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Combat Obscura’s unadulterated authenticity still resonates today

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Combat Obscura scene

When the Iraq war kicked off, I was a young teen, but I remember a slate of media releasing alongside it. There were movies and shows, as well as more History Channel documentaries than you could shake a stick at. When Iraq died down and Afghanistan ramped back up, everything went kinda silent. Yet, small creators, actual veterans of the war, filled the gap, and that’s the story with the war documentary Combat Oscura

Combat Obscura presents the story of Lance Corporal Miles Lagoze – a combat cameraman attached to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines – through his own lenses, using footage filmed by Lagoze during his time as a combat cameraman in Afghanistan. The 70-minute documentary doesn’t have an overarching narrative and has no narration; instead, it consists of various scenes of the Afghan war. It moves along at a quick pace: it never lingers on one subject or event.

As an Afghan veteran of the same period, I feel I’m fairly qualified to testify to the documentary’s authenticity. To that measure, I’ll say Combat Obscura is brilliantly accurate. It shows violence, boredom, and frustration. Marines smoke weed on screen – although their faces are often censored. They play with kids, give them chocolate, and sometimes are rude and cruel. 

The movie keeps jumping between scenes that detail the Afghanistan War experience.  These can range from gunfights and violence to Marines rapping and joking around in an immature way. Seeing men in a vicious firefight first and then them joking around and acting immature and childish is a harsh reminder. The same men making puns about a level are killing people the next day. 

Controversy can be a hot selling point, but I imagine, for Miles Lagoze, the controversy his documentary created was more terrifying than the generated publicity. Lagoze made a film that the Marine Corps was not happy to see. Although he did go through official channels, namely the Pentagon, to ensure the footage was declassified, the Marine Corps wasn’t happy about it. 

The Corps threatened legal action on the basis that the footage was shot with Marine Corps-issued cameras during the work of Lance Corporal Lagoze. Yet, it didn’t follow through with any pending legal action, and in 2018, the documentary was released. 

Related: ‘SEAL Team’ is surprisingly good TV

A documentary not for kids 

Combat Obscura poster
Combat Obscura’s poster. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Some of the things you see the Marines do are not good, and some of those make me angry. The cursing and dark jokes are one thing, but a scene that disturbed me was a Marine pointing an M9 at Afghan children as an apparent joke. I’d have kicked that guy’s ass if I was his leader. The use of recreational drugs might be surprising to someone who had never been there, but it was a dirty secret in country. It was well-known enough that we were piss tested in the middle of Afghanistan. 

The violence is extreme and reminds you it’s not an action movie. In one brutal fight, we see a Marine severely wounded, and Lagoze himself catches shrapnel to the face from a grenade. Another Marine interviews him after, and it’s sobering. He confesses, “I don’t want any more combat.”

We see a ceremony for a young Marine killed in action, and it reached in and ripped my heart out. I was that Marine’s age in Afghanistan. I’m blessed enough now to be nearly 34 and to have made it home. You don’t think about dying at 19, but at 34 you often reflect on how close you came. Most documentaries tell a selective truth. But Combat Obscura does something many war documentaries don’t: it tells the whole truth – the ugly, often not very glamorous, truth about war. 

There are some violent depictions in combat, some very dark jokes, and some crude humor. At the same time, you might cringe a bit at the younger men and their immature antics. I ask that you reserve judgment of these Marines. 

They are young men put into a brutal place during a brutal time. Their minds are still developing, and we tasked them to go to war. A war we’d been fighting since these kids were little kids. If anything deserves judgment, it’s the society that expects them to seamlessly transition from killers to Boy Scouts at an age where they can’t even buy a beer. 

You can check Combat Obscura for free on Tubi. I look forward to any other projects Miles Lagoze produces. 

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.