atop an observation post goes from boredom to terror in seconds when the post comes under Taliban fire. A routine check of an Afghan village grows intense when a sniper opens fire. Men are wounded; some are killed in action. The deep bond between combat soldiers is evident when survivors grieve for the lost.

In post-deployment interviews dispersed through the show, the veterans we’ve followed through the earlier footage talk about what they’ve experienced, and how it has affected their lives back home. The endings are not always happy, with several of the veterans describing continued struggles with the aftermath of their combat experience.

Admittedly, “Taking Fire” is occasionally weighed down by the conventions of the reality show genre. It’s frequently repetitious, with video clips shown multiple times to pad out an episode. And since the video is provided not by professional cinematographers but by amateurs with helmet cams and handheld devices, the filming is shaky and can be hard to follow.

Yet I found myself laying those technical criticisms aside as I watched. While the series lacks the cinematic quality and narrative neatness we’ve come to expect from popular films like “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor,” it has a rawness missing from those more carefully crafted films.

The arrival of “Taking Fire” is particularly welcome given that the conflict in Afghanistan, which has now lasted over 16 years and outlasted two presidents, long ago shifted to the back burner in public policy discussions.

In the midst of an intense and heated presidential election, you wouldn’t know that nearly 10,000 uniformed troops and thousands of additional contractors are still on the ground in Afghanistan striving to provide security and stability. 

The sad reality is that, for the last several years, the Obama administration has treated Afghanistan as if they simply wished it would just go away. We can only hope that regardless of who wins the presidency Tuesday, the next administration will show a more decisive commitment to finding a way forward in this forgotten war.

The incoming presidential administration and members of Congress should work to bring renewed attention to the unresolved situation in Afghanistan. Our leaders might do well to start by watching the five episodes of “Taking Fire,” which will remind them of the stakes — and the real human cost — of the lack of direction in America’s longest war.

Parnell is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."


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