An officer such as Claus, who encourages and possesses a striking level of emotional honesty about his duty, is no one’s idea of a war criminal. However, still feeling personally responsible for the aforementioned death, he leaves his post at base overseeing patrols to personally lead them. After witnessing a series of sinister Taliban crimes against the populace, he and his troops come under attack and, from the thick of battle, he’s forced to make a questionable call for artillery support to clear a space for medical evacuation. This choice between the potentiality of letting a wounded soldier die and recklessly dropping shells in an uncertain area results in the soldier living but several Afghanis dying. Claus is charged with causing the deaths of civilians and sent home to Maria and his family to await trial.
Lindholm constructs a scenario that provides Claus with maximum deniability and opportunities for hand-waving, but never abandons the ironclad nugget at the center of his dilemma. Claus was protecting his troops in a kinetic situation from a ruthless enemy with no compunction to killing children, but eleven innocent people are dead as a direct result of a choice that he made. He’s not cruel or bloodthirsty or xenophobic or possessing of any of the shorthand that American war movies give to its characters when they want to portray bad behavior. The character of an individual officer matters little when they have the power of life and death over the people around them. Judicious use a hundred times matters little against the one injudicious use. It says a lot about American military jurisprudence and our general feeling towards the troops and civilians in war zones that this is impossible to imagine happening in the US. The virulently hateful Eddie Gallagher, turned in by his own comrades for war crimes, can’t even get convicted here. For Denmark, the official line is that all lives are equal, and that includes the exalted soldier.
This is undoubtedly the closest possible moral way to manage a war, instead of the cash payouts and perfunctory apologies provided by the US when we bomb a wedding party or invade the wrong house/country, but Lindholm considers the impossibility of it as well. Watching the Pedersons, played masterfully by Asbaek and Novotny, turn over what happened and what might happen as a result is wrenching human calculus. Claus has to weigh the children who died against his presence in his own children’s lives and their having to live with their father as a war criminal. Everything comes down to whether he had sight of the enemy or not, and though he didn’t explicitly, is it such a jump to have made a calculated guess? The domestic scenes frame the decision to lie as a real possibility, but the court scenes, in which Lindholm admirably forgoes gory aftermath pictures for reactions on faces, belie the ease of doing so.
A War provides no easy outs or solutions, down to its chilling and resonant final shot. Lindholm doesn’t depict Afghani relatives of the dead crying over their bodies. Once Claus leaves Afghanistan, so does the film. He makes it easy to forget the human cost compared to a family that was missing its father, all curled up in bed together upon their reunion, but the film is nevertheless insistent that something has gone horribly wrong. Breaking this family up might be what it takes to atone, and if one isn’t willing to do so, why is the wholesale destruction of a different, abstract family considered acceptable? A War is a tough and vital work that places tribalism within a nation that has officially denounced it, but also asks its citizens to engage in the supreme expression of tribalism thousands of miles away. Combat and its ramifications have rarely looked as impossible as they do here. A-