Since the United States has sent soldiers to fight in one war after another, it is only natural that documentaries would be made about combat and/or the return home. Hell and Back depicts glimpses of Sergeant Nathan Harris's tour of duty in the summer of 2009. His gung ho adventure in Afghanistan ends when he is shot in the hip and undergoes surgery to replace part of his leg. He returns home to a small town in North Carolina.
Besides the pain and dependence on his wife Ashley, he finds it hard to get used to civilian life with all its noise and stress. There is a violent side to this young man that is quite troubling. Harris admits that the main reason he entered the service was to "kill people." He loves playing "Modern Warfare 2" and has a habit of petting his gun as if it were his most cherished treasure. When he blurts out, "I would rather be in Afghanistan," his wife is shocked. She wonders if he is the same man she married especially when he gets angry and has a "soulless look in his eyes."
If Ashley is confused by the violence in this soldier's eyes, imagine the reactions of the Afghani people who are constantly told that the Americans are there to help them but all they see is intruders who have spoiled their food, broken into their homes looking for Taliban soldiers, and frightened their children with all the shooting and the bombs. Despite all this, Harris is a true believer in the American crusade of liberation. And so is his commander who commends the troops going on a dangerous mission for their expertise in "the application of violence." And so is the chaplain who gives a speech broken by his sobbing at a service for the 133 men in Harris's company who died in battle.
Director Danfung Dennis has been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years as a stills photographer for newspapers. That explains why the war scenes here are so realistic. In a director's statement in the press notes, he suggests that war might be "an archaic and primitive behavior that society is capable of advancing past." Not as long as true believers in Congress continue to expand military budgets. Not as long as chaplains continue to support wars in the name of patriotism and the flag. Not as long as military leaders salute the American soldiers as "experts in the application of violence."
Special features on the DVD include an audio commentary with director Danfung Dennis and editor Fiona Otway; a technical gear demo: How Hell and Back Again was filmed; Willie Nelson's Hell and Back: a slide show; and deleted scenes.