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Restrepo: One Platoon One Year, One Valley (National Geographic Entertainment, R)

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It’s impossible to watch Restrepo and not be impressed by the bravery and comradeship of the young men who serve there (many featured in this film are in their 20s).

 

 

Restrepo is one of the best documentaries of the year, if not of the decade. It takes you inside a platoon of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley and gives you, as much as any film possibly can, a feel for what it is like to serve in a platoon deployed in combat.

Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington came by their footage honestly: they dug in with the men of the Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in the Korengal Valley from May 2007 to July 2008. Junger and Hetherington made a total of 10 trips to the Korengal and, while there, lived with the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo (named for their comrade Juan Restrepo, a medic killed in action at age 20) and did everything except guard duty and shooting back during firefights. Instead Junger and Hetherington were busy shooting video (150 hours in all), which presents an unusually vivid portrait of men at war.

If the Korengal Valley is aptly titled “the valley of death” (in 2007 20 percent of combat in Afghanistan took place in this narrow 6-mile valley near the Pakistan border) then Outpost Restrepo was the epicenter of combat within the valley. Danger is always present as the men daily come under fire from the surrounding hillsides and sometimes the Taliban fighters come so close that the Americans can hear them talking. As Sergeant Aron Hijar says, “the fear is always there, especially at night when you can’t see what’s coming at you.” Yet as important to the film as the footage of combat are the moments of repose in the barracks as the men cook meals, lift weights, clean their weapons and roughhouse with each other.

The Experience of Watching Restrepo
It’s impossible to watch Restrepo and not be impressed by the bravery and comradeship of the young men who serve there (many featured in this film are in their 20s). And it’s next to impossible to not get swept up in the excitement of combat and to feel a bit of the exuberance of those same young men who are eager to see action. In this the film recalls the quote from journalist Chris Hedges which opened The Hurt Locker: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” To this might be added that the closeness of men who have seen combat together is seldom achieved in civilian life and this closeness may be a powerful a drug itself.

Junger and Hetherington avoid stating any conclusions of their own in Restrepo, but that does not mean that the film lacks a point of view. The story of Restrepo is the story of a small group of American soldiers serving in Afghanistan and you see the story through their eyes, beginning with their adrenaline-fueled deployment and ends with their joyous departure, a choice which makes it completely clear that this film is presenting an American point of view. In addition the filmmakers conducted interviews, shot against a black screen in Vicenza, Italy, with a number of the soldiers three months after leaving the Korengal, giving them a further chance to reflect on their experiences and feelings during the deployment.

As a filmgoer,  you naturally identify with the people who you see on screen, and for the most part those people are American soldiers: Afghani citizens appear only tangentially within the soldiers’ story rather than people with their own valid points of view and independent lives. Even more importantly, the soldiers are humanized while the Afghanis are not. We learn many personal details about the Americans as they speak about their childhoods, their hopes and dreams, and their families. Certainly the Afghanis also have all those things but we never anything about them, leaving them in the position of being objects and/or obstacles granted limited screen time in the soldiers’ story.

Interpreting Restrepo
Interestingly enough, different people have drawn diametrically opposed interpretations of what the film suggests about the ongoing American involvement in Afghanistan. Some see it as an argument for increasing our investment (in men and material resources) while others, myself included, see it as a demonstration of the futility and wastefulness of the war. To forestall the inevitable attacks let me say up front that believing that we should end a futile war is in no way an insult to the men who are serving in it. Their job is to follow orders while it is the responsibility of those above them who create the strategy for the war to consider all possibilities, including whether such a thing as victory is possible and whether it is worth the lives it might cost.

Several moments in Restrepo made my skin crawl. When Captain Dan Kearney says that he thought his platoon could simply go in and “kill the damn enemy: go out there and get them” and “fix” the problems of the besieged valley in two months, you have to marvel at his naïveté. If it were that simple wouldn’t a previous platoon have already done it? A “can do” spirit is great in the right circumstances but maybe a better understanding of Afghani history and culture and the specific circumstances of the Korengal (the responsibility of leadership on a higher level than a Captain serving in combat) might have saved quite a few lives. Kearney shows himself to be sincere and committed to the welfare of his men as well as to the success of his mission yet you have to wonder if he’s not engaged in an ultimately useless effort.

Then there are the patrols when heavily armed American soldiers tramp through the homes of Afghani civilians and individuals are isolated for questioning (“you have pretty clean hands for a goatherd”). The Americans have the absolute power to take the Afghanis away for further questioning and just ask yourself how you would react to such treatment, particularly if you might also be in mortal peril from the Taliban if they believe you have told the Americans anything. And bear in mind that as an Afghani there’s no helicopter to bring you food or whisk you away for medical treatment if you need it.

A Failure to Communicate
Captain Kearney held repeated shuras or council meeting with Afghani elders which present a classic picture of one-sided communication doomed to failure. Kearney earnestly entreats the elders to join with “the government” and help provide security for the construction of a proposed road through the Korengal. In return he promises to flood the valley with development money and thus make the elders richer and more powerful. Meanwhile one of the elders curiously inspects a juice pack and another questions why, if the Americans are only interested in killing the Taliban, they are shooting so many ordinary citizens on their own land.

Kearney tries to get them to forget what happened under the previous commander (he urges them to “wipe the slate clean”) but the elders are less than impressed—after all they’ve been living in the valley for decades (if not centuries) and they’ve seen invaders come and go. Why should this American, no matter much he promises, be any different? The fact that the U.S. decided to withdraw from the Korengal in 2009, only underlines the sensibility of the Afghani point of view—there is no “withdrawal” for them because the Korengal is their home. When the killings of private citizens continue under Captain Kearney he has nothing to offer but regrets, again underlining the wisdom of the elders’ disinclination to show much enthusiasm for his proposed schemes.

Another telling incident occurs when several elders pay a visit to Outpost Restrepo and the soldiers at first are optimistic that they have come to provide information. Instead, it turns out that they seek payment for a cow killed by the Americans. The elders want $500 in compensation while the Americans (who hold all the power in this negotiation) are willing to pay only the weight of the cow in goods (e.g., rice). Maybe that’s a fair offer and maybe the Americans wanted to avoid setting a precedent of cash payments but to the Afghanis it can only look cheap especially since the Americans seem to be so well supplied with arms and electronics. Certainly this episode did nothing to convince the Afghanis that the Americans have any interests but their own at heart.

The overwhelming emotion I was left with at the close of Restrepo was that of sorrow for the Americans who have died or been injured in combat and for the countless Afghanis who have suffered even greater losses. And anger at the military authorities who persist in this futile war without apparently, considering the long history of futile invasions of Afghanistan (no one has succeeded in conquering it since Genghis Khan in the 13th century) or taking the true measure of the human costs involved. | Sarah Boslaugh

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