Beginning in June 2007, filmmaker Tim Hetherington and war correspondent Sebastian Junger embedded themselves with a U.S. Army platoon in the truly God-forsaken Korengal Valley of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. A companion piece to Junger’s new book War, Restrepo is their feature-length documentary centered on a fifteen-man outpost in one of the most remote and dangerous war zones on earth.
Trailer is NSFW
Its cinema verité style, interspersed with commentary from soldiers interviewed after the deployment, puts you in the center of the action – and inaction – alongside a half dozen or so principal characters. It captures the chaos and the boredom, the courage and the fear, the tension and the playful abandon of their stretch in Outpost Restrepo, named after their young medic, a Korengal casualty.
In between IED attacks, firefights, digging in on a cliff-side, negotiating compensation with the villagers for a dead cow, mourning dead comrades, rooting out arms caches in the village, and general horsing around, these soldiers, painfully young but becoming men before our eyes, offer honest and revealing emotions about these experiences. One soldier says he can barely get his head around it all; he just hopes that “one day I’ll be able to process it differently.”
There is no commentary, however, from politicians, military brass, family, or the filmmakers themselves, who have studiously stripped away any political context for their subject. “The only goal,” they say in their press kit, “is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 94-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.”
Co-directors Junger and Hetherington explain that “the war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion… Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs.” Absolutely true. But they go on to say that “Beliefs can be a way of avoiding looking at reality. This is reality.”
Maybe so, but avoiding beliefs can be a way of avoiding looking at reality, too. Beliefs can give clarity, meaning, and purpose to reality, as well as shape reality itself; a clash of belief systems is the reason those soldiers were in the Korengal in the first place. To strip away the proper context deprives the audience of a perspective that might have infused the film with greater depth and power. In all fairness, that would be a different movie – a complex, fascinating one perhaps, but one the filmmakers were anxious to avoid.
“Most of documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan so far have been political polemics, and I think the public is exhausted by them,” says Junger, best-known as the author of The Perfect Storm. The Los Angeles Times echoes this approvingly, noting that the filmmakers of current war documentaries “say that audiences at this historical moment are best served by films that center on specific players instead of the larger conflict.”
Actually, what the public is exhausted by, and never responded to favorably in the first place, is the relentless cinematic depiction of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as unwinnable quagmires, and our prosecution of them as illegal and immoral, in such documentaries as Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight, and The Road to Guantanamo – not to mention Hollywood dramas like Redacted, Lions for Lambs and The Green Zone.
The inconvenient truth that the Times is eager to sweep under the carpet is that such left-leaning films about the current conflicts do not fill theaters, even if they win Oscars, like Taxi to the Dark Side (and even The Hurt Locker, which is a more ambiguous case). Their message: America is bad, our cause is unjust, and war is bad anyway, so we should bring our troops home. Thus Junger is correct that the public does respond more favorably to the rare, politically neutral films that at least honor the troops, such as Taking Chance, Brothers at War, and now, Restrepo.
So he and Hetherington strove for an almost claustrophobically tight focus on the soldiers themselves, and in that respect, their documentary is a compelling slice of military life under circumstances extraordinary even for wartime. “Soldiers are living, fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine,” Junger rightfully notes. These warriors are too busy doing their job and dodging bullets to debate foreign policy.
But there remains a nagging blind spot to this narrow focus of these politically neutral films: the context of who our enemy is and why we’re fighting them. The Taliban don’t even get a cameo in Restrepo. The reality, as Junger puts it, is not just the soldiers’ day-to-day experience; the larger reality is that our troops are pitted against an implacable religious fanaticism that is a towering threat to democracy, freedom, and modernity itself; a fanaticism about which our leaders are too often in denial even if theirs aren’t. The Washington Post‘s Greg Jaffe reports that when an Army officer in the valley attempted to reach out to the leader of the Korengali, the response was “If you surrender to the law of Allah then our war against you will end. If you keep fighting for man’s law then we will fight you until Doomsday.”
And therein lies the essence of our Forever War with radical Islam: sharia law versus democracy, in an apocalyptic death match for the future of humanity. Contrary to the Left’s portrayal of this clash, it is a just cause, we are the good guys, and war may be hell but it is sometimes necessary to do battle with evil. This is the true context and the cinematic message that will resonate with audiences.
That’s not to say that we’re handling the conflict well. The reality is also that our troops in Afghanistan are hamstrung by the most restrictive Rules of Engagement in the history of warfare. Our enemy’s clear mission is to drive the infidel from Muslim lands and ultimately from the face of the earth, hacking off civilian and military heads indiscriminately along the way. Our military mission is a nation-building, hearts-and-minds-winning counterinsurgency strategy whose success is measured by “how people feel.” Ludicrously, we now hand out medals for “courageous restraint” (what I wouldn’t give to hear General Patton’s take on that oxymoron). This context adds a disturbing new dimension to the daily reality of the Restrepo characters and soldiers just like them stationed in Afghanistan.
See Restrepo for its visceral impact and its sympathetic, charismatic cast of real-life heroes (including one quiet young man whose mother he calls “a f***ing hippie” who wouldn’t even allow him a squirt gun as a child). Then remember the context in which those soldiers and many more like them struggle, a larger reality that the film doesn’t address. I can’t sum up that context better than the brilliant British journalist and cultural critic Melanie Phillips:
[T]he Afghanistan war… will hit the buffers unless someone gets a grip. And that means fighting this war as if it really is a war and not a “nation-building” exercise; and saying unequivocally that America is there for as long as it takes because, however awful and bloody this conflict is, the alternative – a jihadi-boosting defeat for the west and the Talebanisation of Pakistan – is infinitely worse.