Every dollar we spend in Afghanistan, every life we waste there, is a waste. An intelligent policy is not to try to remake a country that nobody since Genghis Khan has managed to conquer. What makes us think, what arrogance gives us the right to assume that we can succeed where the Moguls, the British, the Soviets failed?
—Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, 1 July 2010
Perfectly sane, good men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for. Not killing, necessarily—that couldn’t have been clearer in my mind—but the other side of the equation: protecting. The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you’ve been exposed to it, there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do.
—Sebastian Junger, War
At the start of Restrepo, the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company, land in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. It’s May 2007, and they’re going to be here for 15 months. Coming off the chinook, they look around—at a vast expanse of nowhere. Remembering his first impression, Sergeant Aron Hijar says, “I thought, ‘Holy shit, we’re not ready for this.’” Captain Dan Kearney recalls he wanted to go in “with an open mind.” the film cuts between the interviews to the arrival. Kearney heard the base took fire every day. It was hard to believe, he says. Why didn’t the team “go out there and go kill the damn enemy”? Within two months of being there, he sums up, the plan was “that I would fix it and that we wouldn’t get shot at anymore.”
The deployment doesn’t quite go as planned.
The company’s experiences make up the entirety of this outstanding documentary, recorded by embedded filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Culled from some 150 hours of footage, the movie shows a range of interactions at the outpost called Restrepo, named after a company medic who is killed early during the deployment, some harrowing battlefield imagery as well as post-deployment interviews conducted in Italy. It is, as Junger says, “about soldiers and it reflects their reality and their internal dialogue.” But as discussions go forward concerning funding and policy for this very long war, the film is something else as well, of course, resulting from Junger and Hetherington’s choices, as well as the soldiers’ memories. Their very specific realities are consistently compelling and disconcerting. If their stories are not explicitly “political,” they are all profoundly subjective and persuasive: this war, like all wars, is a terrible thing.
The very immediacy of Restrepo makes this case. No matter how America’s campaign in Afghanistan is won, lost, or reframed as “history” in years to come, it is, right now, a series of events, small and large, productive and destructive. Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne remembers that on their first night on the mountain. “It started getting dark and the monkeys were howling,” he says, “And I thought they were Taliban: ‘Shit, they’re close.’” Eventually, his fears are both confirmed (firefights with unseen, mysterious or distant combatants) and deflated, by the men’s daily routines. For long days and weeks, they dig trenches, they build walls, they meet with local Afghans, hoping to anticipate and so head off the Taliban.
In fact, the film shows no self-described Taliban, though it does reveal the tensions arising in meetings with the valley elders. During one such shura, the camera pitches from one face to another, as the Captain Dan Kearney tries to elicit information while also laying down basic notions of fair exchange. Frustrated as the elders don’t give straight answers as to one suspect’s whereabouts and instead try to make their own demands, he asserts, “You’re not understanding that I don’t fucking care.” First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell looks back on this episode later, and sighs, “It’s sad to me that, as much as Captain Kearney would go down there and conduct different shuras and tell ‘em about the positives about what we can do to help them, it seemed like it didn’t go anywhere. It seemed like we took one step forward and it seemed like they took two steps backwards.”
While the film shows Americans looking annoyed or bored, it also shows similar expressions on Afghan faces. Making limited use of subtitles, Restrepo hints at the lack of communication at multiple levels, as various representatives are unable to make their needs or desires known. When one group of elders actually comes to the outpost, Sergeant First Class Mark Patterson is heartened at first. “It’s a good sign,” he says, that they’ve made this gesture.
Then the reason for the visit emerges, slowly, that the Afghans are angry the Americans have killed a cow (the very cow, we might imagine, that the cook has recently served up to the company). “It ran into our concertina wire and it was mangled inside the concertina wire,” Patterson explains, slowly, to his visitors. “So we had to kill it to put it out of its misery.” The Afghans want repayment (some $400), but the best Patterson can offer is an assortment of beans, rice, and sugar equal to the cow’s weight. The discussion goes on for a few minutes, the translator set between the two contingents and Patterson leaving at one point to contact his superiors. Compared to other engagements, it’s both trivial and resonant, a negotiation that makes briefly visible the underlying strains of trust and distrust on both sides.
The strain for Battle Company comes to the surface when they’re assigned to a mission, Operation Rock Avalanche. Kearney pauses when he’s asked whether he gets “nervous before something like this” (Junger and Hetherington both remain off camera throughout the film, and their occasional questions tend to punctuate difficult moments). “I get nervous for the guys,” he admits, then adds, “I just called my mom and dad, I’ll try calling my wife before we go, just one last ‘I love you’ to all of ‘em.” While you’ve seen the men laughing and working together, even infrequently complaining about the conditions, such expression of concern, however concise, is rare. The job is what it is, they accept it, and don’t talk much about home, save for the occasional display of a child’s photo or sharing a line from a letter. No one needs to say what worries him: it’s in the air they breathe.
When the film does show combat—gunfire back and forth, the distribution of ordinance—the images pitch vigorously. During Operation Rock Avalanche, they lose Sgt. Larry I. Rougle, whose image is marked earlier in the film, as the camera pans over a group planning the mission. That footage is especially poignant, as soldiers respond to the news (“Don’t look at him”). Looking back from Italy, Hijar says, “That actually stuck with me for the rest of the deployment.” Even now, he observes, “I obviously haven’t figured out how to deal with it inside. The only hope I have right now is that eventually I’ll be able to process it differently.”
That processing is what Restrepo is really about. As much as the film depicts the harsh weather, wearying labor, and emotional demands of the deployment, it is in the end about how soldiers deal with loss. Whether a slow pan shows a dead man’s blood smeared all over a survivor’s uniform, or, some days later, the frame careens to keep up with a trio of men dancing energetically and intently to Samantha Fox’s “Touch Me”—the images reveal how loss shapes the soldiers’ lives, and how they continue to live, supported, however briefly, by one another. Remembering, the men are appreciative of their experiences, horrified by what they now know, and, as Hijar says, unable to forget. Still, as he puts it, “I don’t want to not have that as a memory, because that was one of the moments that makes me appreciate everything that I have.”