The Vietnam war was fought in full view of television news, and it was seen night after night on American TV screens. Some people think that the war was decided there as well, with images of a confusing, mismanaged, and morally ambiguous war undermining America’s will to win. Today’s military keeps journalists on a tighter leash, and today’s journalists mostly aren’t interested in reporting from places where they can’t get room service. As a result, the war in Afghanistan has been fought mostly out of sight, if not actually out of mind. Americans know their troops are fighting there, but we very rarely see images of American infantry in action and under fire.
Restrepo, a powerful documentary by author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington, changes this, and shows us the war in Afghanistan as we have never seen it before. Junger and Hetherington were embedded with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade during its fifteen month tour in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley, at that time the deadliest place in the country for American forces. . They shot over 150 hours of footage, and after battle Company returned home interviewed a number of the soldiers about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
Junger and Hetherington wisely chose not to be seen or heard at any point in the film. The men of Battle Company do all the talking. Junger and Hetherington aren’t to blame that the device of interviewing people in close up about events we see them participate in feels a bit like a TV reality show, at least in the beginning. The power of the soldier’s experiences, and their calm, understated way of speaking about them keeps the movie grounded and the audience involved, and once Battle Company is in Afghanistan, Restrepo becomes deeply involving.
Warned that the last company stationed in the Korengal spent virtually its whole tour penned up in it’s own base camp and under daily fire, Captain Dan Kearney resolves to do better, and plans more aggressive operations. He orders a platoon to occupy a key piece of terrain in enemy territory where they will construct an outpost from which they can patrol and observe. The men name this position OP Restrepo after “Doc” Restrepo, a medic who is killed in action early in Battle Company’s deployment. Kearney and his men intend to take the war to the enemy, and soon the Taliban no longer has things all its own way in the Korengal.
Restrepo captures the boredom, backbreaking work and sheer drudgery of infantry life in a remote outpost. This is hardship duty, with soldiers living in fairly primitive conditions and burning their own excrement. Enemy contact is frequent. One Battle Company soldier points out in a post deployment interview that the Army is still learning how to cope with men who have been under fire for this length of time, as no one has seen this much combat since World War II or Korea, if ever.
Captain Kearney gives every appearance of being a fine commander, and clearly understands the need to win hearts and minds. But it becomes clear, as he visits with village elders, that no one is buying what he’s selling. The people of the Korengal either support the Taliban, or are terrified of them. It does not help that battle Company kills a cow that becomes entangled in their concertina wire, or that several civilians, including children, are hit by American firepower during an operation. (The Taliban tactic of surrounding themselves with civilians is in evidence here) The gulf between Battle Company and the Afghans seems nearly unbridgeable. At one point, an elder complains that Kearney has taken away a fellow named Mustafa, to which Kearney replies that he has seen the video of Mustafa cutting off people’s heads. Despite Kearney’s best efforts, the situation in the Korengal seems essentially unchanged. Battle Company holds the ground on which it stands, and the Taliban holds everything else.
Restrepo never takes a position on the wisdom of the war, or how it is being fought, but it does show how the infantry soldiers doing the actual fighting live, and sometimes die. It also shows their courage, patience, dedication, and professionalism under hard conditions, and in the face of a seemingly hopeless task. The manner in which America’s wars are covered and reported to the American people may change over time, but the spirit with which American soldiers fight them never does.