Film: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger: Restrepo (2010)

If we ever expect to “win” the “war in Afghanistan”, men like CPT Dan Kearney need to be swiftly relieved of duty.  As shown in Restrepo, leading meetings with local village elders in the Korengal Valley, Kearney displays nothing but the broadly stereotypical American military tone of command, condescending to a roomful of rural Afghans twice his age with comments like “Remember when I told you guys…?” as though they’re children in need of firmness.  Afghans are in need of firmness – they just don’t need it from an occupying army who show little (or, in Kearney’s case, no) respect for their customs.  If you emasculate these guys, deserved or otherwise, you will make enemies of them.  It’s stunning to me that the United States military sends men like him to regions like that, and fails to remind him what backwoods rednecks surely all know: you cain’t come in here and tell me what to do in mah own bayckyard.  No, instead they indoctrinate him with the greatest willpower in the western hemisphere: good old American self-righteousness.

That the filmmakers do not interfere, and never in the film question Kearney’s tactics – even while plainly living with the platoon in the same outpost, named for a medic killed in Korengal in the summer of 2007 – raises a quite different debate: are films like this really helping anything?  It should be said at once that Restrepo is an engrossing film, so close to the action that there’s no attempt to clean the often dirty lens; when the sound cuts out, a scene continues in silence with the occasional RF hit, as though we’re watching the raw footage along with the filmmakers, stunned to be in one piece and eager to see what they got.  In the heat of battle, the camera huddles under trees watching soldiers rush past, looking this way and that before hauling ass directly behind them, low in the weeds.  Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger – both veteran war correspondents – place themselves firmly inside the platoon, just as surely forming a bond with its 20-somethings warriors as refusing to draw conclusions about what they see.

For a documentary, it’s an admirable strategy, but… When I was there in the spring of 2009 – with Iranian photographer Reza Deghati, who accompanied Junger in 2000 in their National Geographic project with the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud – extraordinary attention went into social graces.  There’s a tenderness to it, a calm series of exchanges showing respect and friendship.  Basic courtesy aside, it’s how you got around – and it’s how you showed deference to the Afghani tradition of greeting guests without reservation.  And even then, we sometimes ran into trouble.  We once spent a night in the home of Massoud’s father-in-law.  Our fixers had failed to call ahead, and we showed up unannounced, an embarrassment to Reza and a bad way to begin our time in the Panjshir Valley.  But Reza was a friend; we were shown to the guest room – a big space, empty except for the ubiquitous large, flat cushions found in every such room – and given a dinner of stale bread and fried eggs.  All forgiven; we spent the evening in the presence of a man of humbling grace, wit, and temperance, listening to stories between the two men (with only the occasional translation).  The next morning, over a breakfast of watermelon, an Afghani-American woman showed up, leading a pair of Americans learning the local traditions for the training of contractors.  She marched into the room without removing her boots – the most basic of hospitalities – bade speedy introductions and hurried out again, leaving her bewildered-looking American clients sitting awkwardly in the corner of the room.  We left soon thereafter.

It left a bad taste, and things were awkward – but at least we weren’t carrying machine guns and dropping bombs that killed local children.  Junger, at least, must understand how this works, as he must know that the Afghans’ traditions, like our own, mask deep distrust of outsiders and a degree of fluid loyalties.  My guess is that behind his camera sat a set of gritted teeth.  No, he cannot interfere.  It would be impractical in the moment, disrespectful of his military hosts, and a useless subversion of its authority if Junger’s objective is to make a dispassionate film.  Yet he was there, and we see nothing in Restrepo of an attempt to correct the cringe-inducing boorish behavior directly contributing, I am quite certain, to our inability to weed out our mortal enemies, in a nation built of rock and regional alliances predicated less on ideology than on temporal power shifts.  I find this hard to reconcile.

Which is where Restrepo operates, on a broader level: none of this really makes sense.  When three tribal elders show up at Outpost Restrepo demanding payment for a cow killed by the soldiers when it strayed – according to the soldiers – into their wire, it’s clear that the dead livestock carries economic and opportunistic significance for the locals, who inform the military that killing the animal was illegal and claim they’re owed $500.  The CO offers them the cow’s weight in rice, beans, and sugar instead; Junger and Hetherington show the elders leaving, the matter unresolved.  In separate sequences, American soldiers are shown reveling in violent video games, then in their vertiginous high following a firefight that leaves them giggling like drunk teenagers, then in the confirmed obliteration of a combatant with a high-caliber weapon that tears the man apart.  And then, in a sequence that blows past sobering into some kind of delirium, an American is killed during an ambush, and things become dead-quiet serious for all but one of them, who dissolves in waves of helpless weeping.  The ambush hasn’t even ended.  The soldiers themselves, in interviews shot in Italy after their deployment in Korengal, have little to say about what they accomplished there; mostly, they’re happy to be gone and confused about how to handle what they saw and felt.  There’s mention of the “extra thousand dollars” they would have stood to make if their deployment had lasted until September instead of August 2008; our guards and fixers in Afghanistan greeted their brothers and friends in Panjshir and told stories about hiding in caves for weeks at a time, shooting down Russian helicopters whose remains still litter the valley floor like outsized fossilized insects.  Tank treads have become speed bumps in the road; artillery shells line the tops of walls in which bricks have been replaced with used ammunition canisters.

Hetherington and Junger know there’s so little to conclude in Restrepo beyond futility.  Mercifully, they make no effort to heroize or eulogize – they just watch.  And they listen: the film contains a marvelous soundtrack, constructed mostly of idle bullshitting among the troops, the clicks and thunks of their weaponry, the crunch of their boots in gravel (and little ethnic music to appeal to a foreigner’s sense of exoticism).  Faceless voices over the radio direct aerial attacks on tree-covered spurs across the valley; explosions appear well before the distant boom that’s killed the screams of the men hiding there – or not.  All we know of the local perspective is what comes in pieces via the shuras with the elders, so the only suggestion of meaning to the whole goddamned endeavor is what the filmmakers show the Americans creating.  They name their outpost after one of their own KIAs.  Their Dan Kearneys evoke duty, and give the men momentary permission to “go ahead and mourn” so they can get back to work (his response to a meeting with villagers in which he’s shown the bodies of five local farmers killed by American bombings: “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”).  None of the soldiers, Kearney included, come across as bad men; they’re good old boys and die-hard patriots, doing their part to make God and mama proud.  Belief in their mission – to provide security for relief flowing into the valley – seems cursory.  In the American military – in any non-conscript army – you do as you’re told first, and think about it when you’re home.

So in an odd way – and this is the sort of documentary I would like to have made myself, so clear in its design and so lacking in sentimentality – I’m not sure what the purpose of Restrepo really is.  Those who feel we need to be in Afghanistan will nod and think how brave these boys are, sacrificing their freedom to preserve it for others.  Those who feel we don’t will shake their heads in disdain, wondering how on earth we got to be sending our boys to spurs of land in remote Afghan valleys to achieve almost nothing.  Anyone whose mind hasn’t leaned one way or another on the Afghanistan war – and I believe there are plenty in this land of ours, the ones who don’t feel the cost and don’t really care about the outcome – may find this a strange film, so full of sound and fury, etc.  If you can take a war film to mean whatever you already believe, does it help or hinder a filmmaker’s cause?  And if his cause is pure apolitical objectivity – however beautifully achieved – what the hell is his point?  The situation is so fragile these days that its commanding officer – who by all accounts maintained the best relationships with the local leadership, including Karzai, of anyone in the U.S. military – can be replaced for speaking his mind in Rolling Stone, hardly a bastion of potent political exchange.  I deeply admire this film as a film, but we need bolder debates at this point.

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