"We're the best there is. You'd be crazy to fuck with us," announces a Canadian infantryman in a moment from The Crazy Eights, a documentary made for the CBC about a company of soldiers in Afghanistan. This is the down and dirty reality of what it means to be a fighting man in a conflict we see in passing on the evening news: the long periods of waiting, the training, the fear and even, on occasion, the satisfaction of duty.
The Crazy Eights director Gordon Henderson, a former senior producer at W5 and veteran filmmaker, is not unfamiliar with war zone coverage. "I was in Belfast a number of times during "the troubles,'" he says on the phone from Toronto, and he joined Ann Medina in Beirut in the 1980s while working for the CBC newsmagazine The Journal. His work has brought him close enough to the fighting to hear the whistle of mortar rounds, but directing The Crazy Eights was his first time working closely with the military. He spent the month of October 2006 in Afghanistan, stationed with The Royal Canadian Regiment Charles Company, First Battalion, Eighth Platoon.
"Down in Kandahar Air Field my first impression was, wow, this is an international village," he says, recalling his arrival in the country. "And, boy, Canada has a very, very strong presence here." He saw another side of the embattled region in the weeks he was on patrol with the soldiers. "Being out in Panjwaii"—a district in the south of the country—"the strong impression was of dust, and it was a lasting impression. We had real problems with our cameras. Our main camera didn't last and the smaller ones started to freeze-frame on us."
It was only a month before the film was shot that the platoon had been engaged in Operation Medusa, the largest battle Canadian forces had seen since the Korean War, and had suffered numerous casualties on that day, and later, when an American A10 bomber accidentally strafed the soldiers on the ground. Of 40 fighting men, there were a handful of fatalities and only eight were spared some sort of injury. When Henderson and his operator Jerry Vienneau joined the platoon in the Spin Boldack training area, the unit was busy training new replacements, some of whom had only been in the military a year and were not altogether keen on journalists.
"I tried to make it clear I'm an independent filmmaker doing this film for the CBC," he says. "I tried to make them understand I wasn't a reporter. They could sometimes have preconceptions." He was consistently asked the same question upon arriving at Spin Boldack, ""What are you doing here? There's nothing going on here!' Then we go to Panjwaii," he says, "and they'd see we'd go in the trenches with them and the same sentence came out, "What are you doing here? I'm an infantryman, I gotta be here, but you don't have to be here. What the fuck are you doing here?'"
A credit to Henderson's experience as a documentary filmmaker, he does coax stories out of some of the more reluctant infantrymen, though some are more naturally extroverted, including a Private Keegan, a lifelong hockey fan, who writes a letter to Don Cherry. "I could die this year and I'd never have seen the Leafs win," he says to the camera while composing the missive. "Have that on your conscience, boys." Cherry wound up reading the letter on Hockey Night in Canada last November.
There is no doubt about the soldiers' enthusiasm for their work. Henderson doesn't present the film with any political bias. "As opposed to being anti-war, I think these guys are happy to be in one, to be in the military," he says. "There's a sense of duty in that and of "We're soldiers and we get to soldier.'"
The film bears out his observation. "Some people are born for it. Some are born to be doctors and vets. We're warriors. It's what we do," says one infantryman. Yet they are certainly not without sensitivity to the price they could pay when they "go outside the wire." "I worry about friends and family if I get killed," says one. "I don't worry about myself—I'll be dead."
The Crazy Eights airs March 29 on CBC at 8pm.