July 30, 2010

Taking It Home: Restrepo

(Images courtesy Outpost Films)
"Our idea was...let's make the most visceral war film you've ever seen." 

So said photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who partnered with author/journalist Sebastian Junger to create the Sundance-award winning documentary Restrepo, which delivers what's sure to be the most nerve-racking viewing experience of the year so far. Inception plays like a Saturday morning cartoon in comparison. If Restrepo isn't the most visceral war film we've ever seen, it's at least the most visceral movie about the war in Afghanistan that we've yet seen, and the most insightful documentary on the 21st-century soldier's experience since The War Tapes (which, along with the disappointing Gunnar Palace, comprise the few films that actually feature soldiers and not actors). 

Pro-war, anti-war, McChrystal, Wikileaks, whatever. The talking heads and the rest of the U.S. should stop shouting and hand-wringing for a moment to witness what's actually happening on the ground, or at least was in 2007-08. Restrepo follows the deployment of a dozen or so brave American infantrymen from Second Platoon, Battle Company, of the 173rd Airborne, who spent more than a year in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley. The reasons to see this documentary are as numerous as the opinions about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan (i.e., the "graveyard of empires"); suffice to say you don't have much business in a conversation about the latter until you've seen the former.

And after you do see it, make sure to supplement your viewing by reading the captivating feature Junger and Hetherington did for Vanity Fair that brought them to Afghanistan in the first place. (Hetherington would win the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year for his work; Junger expanded his article into the recently published and well-reviewed War. They didn't initially set out to make Restrepo but cobbled it together from footage they shot on assignment). The film colors the article and the article colors the film, so make sure to get the whole story either way.

Speaking of the whole story, while the soldiers in Restrepo curiously spend as little time discussing the reasons for the fighting as those in The Hurt Locker did, the documentary undeniably reveals last year's Best Picture-winner as the Hollywoodized version of war that many accused it of being (including me). These rounds are live, these deaths are palpable, and this trauma lingers long after the credits roll. Is it possible to suffer from PTSD after viewing Restrepo? Not really, at least not on a fraction of the scale that those who are actually on screen might experience. But it shook me nonetheless, and I once again gained greater empathy for and general concern about the generation of veterans who will be living and working amongst us for decades to come.

Restrepo derives its power from its purity. It is a refreshingly pared-down documentary, one that objectively documents what is happening with its subjects without straining to push an agenda. There is no narration, there are no interviews with analysts or experts or politicians, and there is no additional information provided to inform what is going on (not even a map, frustratingly). Indeed the purity of this film is evidenced by the very fact that it is (predictably) being championed by activists on from both the political left and right. I urge you to consider its political motives on your own terms, however, fundamentally based on what it means for the American soldiers and Afghan civilians represented in the film. 

That said, this is obviously my own forum in which to make those considerations, so oblige me if you will and feel free to add your own thoughts. I've already discussed veterans' issues here a dozen times, and while Restrepo addresses those concerns directly, and also has a fair amount to say about civilians as collateral damage, I'm instead going to consider two bigger picture questions that Restrepo brought to mind. I don't claim to be a military historian, so please excuse the simplicity of my pondering. 

Exactly who are we fighting again? 

One of the striking realizations I had while watching Restrepo was that the enemy was never seen on film. Not only that, the enemy was (and is?) apparently never even seen by the soldiers. How fascinating it is to consider the evolution of warfare over the course of the last 100, or even 50, years. In Restrepo, the American front is essentially engaged in a firefight with a forest, blasting thousands of rounds across the Korengal Valley until the forest stops firing back at them, at least for a while (in the article, Junger describes how the rounds reach their target well before you can hear them fired; one could easily be felled by a bullet they didn't even have time to hear). Aside from the extremely rare occasion of coming face-to-face with the enemy (resulting in near-certain death for either party), the soldiers are left firing rather expensive weapons at nameless, faceless shadows in the valley.

But who is creating those shadows? Not men in uniform. Not citizens fighting for their country. Not even political or nationalist rebels. The Taliban? Probably. But what about al-Qaeda? Probably them too. Who knows? (Junger's article outlines three different groups in the valley.) The enemy is so impossible to define, in fact, that the soldiers constantly refer to their invisible adversaries simply as "the bad guys".

As you can imagine, this makes for a difficult environment in which to trust - and gain trust in return. According to the U.S. military's rules of engagement, American soldiers can only fire when fired upon, or if they see a "bad guy" carrying a weapon or handheld radio. That seems simple enough, but what about the civilians who don't fit those descriptions, but who may be supporting and protecting the bad guys and giving away the Americans' every move? Are they not now bad guys themselves?

The short of it is that Restrepo illustrates how the vagueness of the War on Terror trickles down to the battlefield, to every firefight and every frustrating attempt at civil diplomacy. Seemingly none of the weekly meetings with the valley's elders go smoothly, while daily interactions with the locals are awkward and tense, neither party fully understanding the motives of the other. And so The Enemy remains fluid, dynamic, enigmatic. A soldier's only hope, if you can call it that, is to trust their commanding officers, take the civilians at their word and, when fired upon, kill the right guys without killing too many of the wrong ones.

How are we measuring the success of our strategy? 

This is where I really have trouble connecting the dots, particularly as they form a line back to the United States. As I understand it, al-Qaeda is behind scores of terrorist attacks around the world since the early 90's, from New York (twice) to Nairobi, Indonesia to Istanbul, Mumbai to Madrid. Meanwhile, the Taliban has remained strong - and remained home - in Afghanistan and Pakistan for about the same amount of time. The two groups were marginally related a decade ago, and we attacked the Taliban because we suspected them of sheltering al-Qaeda prior to and immediately after 9/11.

But what now? We're fighting both groups in multiple countries (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only being the most well-known of our battles), their motives have aligned, and we have a very hard time separating the two as they begin to meld together and spread around the world like a deadly virus. For every report of a "high-level" al-Qaeda leader that the U.S. military kills in a drone attack, there's a report about another homegrown terrorist's failed plot on our soil. I understand that these terrorist ideologies originate in the areas where we are fighting, but therein lies my confusion. Nearly a decade into this, are we succeeding in waging war on an ideology, and is it even possible to effectively kill that ideology at the source before it reaches our shores?

I sure hope somebody in charge thinks so, because otherwise I really am disturbed by the risks taken by our soldiers as seen in Restrepo. Battle Company spends more than a year fighting to gain an extremely small area of enemy territory while simultaneously gaining the "hearts and minds" of the locals. Despite their best intentions (and I truly believe most have noble ones), the soldiers appear to be severely lacking a sense of cultural awareness, and yet they continue to press forward with the tried and true strategy of, well, bribing the locals. In attempts to gain the support of the community during their meetings, for example, the American military leaders tell the elders how a paved road will be in the Korengal in five or ten years, and how the Americans will provide jobs and education for every family in the valley. Sounds wonderful.

What we poignantly learn at the conclusion of Restrepo, however, is that American military forces withdrew from the Korengal completely in April of this year. What does that mean? Did we lose? Did we win? Are American cities safer now, or more at risk? Are there more "bad guys" now? Fewer? Did they just pack up and move?

It isn't these specifics of Korengal that concern me so much as the sheer number of places exactly like it across Afghanistan in which we are trudging along waist-deep. And to what end? Exactly what is the endgame here? Take down the Taliban (again)? Capture OBL and defeat al-Qaeda once and for all? Quash Islamic extremism and prop up friendly "democracies"? What follows - world peace?

I'm drowning in questions - some sarcastic, some rhetorical - that Restrepo has no answer for. But then it's not the job of the documentary to answer questions, but to raise them in the minds of the viewers and, in turn, the society. We need to individually educate ourselves about and collectively engage ourselves with what is going on "over there" - particularly if, and how, it truly involves us. The cost of the war directly affects each of us, and the needs of returning veterans directly affect each of us, and the misconceptions about culture and religion and motives directly affect all of us. 

But oddly enough, unless you consider those effects Restrepo almost seems to exist in a vacuum, like a fictionalized action movie (Predators, Avatar?) in which a dozen American soldiers accidentally land on another planet and have to fight for their lives. Of course, that's not the case. These are real twenty-somethings from Wisconsin, Florida, California, and elsewhere, fighting for their lives in a desolate valley on the other side of the world, wearing our flag on their shoulders, shooting at the trees in the hopes of killing unknown enemies who may or may not be connected to one of several networks that could be planning attacks against us somewhere on the planet and sometime in the near, or long-term, future. If this represents our very best attempt at securing American freedom and prosperity and liberating the world from themselves (that's the mandate we've proclaimed, right?), I'm afraid we should be deeply concerned.

What did you take home?

Read Sebastian Junger's January 2008 VF article about the Korengal Valley
View Tim Hetherington's photos from O.P. Restrepo and the Korengal Valley
View Tim Hetherington's portraits of some of the soldiers in Restrepo


  1. Fantastic look at an excellent and important documentary Daniel.

    Noted jerk Jeff Wells has repeatedly taken this movie to task for not offering a blatant anti-afghan-war message, but if this documentary doesn't leave you shaken and feeling that we are truly and deeply screwed over there, I don't know what will. You don't need to be spoon-fed by Keith Olbermann. You just need a look at what's really happening and this is it... or a very disturbing part of it.

    Makes The Hurt Locker seem like The Sound of Music.

  2. I've been meaning to drive myself to the Lagoon to see Restrepo since last week. Hopefully, I will get to see it this weekend as this is one I REALLY want to see. The A-Stan war really is a stalemate at best, I'm not sure what we are doing over there but we are doing something... right?

  3. Seen it! Best film of 2010. I know it lack a coherent narrative structure but it doesn't need it. A truly riveting documentary that every American should see.

  4. The Hurt Locker did, the documentary undeniably reveals last year's Best Picture-winner as the Hollywoodized version of war that many accused it of being (including me). These rounds are live, these deaths are palpable, and this trauma lingers long after the credits roll.

  5. Thanks, Craig. I actually picked up on some of the anti/pro debate at LiC before I saw it, but now I can say that it succeeds pretty well at keeping its nose out of politics. Of course that leaves us with all kinds of questions, but again, the point of this wasn't to examine the reasons why the U.S. is there, but to just show us what it looks like when we're there.

    Glad you made it to Lagoon to check it out, Castor. I hope it has a decent shelf life in theaters, but if people are deciding between this and Dinner for Schmucks, I think it's pretty obvious where they'll end up. Pretty sad.

  6. Jason...? I suspect your comment was snipped off in cyberspace.

  7. Hmm. Yeah, looks like it. While noting that I agree with most of your review, here's the one disagreement (sort of) ...

    Yes, Restrepo reveals Hurt Locker as Hollywoodization. Of course, as a documentary, it should. But I'd argue that more than anything it shows the truth of Hurt Locker's main premise, that combat is addictive and difficult to leave behind. We see this both in the direct comments of the guys in the warzone, and we see it in their expressions after their Korengal tours are over -- they have not moved on, they have not readjusted. So, yes, Hurt Locker has John Wayne-going-on-Rambo moments. But the heart of the film is supported by what we see in Restrepo. That's my take anyway.

  8. It's true, you could say I threw the baby out with the bathwater with my dismissal of THL here. And to be clear, Restrepo also really supports the PTSD on display in Stop-Loss, which I am willing to carry the torch for at every opportunity.

    What I should have clarified in comparing The Hurt Locker to Restrepo is that the former presents what I think is a wildly inaccurate portrayal of military procedure. Even the mere presence of a commanding officer in Restrepo appears to demand quiet respect from the soldiers; going outside of protocol and leaving fellow soldiers in a vulnerable position would result in disaster, not proud approval (as seen in The Hurt Locker).

  9. Yep, my instincts were right - fantastic review/article, Daniel. You wouldn't think that such a simple premise (turn on camera, follow) could lead to so many questions and provide us with such a forum for conversations.

    I was just as mystified as you. It's difficult - you don't wish to denigrate the efforts of these soldiers, but it's really hard to walk away from this without wondering what the point of their being there is. Obviously, they take immense pride in the job they've done (in setting up Restrepo, amongst other things), butI must admit a disconnect as that made its way to my ears and eyes. I was dumbfounded with the sheer anonymity of the enemy - it's bad enough that they don't even know the 'organization' they're going after, but to barely see them as well is almost comical. Shoot and pray.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to read through it, Fletch (and now that you have, I recommend taking more to read the VF article).

    I agree that the conclusion of this particular story - that so many lives were lost and dollars were spent for the purpose of...? - is really a hard pill to swallow. I'm sure it's a constant in wars dating back centuries, but when the ramifications of this war aren't easily tied down to daily life here it makes it even harder to process.


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