One often forgets the battlefields that CISAC military fellows leave behind.
They come to Stanford to spend an academic year doing research and mentoring students. They throw off their uniforms and put on their jeans to engage with scholars across the campus. One rarely gets a bird’s-eye view of what life is like for them out in the field, much less in actual combat with a hostile, thinking enemy.
But one Afghanistan War documentary gives viewers a rare look at what one CISAC military fellow, U.S. Army Col. J.B. Vowell, does in his real job: fight Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents while trying to keep his soldiers alive.
A rough cut of the “"The Hornet's Nest"” was recently screened on campus for Stanford faculty and staff, war veterans and military fellows from CISAC and the Hoover Institution. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, a CISAC faculty member, introduced the film and called the battle footage “remarkable.”
“The Hornet’s Nest” is about the soldiers – the survivors, their commanders, and those who lost their lives – in Operation Strong Eagle III, a battalion air assault in 2011 to seize insurgent-controlled strongholds along the Pakistan border. Their mission was to open up opportunities for local governance to reach Afghans under Taliban control.
The film is also about a father-and-son broadcast team who would document the assault, as well as the respect and shared risk between the soldiers and the embedded journalists.
Vowell is seen preparing his troops for what would become one of the deadliest confrontations with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. The region is dubbed the “heart of darkness” as it’s considered the world’s most dangerous terrain for U.S. forces. Its steep mountainsides are dotted with caves used by insurgents for easy ambush.
“They don’t know what’s about to hit them,” Vowell says of the Taliban as he preps his No Slack Battalion of the 101st Airborne. “That will teach them to shoot at my soldiers.”
It is March 29, 2011, and Vowell is conducting the final rehearsal for Operation Strong Eagle III. The mission is to clear the area of insurgents and lay the groundwork for an incoming platoon that would attempt to assassinate Taliban leader Qari Zia Rahman.
“This is his home. This is his sanctuary,” Vowell tells his men. “No one has ever dared to go in there. You think this is going to cause a ruckus? I think so.”
What follows is the largest battle the battalion has seen since Vietnam. Over nine days, Vowell’s battalion tried to fight their way into these villages – and viewers are taken along for a harrowing, 90-minute ride. The men are pinned down on rugged mountaintops and in abandoned mud-and-brick compounds, exhausted but inching forward to rescue their fallen and keep on fighting.
The footage was taken with hand-held cameras by veteran broadcast correspondent Mike Boettcher and his rookie son, Carlos. Viewers witness the first father-son team embedded with the U.S. military rekindle a relationship that had become strained.
“I was just a face in a box,” Boettcher says, referring to his more than three decades of combat work overseas, typically missing his son’s milestones as he grew up. “In the bottom of my heart I knew that Carlos was adrift and I felt that I had let Carlos down.”
When Carlos asks his father if he can join him in Afghanistan, Boettcher figures he can teach him how to work a camera under fire. You see Carlos go from a baby-faced young man to an earnest reporter practicing his on-air dispatches during his yearlong embed. He trudges up one hill as bullets whiz by and then you hear him go down and see the camera go still.
“The one thing I could not let happen was to let my son die,” Boettcher says. “I thought I had lost my son; that I had lost my chance to be a father.”
But, he adds: “We had landed in the hornet’s nest; this was command and control for the Taliban right there in that valley. And they were going to make us pay.”
Carlos survives, eventually goes back to ABC News headquarters in New York and becomes a producer for the broadcast network. The two would winner an Emmy for their coverage.
Viewers also get to know the soldiers of Strong Eagle III, making it particularly hard when you learn six of them have been killed. You see one soldier with a beautiful smile joking with his buddies before he is killed; the soldier who had tried to save him laments he should have run faster down the hill toward the fallen man.
The film ends with sorrowful coverage of the memorial devoted to the six that was conducted in Afghanistan days after the battle. Soldiers kiss the helmets of the fallen; officers kneel, bow their heads and cry.
CISAC military fellow and U.S. Army Col. J.B. Vowell in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2011.
“Everything has a cost in combat and it’s hard to know that the orders you gave cost some men their lives,” Vowell says when asked by an audience member at the Stanford screening how he deals with the death of his own men.
Regardless of one’s political beliefs about the second-longest war in American history, after Vietnam, the footage reminds viewers that this largely forgotten war has been fought – and covered – with tremendous bravery.
Nearly 3,000 American and allied troops have been killed in the war, launched to avenge the deaths of nearly 3,000 civilians in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As many as 17,500 Afghan civilians have lost their lives; two dozen journalists have been killed covering the conflict.
“We felt like we needed to leave behind some kind of historical document … and great commanders like JB embraced having the cameras there,” Boettcher says, sitting on Stanford’s Cemex Auditorium stage with Vowell and co-director David Salzberg. “They wanted the stories of their men and women told. Americans must know that there is a cost to be paid; it’s being paid every day.”
An audience member asks Vowell if his men resented having to protect the journalists.
He says his troops took no more precautions to protect the father-son team than they did one another. It took time for the soldiers to embrace the Boettchers, but once they realized they had not just parachuted in for one or two stories, they became part of the battalion.
“Folks like me in uniform just have a visceral reaction against the media, as it’s usually a bad story when they show up,” he says. “The journalists who are better are the ones who share the risk with soldiers. It’s not a camaraderie thing; it’s a respect thing. And if they’re willing to be in there, not just be there for a day or two, but to really be there – that gains respect of soldiers and they trusted Mike to tell their story.”
Vowell spent the academic year making recommendations for the strategy, mission and force structure in Afghanistan after combat troops are withdrawn next year. His project was submitted to the U. S. Army War College and Perry served as his faculty adviser.
CISAC’s other military fellows this academic year were U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Pye and U.S. Army Col. Daniel S. Hurlbut.
“It has been a tremendous opportunity for me to spend a year with CISAC and focus on strategic and policy issues relevant to U.S. national security”, says Vowell. “I had the opportunity to tell the Army’s story of the last 12 years in Afghanistan as well as research the best policy recommendation for our way ahead in the region. Only CISAC could afford me that opportunity to combine my experiences with the best cross-disciplined faculty in the nation to further my research. I know I will be better able to serve my command in the future with the 101st Airborne Division as a result.”
Vowell assumes command of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division on Aug. 1 and is likely to do another tour in Afghanistan next year.
Co-director Salzberg spends much of his time traveling the country organizing private screenings for Gold Star families – those who have lost service members on the battlefield – and preparing the documentary for a nationwide release on Veteran’s Day.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time and have worked on a lot of different films,” says Salzberg, a veteran documentary and feature film director and producer of such films as “The Perfect Game” and “La Source.”
“Sometimes you have an opportunity to do something that is more important than a film,” Salzberg said. “If you talk to these young men and women who serve, they really just want the public to know what they’re going through. They don’t want a parade or a medal. We wanted to show that – and we are honored that these guys let us into their lives.”