Foxtrot and the Tedium of War
Cinema teaches us that war is hell. From newsreel footage and reports in the press, from accounts we hear told by friends, family and acquaintances whose lives are touched by war, we know this to be true. It is chaotic and confusing, and it is complicated. Film (and particularly those from the UK and the USA) will typically focus on the action, the heroics and the bombast of war, with little more than a cursory acknowledgement of the trauma that is intrinsically a part of it.
Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot stations much of its narrative at a desolate military checkpoint manned by four young soldiers who all try to burn away the hours of boredom that occur between cars arriving for inspection and, every now and then, a lone camel walking by. Meanwhile at home, the parents of one of the boys are devastated by the news of his supposed sudden death, though the circumstances surrounding this take several unexpected twists.
The film takes a firm position on war, and the damage it rains over family and community. It focuses on the devastating impact of losing a child or family member, the grief and tragedy that war brings. Yet elsewhere, it visits the tedium of war; the hours, days and weeks spent waiting for action that will itself bring the threat of something far worse than boredom. Many films paint war as an action epic but a small number, the likes of Buffalo Soldiers and Jarhead, have shown this more mundane side of war. With Foxtrot, Maoz finds increasingly inventive ways to depict the internal conflict of idle and anxious minds.
To understand that place between boredom and danger, we asked two ex-military servicemen what it’s really like to be on a military posting, passing the time under the most dangerous of circumstances. Our interviewees have elected to remain anonymous, so will be referred to hereafter as A and B.
Foxtrot tells the story of a group of Israeli Defence Force servicemen, posted to a remote barracks where they carry out their state required national service. In the UK, national service of this kind officially ended in 1963 when the last servicemen left the armed forces, and so our interviewees were not conscripted in this way.
How long were you in the military? And how much of that time did you spend on military tours?
A: I spent 12 years in the military, and probably around two and a half years away in operational tours or overseas.
B: I was in the military for eight years, with 11 months of that time spent on tours.
Between moments of tragic violence, Foxtrot shows lengthy periods spent waiting around for a call to action. Maoz illustrates the sheer tedium of this through the motif of a rolling can of food - the soldiers’ barracks (an industrial container) are slowly sinking into the ground on one side, and each day the men roll a can from one end to the other, timing it from start to finish. As time passes by, and the container sinks further and further, the can rolls faster and faster.
Is there is a lot of downtime when you are posted on a military tour? How much time do you typically spend in barracks versus out on patrol?
B: It depends on your location. Nearer the front line (whatever that is now) most people are out every couple of days. Those in supply bases never leave for a tour though, which, while safer, brings its own problems.
A: In some places there is a much higher pace and so patrols might be every day for a few weeks, then a break, then a few days preparing for a big operation. My experience was mostly staying in camp and being mortared twice a day. After a few months of that the boredom wins out and you become indifferent to being attacked. In the end we would just put our helmets on when the mortars started and carried on playing our game of chess! At an estimate you have an even split of going out on a patrol to being on a camp or base, but even on patrol it can be pretty tedious.
A tour is typically between 6 - 12 months. Do you become more aware of time and seasons passing? Does time move more quickly, or more slowly? Is it different to when you are at home?
A: You have to arrive in a positive mood and not think about the time that’s left in front of you. The first half of a tour will be new and exciting so time will fly, but about the half way point I’ve always started to think of when I’m leaving, and you start a “chuff chart” which counts down the days left. I always find that my days drag horrendously in the second half of a tour.
B: You are aware of it becoming cold and the seasons changing, you essentially live outside so it means more to you. Time moves fast when you are being engaged but starts to drag the nearer you get to the end of the tour.
A: If you arrive on a tour and are already thinking about going home you are going to have a bad time!
B: Time is what you perceive it to be on tour.
The moments of military engagement seen in the film come as a stark change of tone. From the heavy weight of grief, and the boredom of inaction, we are taken to chaotic and frightening moments of violence that are riddled with anxiety and panic.
Foxtrot is a film that shows the chaos of war, but also suggests that there is a tedium to war. Is that something you can relate to?
B: Well, I think chaos is a factor of scale, and it is confusing, but anyone who has served knows that for much of the time you will do nothing.
A: I think in general war is the only event that spans the entire spectrum of human emotions. You’ll be excited and enthusiastic about going to do your job with friends, you’ll be nervous and apprehensive about going out of the gates for the first time. You’ll be totally disengaged and bored waiting for anything to happen, but you'll be terrified or exhilarated when you are being shot at and absolutely despondent when a friend dies. You’ll end up feeling elated and slightly confused when it’s over and you are sat in the car on the way home.
It’s hard to imagine the anticipation of a patrol. The assumption is that it's a tense experience, but you are obviously trained, it’s not like a civilian going into a battlefield. Is downtime an anxious time in anticipation of patrol, or a release from the stress of a patrol? Or is there a point where one feeling becomes another?
A: Going out of the gates was always a bit nerve wracking, because you knew that even if it was the same old thing that you had done many times before there was a real chance something might happen, so you just feel on edge and alert. After a few months that can become fatiguing and you really do start to dread going out and start counting down the days until you are out of there. I never tried to imagine the time when I would get to head home because it made me nervous to assume that I would be ok, like I might be tempting fate!
B: Most people feel differing levels of anxiety prior to a patrol, but normally once you are out there the "training takes over and you get on with it." A combat engagement is actually a stress reliever - many patrols with no activity are actually more stressful than ones with incidents because you are trained to react to incidents, no one trains you to manage inaction. You try to leave the patrol at the gate after reports are done, you cannot focus on the patrol once off it otherwise you have no downtime and you will slowly crack under the stress.
One of the lasting images from Foxtrot (aside from the camel that moseys on through the checkpoint, without a care in the world) is a slightly surreal dance number, performed by one of the IDF servicemen. It’s a spectacular routine, performed with a rifle for a dancing partner.
We often see photographs of soldiers fooling around on duty. Is that just good-hearted fun? Or are they distracting themselves from boredom or from anxiety and anticipation?
A: Boredom! Aside from working out, there isn’t much to do and it is a stress relief to be hanging out with a big group of friends having fun!
What sort of things do you do in downtime? What’s the funniest thing you recall getting up to during downtime? What’s the strangest thing?
A: Watching movies from a hard drive, there is a pretty roaring trade in black market movies! I would go to the gym a lot, play cards, throw stones at things, we’d sleep or someone would play guitar and sing.
B: It is good fun. People play 5-a-side football and volleyball, board games and card games, they go to the gym, and a lot of movies are watched. People in essence are trying to distract themselves from the day’s work, to make time go faster and focus on the positives for those at home. I spent a few months of my downtime playing practical jokes on a Sergeant to make the tour go faster. It’s all very surreal on tour so the abnormal becomes normalised.
A: I think the weirdest thing I got up to, or at least the most surreal, was playing a round on an old mini golf course with a pal of mine. We were both in full body armour and carrying weapons and we found this old course in the grounds of an abandoned building, so we just played a round with stones for balls.
The lasting impact of Foxtrot is found in the scenes away from the war zone, back at the family home. When the news of a son’s death arrives at the family home, the horrific reality of war is found. Foxtrot is ultimately a film about grief, and the cost that war forces families to bear.
How often do you speak to family when on tour? Was it important to keep them in the know about what you were doing? Did you ever tell them exactly what was going on and how you were feeling?
B: This is a very personal decision, and everyone does it differently. Some talk to their girlfriends every day they can, some less regularly as they find it hard to talk to their children.
A: I spoke to my family fairly regularly. Years ago we would get 30 minutes a week in vouchers to use in the phone booths, and on later tours you could use laptops to FaceTime and Skype, though you weren’t allowed phones for security reasons. I didn’t ever go into detail about events that had happened, but my family could always tell if something bad had happened because I’d be down or tired. If anyone dies on a tour, then they cut off all communications so that the family can be notified properly rather than someone telling someone at home and it leaking to the press before the family know. That was obviously upsetting for everyone and I’d always try to get a message out before a black out to let my family know I was ok.
B: I kept things to a minimum as I found it was easier, you are not allowed to talk about specifics, and nor would you want to. When you are on the phone you want to talk about anything other than the deployment: friends, family, how is your sister doing at school, what are the neighbours doing, what is the weather like? As with all things you crave escapism.
A: You have to speak to family as much as possible. I spent a few Christmases away and I would Skype home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day if I wasn’t working, to pretend I was with everyone.