We live in an age of conspiracy theories, be they about election fraud perpetrated by deep-state operatives, vaccine microchips masterminded by evil tech billionaires, or pedophilic cults whose high-profile followers want to drink the blood of young children. There are plenty of people and institutions to blame for the proliferation of such craziness, from Donald Trump to QAnon and Mark Zuckerberg. Yet the fact remains that many Americans no longer trust the truth, and, as the new documentary 3212 Un-Redacted makes clear, sometimes that’s because the powers that be can’t be counted on to honestly tell it.
Directed by Brian Epstein and led by the reporting of James Gordon Meek, 3212 Un-Redacted (presented by ABC News, and premiering on Hulu Nov. 11) is a nonfiction inquiry into the events of Oct. 4, 2017, when four members of an Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) special forces team were killed in a surprise firefight with ISIS near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger, Africa. The story quickly became headline news, although it didn’t last long as a CNN and Fox News talking point, since the Department of Defense’s investigation concluded that the catastrophe was primarily the fault of the ODA 3212 squad itself, which the DoD claimed had embarked on an unauthorized “rogue mission” for which it was unprepared. To the top brass, it was an open-and-shut case, and most Americans took their word for it. But as Epstein and Meek’s documentary reveals, there was good reason to be skeptical about the official party line.
The four men who were killed in action on that October 2017 day were Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, LaDavid Johnson, and Jeremiah Johnson. It was the last of these men’s parents — Debbie and Ray Gannon — who first introduced Meek to the tale, asking him to look into troubling discrepancies in the government’s story about what had happened to their son. What Meek found was a severe disconnect between what the DoD relayed to the grieving families, in press conferences and in the heavily redacted 268-page Africom report, and the facts and statements he soon uncovered. The Wrights, for example, were told that Dustin had died due to mortar fire, but his body showed no signs of that; as his brother Will states in the film, it was obvious that he’d perished from small-arms fire. LaDavid’s wife Myeshia, meanwhile, was originally informed that LaDavid had been fatally thrown from the back of a moving vehicle, only to hear later that he had been behind the wheel. At every turn, things didn’t add up.
According to General Thomas Waldhauser, the commanding general of US Africa Command, ODA 3212 lied about its stated mission, claiming that its intention was reconnaissance when, in reality, it was trying to capture (or kill) ISIS sub-commander Doundoun Cheffou. That, coupled with the fact that ODA 3212 was not equipped for such an undertaking (they were accompanied by inadequately trained Niger forces), convinced DoD that they had gotten themselves into trouble, and were therefore responsible for their own demise. In interviews with relatives of the fallen soldiers, the anger over Waldhauser’s narrative is palpable. Disbelief is also a major factor, since it’s evident to everyone featured in the film — including retired General Donald Bolduc, and 3rd Special Forces Group Company Commander Major Alan Van Saun, who eventually lost his career over the incident — that there was no way an ODA unit could possibly embark on a gung-ho outing without the express approval of superiors.
The redacted Africom report forwarded Waldhauser’s version of events. Yet it contained information that also directly contradicted that story. According to the report, ODA 3212 was headed home from its initial destination when the unit received orders to head northwest toward the border of Mali, where officials had detected a cell-phone signal that suggested Cheffou was in the area. ODA 3212 Captain Mike Perozeni is on record vigorously objecting to that change in mission objectives, which would require his squad to travel into the middle of the desert in the dead of night. Nonetheless, his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel David Painter demanded ODA 3212 adhere to these new directives. That Perozeni balked at going after Cheffou — even though the DoD claimed that nabbing the ISIS bigwig was the team’s rogue intention in the first place — is a blatant inconsistency without a proper explanation.
To 3212 Un-Redacted, it’s proof that the DoD knew that ODA 3212 had been following orders — and, moreover, that they chose to point the finger for the eventual shit show at the soldiers in order to protect Painter and his boss, Colonel Brad Moses. That’s a galling turn of events, made even more appalling by footage of the actual desert skirmish that cost the men their lives. Courtesy of an ISIS propaganda video that was later released, Epstein’s film presents clips from the helmet cameras of Black and Johnson, up to and including the moments that they’re mortally wounded by enemy fire. Wrenching doesn’t begin to describe that material, illustrating as it does the few-against-many circumstances the soldiers faced as they hastily took cover behind moving trucks and frantically fled through the desert in a bid to avoid death.
Meek contends that a mysterious vehicle traveling with the OAD 3212 convoy may have contained a covert CIA team whose prime objective was locating and taking down Cheffou — thus providing a potential underlying reason for this calamity. Little concrete proof supporting that conjecture is provided here. Yet regardless of the why, 3212 Un-Redacted persuasively argues that Bryan, Dustin, LaDavid, and Jeremiah were victims not only of ISIS combatants but also of a DoD cover-up that sought to shield those higher up on the chain of command. Utilizing a combination of official documents (and attendant CGI videos), firsthand accounts, and testimonials from those inside and outside the military, Meek proposes a much simpler and more believable explanation for what happened: ODA 3212 was foolishly sent to pull off a dangerous task, wound up being ambushed by an overwhelming enemy battalion, and then took the fall for the disaster as a way of sheltering those who gave the orders.
“I’m still angry to this day,” fumes Myeshia, and 3212 Un-Redacted feels her pain and fury. Far from simply an exposé, the documentary spends considerable time detailing the backstories and characters of Bryan, Dustin, LaDavid, and Jeremiah, who dedicated — and ultimately sacrificed — their lives for the country they loved. What emerges is not only censure but celebration of valiant individuals whose names were dragged through the mud. Despite the fact that the quartet received posthumous medals for their service, the official record remains, to this day, unchanged. As such, Epstein and Meek’s nonfiction effort functions as a portrait of unconscionable bureaucratic wrongdoing as well as an attempt to restore the reputations of four men who suffered unjust fates in both life and death.