Based on Doug Stanton’s 2009 book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, 12 Strong tells the story of Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) who has never been in combat before, and was about to move on to a desk job, when the events of 9/11 happen. Through the actions of his loyal Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), he is allowed to resume command of his 12-man A-Team who will, along with Air Force Special Operations and combat controller crews, be the first American troops to operate inside Afghanistan. Their mission is to link up with the most experienced and respected of the Northern Alliance generals, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and to aid him in ousting the Taliban out of key northern cities in Afghanistan in preparation for what will eventually become Operation Enduring Freedom. Which, as a historical note, was in response to the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama Bin Laden to face trial for his part in planning the 9/11 attacks. Pushing the capacities of their Chinook helicopters to their limits, Nelson’s team is flown over the Hindu Kush mountains and inserted near a forward base established by CIA operatives who have been active in the country since the 90’s, to await the arrival of Dostum.
From the moment Nelson and Dostum meet, an ongoing push and shove ensues between the two leaders over their personalities, strategic plans, cultures, and combat experiences of Dostum and his soldiers and Nelson’s men. Nevertheless, though their shared endurance of the brutal Afghan environment (which can only be traversed on horseback) and their close quarter combat and laser sighting for air strikes against Taliban forces, the two groups, over the course of 21 days, grow to respect and honor one another. As Captain Nelson says, when General Dostum complains that Nelson’s men should not be standing guard at night since they are his guests and thus it is his responsibility to provide protection, “General, we’re not here to be protected by you but to stand and fight with you.” In the end, they manage to achieve their goals and to defeat the Taliban well ahead of schedule and against staggering odds.
In some ways, 12 Strong is your typical Hollywood war film, with plenty of action, inspiring lines, and wartime camaraderie among the soldiers which are all guaranteed to draw the audience in to its story. However, as someone who read Stanton’s book when it came out, I can say that while the film streamlines certain characters and events, and has its fair share of dramatic flourishes to keep its viewers on the edges of their seats, 12 Strong’s story is all the more rousing because the truth of the events it portrays are stronger than any fiction.
One way that it does this is by accurately portraying the palpable fear that many Americans felt in the days following 9/11 that Bin Laden and al Qaeda was not yet finished with the U.S., in order to give us a glimpse into the lives of Nelson and his men. Although the scenes are brief, we see their struggles as husbands and fathers who must leave behind their wives and children when they have been called upon to carry the fight to the ones who had just attacked their country, and whose brutality is shown in two scenes. In this respect they best exemplify G.K. Chesterton’s words that a “true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
Futhermore, while there are a few comments about Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires or General Dostum taking a rather jaundiced view of America’s commitment to staying in Afghanistan, the film refreshingly steers clear of the larger geopolitical issues surrounding what is, as of this writing, America’s longest war. Instead it stays true the original story that Stanton sought to tell in his book about the exploits of some of the most intelligent and highly trained men in our armed services. Men who were sent to an alien and hostile environment, who had to be both soldiers and diplomats, and through sheer skill, good fortune, and a lot of grit were able to achieve a small but worthwhile victory
Lastly, while most of us will never have to endure the kinds of hardships the real-life soldiers portrayed in this movie would’ve faced from their training and selection to their combat experiences, there is still something notable that the Maccabee-minded among us can take away from this film. It is the way in which Nelson and his men, true to U.S. Special Forces doctrine, imbedded themselves into the lives and livelihoods of the Afghan people, who were (according to Stanton’s book) very suspicious of outsiders. By eating, sleeping, and working alongside their Afghan hosts, the soldiers were able to gain their trust and willingness to fight alongside each other. Not to mention a humorous scene where Nelson’s men have to buy back their own supplies, when the local tribesmen got to their parachute drops before they could or when one soldier has to haggle over the price of a sheep for dinner.
I just can’t help but think how much this method of building trust, even to the point of being willing to lay down their lives for one another, is so reminiscent of how St. Paul the Apostle lived as he spread the gospel (Acts 18:3, 1 Thes 2:9) or the concept of forming a cultura capillare (“capillary culture”) used by the Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation. In both cases, the idea is that only by having both physical and spiritual boots on the ground, and sharing in ordinary struggles of people’s lives, can one hope to affect not just temporary changes, but a true conversion of heart. In that light, 12 Strong can be an excellent springboard for a discussion on how vital it is for us to, in a sense, have our own “A-Teams” of faith-filled men in our lives. Teams who can not only encourage one another, but more importantly inspire others to walk headlong into the thick of our contemporary cultural fight-geist, and start pushing back against the Taliban-like totalitarianism of the cultural Left which has essentially completed its own “long march through the institutions” and the culture at large. Something to think about if you choose to see 12 Strong which is rated R for some strong language, but mostly for graphic war violence, including the grisly aftermath of a suicide bomber.