So many stories of American soldiers fighting in foreign lands for freedom of the native peoples goes unnoticed because of highly classified combat missions that remain secret until years later when the classification is removed. “12 Strong” speaks of one of the most heroic moments in modern American warfare. Being a World War II buff, I find that in the midst of the horror of war the best and the worst of humanity reveals itself. It is a test for true heroes and fodder for evil to perpetrate some of the worst crimes against humanity. This movie about the beginning of the US Afghanistan war immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York shines a light on the courage it takes to fight for freedom not only for Americans, but also for all nations and every human being.
“12 Strong,” a Jerry Bruckheimer film directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, tells of the first American Special Forces’ mission into the Taliban-held cities in Afghanistan. In order to reach those cities they had to cross treacherous mountain passes where the Taliban held ground. Fuglsig says that the landscape itself was a character in the movie. He called it, “an epic war painting.” The story focuses on Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) who lacked combat experience but not the gumption to fight for justice. He refuses to work behind a desk and asks to be put on this dangerous and sacrificial mission on unforgiving terrain in the Middle East telling his General, “I ain’t losing one man on this team. The only way home is winning.” His unit of twelve men follows him unreservedly and with incredible humble confidence in their purpose. They are dropped into a remote and rugged landscape to convince Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to allow them to join him in fighting their common adversary: the Taliban and Al Qaeda, yet the Americans quickly learn that combat in this mountainous terrain can only be done on horseback, something for which they were completely unprepared.
Captain Nelson and his unit of Green Berets (played by an incredible cast: Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Austin Hebert, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, and Jack Kesy) journey with the Afghan rebels to the edge of towns held by the Taliban in order to call in coordinates for the US Air Force bombers to drop their ammunition, allowing them to advance in ground combat. They moved in on horseback with their automatic weapons only to face the unexpected power of the Taliban’s tanks, missile launchers, and mortars. Fuglsig reflects, “The fact that every member of that Special Forces team made it home alive is nothing short of a miracle.” This incredible story is chronicled in the book by Doug Stanton, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. The author spent years researching this account beginning in 2003 when most of the details were still classified by the military. He comments that, “These guys succeeded because they weren’t afraid to fail.”
When everything seemed to be against them, these horse soldiers persevered, to the amazement of General Dostum, who earlier in the film told Nelson, “You will fail because you fear death…. Stop being a soldier and you will become a warrior.” Trevante Rhodes who plays the unit’s Ben Milo reflects, “This story tells the difference between a soldier and a warrior. The soldier leads with the mind, but the warrior leads with the heart.” When Dostum pulls back in the face of sure defeat, Nelson charges forward on horseback to take out the Taliban’s fierce missile launcher that would surely wipe out their entire force. Dostum follows and because of their combined passion in battle, these two warriors struck the worst blow the Taliban experienced in the entire war. These men did not see themselves as heroes, only doing their jobs. They succeeded because they bonded with the Afghan people, a people of great suffering and constant occupation over centuries. As Chris Hemsworth shares, “This was important for their own survival. They were there not to occupy but to assist.”
Not only does this movie tell a previously unknown story of incredible bravery and sacrifice, but also it does so with such heart and breathtaking cinematography. It gives each soldier a very human connection with their families so you see the anguish of the separation from their loved ones and the power of love that gives them the will to fight to make it home again. Truly when a person is fully aware of his or her weakness but is still willing to risk failure they lead from the heart. They become warriors in the best sense of the word. They fight not out of hate but for truth, justice, and freedom. They succeed because they know they can fail, yet have the courage to try.