Corruption continues to have a corrosive effect on ISAF efforts in Afghanistan… Afghan perceptions of injustice and the abuse of power fuel the insurgency in many areas more than the Afghan Government’s inability to provide services do.
—Pentagon Semi-Annual Report
The Russians had a far greater political sophistication…. I think we’ll see a lot of confusion the closer we get to 2014 because the Americans just don’t have the cultural understanding they need to properly negotiate an exit.
—Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst on Afghanistan for the ICG
“They’re gathering intel right now, basically on how they’re gonna deal with us because there’s no really research or intel on how to treat us right now,” says Staff Sergeant Joshua McDonough, “because they haven’t had to deal with people like us, since, you know, World War II and Vietnam, guys who are coming back from 15-month deployments with as much fighting, you know, as we went through.” He’s recalling what it was like to be in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan for 15 months. Deployed in May 2007, McDonough and some of his fellows in Second Platoon, Battle Company who survived, speaks now for Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary of the deployment and also, reflections on it.
At the start of the film—which which recently made the Oscar short list for Best Documentary and airs 29 November on the National Geographic Channel—the men come off a chinook and look around. The camera pans to show what they see, 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 says he wanted to go in “with an open mind.” The film cuts between the interviews, set against austere backgrounds, to shots of the arrival, which could not be bleaker. Kearney says he heard the base took fire every day. He wondered, why didn’t the team “go out there and go kill the damn enemy”? Within two months of being there, he had a plan: “I would fix it and that we wouldn’t get shot at anymore.”
This isn’t how the deployment went, however. The company’s experiences make up the entirety of the outstanding documentary Restrepo, recorded by embedded filmmakers. 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.” As the war has now gone on longer than the 1979-‘89 Russian deployment in the same place, the documentary shapes the soldiers’ realities according to the embedded filmmakers’ choices, but also offers an unusually raw-seeming experience, at once compelling and disconcerting. If the men’s stories are not explicitly “political,” they are all profoundly subjective and persuasive.
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, an experience that is ever arduous and individual. “You know, your heart just sank. You were like, ‘Fuck,’ and it was Doc,” says Specialist Kyle Steiner. “He bled out on the helicopter ride to emergency room or wherever it is they take you when you get shot,” remembers Pemble.
As the war in Afghanistan goes on and on, more and more veterans will be processing such memories, enduring regrets, and especially, finding ways to live. 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, how they live with one another. 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 soldiers’ lives. 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.”