I watched Restrepo yesterday. It is the documentary that photographer Tim Hetherington, and writer Sebastian Junger, made of their time embedded with the Second Platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007. (Junger also wrote a book War, which gives a more thorough idea of what it was like for the US soldiers in that place at that time).
I admit to being fascinated by war (I even played a bit of Modern Warfare 2 yesterday) and am completely engaged with the war in Afghanistan after being their twice, once in 2004 and again in 2008. But I still don’t get why such fanfare is made of soldiers. Yes, it’s awful. War is awful – but don’t we know that? Don’t we know that men and women who join up for any of the defence forces risk their lives? Don’t we know that we expect them to kill others? Aren’t they trained to within an inch of their lives (in Australia at any rate, ie. SAS: The Search for Warriors) to do this job? (And I’m not saying that they aren’t brave or that they shouldn’t be celebrated, I just find patriotism and triumphalism meaningless when it is loaded upon individuals shoulders – they are just men and women, like you and me – doing a job they have signed up for*).
And, what’s more, I don’t think Restrepo is a good documentary. It doesn’t delve into the psyches of the men, it doesn’t really show the difficulties of getting to the Restrepo outpost only 700 or 800 metres from The Kop, the main outpost, in this contested valley. And, now I think about it, that 800 metre walk, vulnerable and ever-watched by Taliban who were literally just a small arms firing range across the valley, could have shown more about the daily lives of the soldiers than anything else we see in the 93 minutes. That would have been harrowing for any soldier or journalist or photographer.
I have to come back to my theory of the obvious insularity of the American media and the American public discourse for reasons as to why this documentary has received such praise and awards. Yes, this doco was probably shocking for Americans who know nothing about the actual war on the ground in Afghanistan. And, coming after David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers, and all the Wikileaks stuff from Iraq (and yes, Finkel is the Washington Post journalist who sat on the video of US military killing Iraqi journalists later released by Wikileaks), perhaps the zeitgeist hit last year in America about the potential pointlessness and clear clumsiness of the US campaign in Afghanistan and the documentary assisted that (or was assisted by that). I don’t know.
But the truly shocking element of the documentary (and book) is that after four years of fighting the Taliban in the valley, and over 40 deaths of US soldiers and hundreds of wounded, the US pulled out, burning everything they couldn’t carry or didn’t want the Taliban to use, when the strategy to police more populated areas across Afghanistan came into force in 2010. Attempting to take over the Korengal Valley was ultimately a pointless exercise, the men who died fighting for and building the Restrepo outpost are too obviously political and cultural casualties. And this fact, this truth is written in the fine print at the end of the film. Wouldn’t want a truth to get in the way of a good story, huh.
I have to agree with Hannah Gurmann, when she contextualises Restrepo against the current American feeling towards the war in Afghanistan, the new-ish US strategy and the complete (as displayed in the film) ignorance Americans have for Afghan culture and people.
I find it revealing that in a place as small and conservative as the Korengal Valley, with prayer being called five times a day, that the only time in the documentary we hear a muezzin call, is in one of the deleted scenes on the DVD extras. Over 15 months of embedded time with the platoon and Hetherington and Junger only manage to include one call to prayer and then delete it from the main documentary. It’s telling, I think, don’t you? As Gurmann writes, ‘We can’t possibly re-think Afghanistan until we first think about Afghanistan.’
*If defence forces are forced into situations (or create situations themselves) that are not what they are trained for – Vietnam, Iraq, and elements of the Afghanistan campaign, then that is a different matter all together, and it could be argued that the US troops in the Korengal were in fact, in one of those situations, perhaps similar to situations in Vietnam, not knowing who the enemy was or when, where, how they would be attacked – just knowing they would be – or really why they were there in the first place. Situations created on high, unnecessarily risking life and limb are not what a soldier signs up for.