More than one Academy Award-winner has been accused of demonizing Muslims, but ”Day One,” the Oscar-nominated short film set against the US war in Afghanistan, makes a Muslim-American woman its hero.
Writer and director Henry Hughes served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade (paywall) for five years, including two deployments in Afghanistan. His friendship with his Afghan-American interpreter, Ayman Aziz, inspired this film, which can be seen in theaters or on-demand.
Hughes spoke with Quartz about his experiences in Afghanistan, the films inspired by America’s 21st-century conflicts, and Bowe Bergdahl. The interview has been condensed and edited.
The focus on an Muslim-American woman isn’t an accident—it was also central to your experience in Afghanistan.
We were conducting counter-insurgency trying to build a nation. That’s what we were doing there. Whether or not that’s what the army is designed to do is a whole other conversation. All of a sudden, your ability to conduct that mission hinged on your ability to communicate. I can’t communicate on the individual level or the social level, with the government there, without this individual speaking for me. We’re not there to really get into firefights and all that stuff. Without the interpreter, you can’t have the mission.
In terms of courage, it takes a lot more courage to be her as a Muslim-American woman surrounded by a bunch of infantrymen in Afghanistan, than to storm up a hill in combat. That’s sort of, intestinal fortitude. I was awarded so many times along the way with little Ranger tabs and Airborne wings and “atta-boys.” She had to figure it out on her own what she thought was right, with basically no one telling you that you’re doing a good job. In fact, most people are telling you that you’re an infidel and a traitor and females can’t do this. That’s courageous. She didn’t wear that on her sleeve at all, and that is insane to walk through life like that so elegantly.
That’s one thing I find a little bit distasteful about a lot of the war picture stuff. It’s easy to aggrandize and glorify combat. It’s trying to find the real things that are tough in life and I think this is one of them.
Do you find that recent films accurately depict the experience of US soldier?
In my opinion, truth is always more important than accuracy. That’s what The Hurt Locker is actually really good at. It’s coming home and looking at 500 types of cereal and going, I want to go back to war. They distilled that so incredibly well. Despite all the discrepancies of The Hurt Locker, how inaccurate their tactics were, that moment was the highest truth I think I’ve seen on movies of the recent wars. At least about what it was like to come home.
On the other side, sometimes the most realistic war films can seem unbelievable.
That has certainly happened in my own experiences, where you go to tell another veteran about something and they’re like, “You did that? That’s something that happened?” It can just be absurd at times. It’s different when you’re watching because you’re like, “That would never happen.” It’s stranger than fiction, somehow.
We found four IEDs one day and it was getting dark and we knew that there were more. If we were going to continue into the dark searching for these things they were just going to find us. They were going to blow up. We circled the wagons and we just holed up overnight. We were literally waiting for enough light to find our way out.
We woke up in the morning and this motorcyclist, this local guy, just drove right by us. I was actually peeing, and I watched him go by. About a hundred meters down the road he blew the fuck up. And you realize I should have said something to that guy.
It wasn’t like it was intentional but that’s the sort of absurdist thing. It was like, “What if I hadn’t been peeing, I might have said something.” That slight oversight which has nothing to do with any sort of soldierly task or it’s not even something you’re trained for. It’s just a human thing. It’s a human oversight. Who forgot where they put their keys? I forgot to say something to the guy.
You mentioned you’ve been listening to the “Serial” podcast’s coverage of the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the only US POW of the war, who left his base in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban for five years. Had you ever experienced anything like that?
A DUSTWUN [the US military code for a missing soldier], absolutely. There was a very intense scenario when two sailors went missing. We had already been out on a week mission. and then we got extended two more weeks. It was the longest stretch I’d ever been out of the wire. We weren’t getting resupplied all the time, wearing the same clothes, we started to get numb.
At some point in all of that I remember thinking, “I’m an officer and I can’t say this to anybody, but fuck these guys.” It wasn’t that I was upset that I was out—it’s because that all of a sudden our area, this town, was disrupted by so much mayhem. I’ve never seen so many Special Forces, so many helicopters, so many random units. What were these guys doing? Why did they just randomly leave their base? I got upset by it, and I knew that I couldn’t express that to anybody because that would just be immature of me.
I’m listening to Bowe Bergdahl and my first reaction to him was, as soon as I heard him speak in the first episode, I knew who he was. You get a young man like Bowe Bergdahl was, or the one he presented in his account, where he’s fantastic or he’s a daydreamer. He is righteous and is willing to do anything about it as we all found out; he found out too, I suppose. The part that distilled it for me, when I was like, “oh, I know exactly who he is,” is when he leaves the base and he gets lost because he didn’t check his compass.
I don’t mean to begrudge the man, he has been through an insane amount of torture. I think that he should probably be found guilty of some things and I think they should give him zero days as his sentence. I think the man has suffered enough.
That’s such a strange thing too about the military. When I was doing our DUSTWUN, I was like, “What is so important about these two individuals?” I thought, would we have done that during other wars? Would we have stopped everything that we were supposed to be doing to search for someone during the Battle of the Bulge? There was an existential threat for the Battle of the Bulge or the invasion of Normandy. The outcome for the many is more important than the outcome for the individual. Why is it that in this instance we have swapped that?
Why is the individual more important than the rest of society, to include the military, to include the Afghan, it’s just… why is one person so important? Sitting here armchair-quarterbacking it, I want to say that we should only be willing to go wars wherein we don’t care if one individual makes it back.
You can read a transcript of the entire discussion on Medium.