Soldiers have a saying that when the situation becomes overwhelming, you do not rise to the occasion—you fall to your training. That is what I found the precepts to be: the training I fall to when nothing I think I know is of any use to me.

In 2005 I went to Afghanistan to make a documentary. It took five trips and three years to shoot, and another two years to raise the money and edit. I arrived in Afghanistan as a devout member of my tribe, the liberal Democrats, and certain in my tribe’s faith in the evil of all things war, and in the absolute wrong of all things right-wing. Once there, I found myself surrounded by another tribe, one that saw me with equal conviction, but from the opposite angle—as a godless, tree-hugging feminist, and a liberal member of the lying media.

I was embedded, I had permission to be there, but it did not mean that anyone had to talk to me. On a Forward Operating Base, surrounded by razor wire, filled with soldiers who were under orders to carry their weapons everywhere they went, I never felt more alien. During that time, there were a million things that happened, but the one that began the shift was this:

A mission was planned down a road where US troops had taken fire before. I had to fight the commander to be taken along. The guys did not like it—they did not want me there. At the briefing before the mission, during which the commander reviewed possible threats, he added me to the list, “…Intelligence of Taliban along the route, and media will be along.”

All eyes turned to me—hostile, judgmental. And in response—my judgment of them.
This is where all those years of training came to save me.
See the perfection. (You have got to be kidding me.)
See the perfection. (I can’t. They aren’t.)
See the perfection. Do not speak of others’ errors and faults.

And there it was—I saw, clear as day, my mind roiling with judgments: closely held truths about men and the far right, movie-fed fantasies about the honor of the American soldier and potent anti-military images leftover from the 70’s. The depth to which these judgments went in me was sobering—it had always been reality—but in that moment I saw that it was nothing but the refusal to listen to another. And my assumption of how they judged me was built on my judgments of them.

I was older than most of their mothers. Suddenly I saw boys who felt that being a soldier served something true and good. They did not want my pity, my wisdom. They did not want my compassion or my help. We had all seen the same movies.

I had a nano-second between the craving for certainty, and the grasping of a judgment. In that gap, I managed to see what was in front of me.

It popped out of my mouth: “I am not a reporter—I am an academic. I am going to be filming you for the next while. And I swear to you on my life: If I walk into a bar stateside and I hear you telling the biggest whopper of a war story that ever was…know that I will back you up 100 percent.”