In the Valley of Death

by John Grassi

10 January 2011

In Afghanistan, US soldiers chase -- and are chased by -- the ghosts of 9-11.
cover art


Director: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
Cast: U.S. 2nd Battle Company, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne

US DVD: 7 Dec 2010

In the era of reality TV, producers often manufacture conflict and emotional drama in order to titillate audiences.  There’s no need to manufacture anything in Restrepo, a documentary shot on the frontline in Afghanistan.  Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington begin their stark film as gung-ho GIs shout and joke during their maiden flight to Afghanistan.  Their ringleader is strapping John Restrepo, an Army medic. These young men are headed to the Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous tours in Afghanistan.

Once they arrive, a roadside bomb devastates their ATV.  As the stunned GIs climb out, they fall under immediate gunfire.  Soon afterwards, Restrepo gets shot in the neck and dies in an Army helicopter, shocking his brothers-in-arms into a grim new reality. 

The Taliban are a ghostly presence throughout the film—we never see them, but their handiwork is everywhere.  Sniper fire punctuates the film on a continuous basis.  Abandoned Taliban camps are discovered during patrols. In one incredible scene, a GI reaches for a water bottle and falls under the scope of a Taliban sniper—the GI begins dancing and hot-footing around flying bullets.  The 2nd Platoon christens their precarious new outpost “Restrepo”.

There are no interviews with generals or politicians, Restrepo is tightly focused on the men of the 2nd Platoon, led by Captain John Kearney.  “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” Kearney says, and it’s an apt statement, for the Taliban controls the countryside. 

Yet Kearney’s courage is undermined by his naiveté, like Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.  In his weekly ‘Shura’ meetings with Afghan elders, Kearney lectures them as if they were unruly school children.  The Afghan elders communicate their concerns about civilian casualties haltingly, through a translator .  Kearney scolds them about the ‘bad guys’.  The bad guys in question are probably related to these elders, most likely their sons and nephews and grandsons.

One of the documentary’s most telling scenes is what the GIs refer to as the “Cow Incident”.  The Afghan elders request a shura meeting, which excites the American command.  The elders rarely initiate contact, and the American officers hope for a breakthrough in cooperation.  Instead, the elders want compensation for a cow that died while getting tangled in Restrepo’s razor wire.  The elders want $500 dollars.

The event is bitterly funny to the GIs, for it crystallizes the hopelessness of the stated objective.  In a third-world country like Afghanistan, a cow is more important than the endless War on Terror.  One can only hope that a small event like the “Cow Incident” triggers a public reassessment of the entire enterprise.

As if on queue, the “Cow Incident” leads to Operation Rock Avalanche, as American GIs launch a tactical walk-through of Taliban-held territory.  A red-hot firefight erupts and the chaos of battle is shockingly and vividly shown.  Deafening rifle fire is exchanged amid shouts and screams.  This type of filmmaking makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  The 2nd platoon loses another man, and if not for the discretion of Junger and Hetherington, the GI would have died on camera.  A young soldier has an emotional breakdown near the body of his dead comrade, yet the firefight continues, for there’s no mercy in Korengal Valley.
An American airstrike on a nearby village has predictably mixed results:  women and children are injured, yet Taliban rifles and rocket launchers are discovered amid the rubble.  There’s no separating the civilian population from the enemy, for the Taliban are immersed within the local community.
The exit interviews with the men of the 2nd Platoon are sobering.  The jaunty cockiness displayed during that initial flight to Afghanistan has disappeared. These brave young men seem to have aged ten years within the span of fifteen months.  And one wonders what awaits them in civilian life during one of the worst recessions in decades. 
The now abandoned U.S. outpost of Restrepo in Korengal Valley is a bitter reminder of America’s overreaching War on Terror.  Junger and Hetherington offer no editorial viewpoint, yet what they capture on film is a powerful political statement.  The men responsible for 9-11 were never in Iraq and have long departed Afghanistan.  Restrepo  could lead to important questions about the principal beneficiaries of an endless war and how they manipulate public opinion.

DVD extras include deleted scenes and additional interviews with the men of the 2nd Platoon.  Restrepo won the 2010 Sundance Award for Best Documentary.



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