Update 4/21/2011:The lamentable news of Tim Hetherington’s death covering the civil conflict in Libya reached us yesterday (20 April 2011). Restrepo is one of this fine and courageous documentarian’s major achievements. His record of what it meant for U.S. soldiers to fight in the Afghan War will stand the test of time.—MHH
Ignore all the vacuous policy statements, the bland strategic reviews, and the overblown political rhetoric inspired by the U.S attempt to pacify Afghanistan. Instead sit down for an hour and a half with the documentary Restrepo. It takes you from the abstractions about war to the experience of a platoon caught up in it. The footage patiently and courageously assembled by filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger recreates these soldiers’ fifteen trying months in 2007-08 manning a small, exposed outpost in the inhospitable Korangal valley of eastern Afghanistan. The outpost, like the film, bears the name of an early casualty, medic Juan Restrepo.
Anyone familiar with the Vietnam War will within minutes into this film notice the uncanny echoes and perhaps think of a clutch of distinguished documentaries that illuminated that earlier conflict even as it was in progress. The Anderson Platoon (1966), A Face of War (1967), and The World of Charlie Company (1970) all anticipate with unnerving exactitude the world of Restrepo. The youthful hijinks, the boredom, the strain of patrol, the unseen enemy, the sudden loss of buddies — they are the elements that remind us how much in critical respects Afghanistan rhymes with Vietnam.
If you let your mind wander, it’s easy for the films from two different wars to blend together in a way that Francis Ford Coppola would appreciate. Are we in Vietnam or Afghanistan? Well-led young soldiers (most are in their early twenties) are sustained by a keen camaraderie and by the all-purpose helicopter (variously supply ship, ambulance, weapons platform, and bus). They are asked to somehow master an enemy (never once seen on camera) who fights at a time and place of his own choosing.
Day after day, they do their dangerous patrolling. The civilian population — the familiar cast of old men, women, and children — cowers and tries, not always successfully, to stay out of the way of bullets and bombs. Wary elders receive patient instruction from earnest junior officers speaking through translators and mixing promises of material improvements with threats of blunt force. These wizened old men stare back expressionless. Patrolling and persuasion changes little. What a sergeant had to say of the Korangal’s wayward villagers applied equally to Vietnam: “We take one step forward and it seems that they take two steps backwards.” The steady wear of war shows on the men’s faces and in the heavy thoughts they carry home. Disciplined, well trained, lavishly supplied, they had fought a god-forsaken war of attrition.
Restrepo, like its Vietnam antecedents, makes no grand case for or against this war. But the very ease with which it summons up Vietnam parallels suggests a political verdict — at least to anyone with a long memory. What in heaven’s name can foreigners hope to achieve when literally dropped into circumstances where the cultural gulf is so wide and so deep the entire U.S. navy could sail through it? These intruders drift amidst a people they don’t begin to understand and can’t directly communicate with. They battle an enemy whose courage and tenacity they recognize and respect. Under the circumstances, often the best they can do is inflict random destruction. Restrepo tells us this American enterprise is a bit nutty if not completely insane.
Released in June 2010, this film has won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for a documentary. It has now received an Academy Award nomination. An Oscar next month would not only be a deserved recognition of merit. It might also induce more Americans to make a closer acquaintance with yet one more distant, troubled war fought in their name.
U.S. commanders finally abandoned their Korangal position in April 2010, but their war goes on. Perhaps images as powerful as those on offer here can do what all the empty talk cannot — make citizens see the blood draining into the ground on yet another imperial frontier and question the sense of it.
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.