First, the cryptic title. It looks like an acronym, but it is in fact the last name of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan, in the fighting which is recounted in the film. His name was Juan S. Restrepo.. His comrades in arms called him “doc.” His name is pronounced with an accent on the second syllable, reh-STREP-po.
The film was made by the noted author Sebastian Junger, and the photographer Tim Hetherington. (Junger wrote a book entitled simply War about his experiences being embedded with the troops, which Zen reviewed here. James McCormick reviewed Junger’s book on CB, here.)
The movie covers the hard fighting endured by a platoon of American troops in a 15 month deployement to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. It intercuts footage of the troops in the Valley with interviews after they left Afghanistan. The overall feel of the film is grim. The sense projected by the movie is that the troops who were not physically wounded have been psychologically damaged by their exposure to combat. The movie makes clear that their goal became survival and leaving Afghanistan alive. Other than the platoon commander, who was making a superhuman effort to carry out a counterinsurgency program, there was no sense that the troops perceived any achievable mission to carry out.
The movie depicts the troops as facing an insurmountable task, trying to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign where they are bottled up in firebases and cannot come out to provide security for the population. The Taliban rule the countryside. The Americans can foray out, and bring down heavy firepower when they encounter the Taliban, but the fundamental mismatch between what the troops have been asked to do and the means provided to do it is apparent throughout.
I kept thinking as I watched this, feeling increasingly frustrated, what would von Clausewitz say about this effort? Gerald Templar? John Boyd? Frank Kitson? Dwight Eisenhower? The mismatch between means (inadequate) effort by the troops (admirable, to the last ounce of their energy) and the goal (beyond their reach) was extremely frustrating to watch. The lack of a strategy that would bring these factors into line was glaringly apparent, at least in the tiny slice of the war depicted in the film.
The dramatic arc of the story is the arrival of the troops, the death of Doc Restrepo, the establishment of a firebase named after him, further fighting and the loss of another admired and respected soldier, the incapacity of the Americans to help or even communicate with the locals, the exit of the platoon from Afghanistan, and a scrolling text at the end saying that the base named after Pfc. Restrepo had been abandoned. The film comes off as a bleak tale of courage squandered.
(I am afraid that the preceding sentence could seem disrespectful to the men depicted in the movie. It is not meant to be. But I have to be honest about what the movie seemed to be conveying, the overall impression the movie, as a movie, left with this viewer.)
None of this surprised me. I expect any movie to depict the generally accepted artistic view that war is futile, pointless, etc. This movie had visual allusions to Black Hawk Down, for example, with ululating local singing as helicopters took off at the beginning. It is as if any film made about war in this day and age will necessarilly conform to a particular ideological template, almost as if by some law of cultural gravity: Film-makers come from a certain cultural milieu, they view the world a certain way, their depiction of certain subjects will conform to a certain pattern.
The only thing that tempered this largely negative tone was the respectful but honest depiction of the extraordinary courage and resolution and toughness of the troops depicted in the movie. To its credit, the movie did nothing to undercut this picture.
As a result, I was very surprised, even shocked, by the presentation by Sebastian Junger after the film. Junger told us that he had 150 hours of film and he had to cut it down to two hours. The movie therefore is not an arbitrary assemblage, or a montage. It is a story carved from a mass of material. Yet, Junger’s discussion of the film was largely at odds with what I had just watched, at odds with the story he had made out of the footage he took during his time in the Korengal.
Junger made clear that he did not think the war in the Korengal Valley could be taken for a microcosm of the war in Afghanistan generally. To the contrary, the Korengal is one of the worst parts of Afghanistan, and not typical. He made clear that he considered the American involvement in Afghanistan mostly in a positive way. He did not think the war was futile. He claimed that in the ten years of Taliban rule, 400,000 Afghans had been killed, and that “only” 16,000 had died during the period since the USA and its Northern Alliance allies toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. He said that the soldiers believed that what they were doing in Afghanistan was defending us, and they knew and accepted that many people they were defending would not agree with that or approve of what they were doing. He said that if he had a son, and his son wanted to go in the Army, he would support him. I suspect that his book probably conveys more of these assessments than the movie did.
Junger gave careful, thoughtful responses to the questions posed to him. He stayed until there were no more questions. Junger made an extremely favorable impression on me as a man of intense, scrupulous honesty, realism and humility. I now want to read his books.
I wish that every screening of the movie could be followed by a video of the Question-and-Answer session with Junger. it would leave viewers with a much more complete and accurate understanding what they had just seen.
Perhaps a different movie, not focused microscopically on a small group of soldiers, could convey the larger messages that Junger made clear in his personal discussion at the end of the movie.
No matter how worthy the cause, any visual depiction of the reality of an infantry unit in combat will only be able to show you the hardships and suffering they endure. Any goal, purpose or result of their efforts will necessarily be invisible from their viewpoint. The emotional impact of the visual images necessarily tends to drown out any analytic assessment. We feel like we have “seen the truth” because we have seen these powerful visual images. We also feel that the consequences of having “seen the truth” are therefore obvious. But this is an illusion. The visual images are only part of the truth, part of the story, and conclusions drawn from seeing them are not a sufficient basis for action or decision.
Despite these nagging thoughts, the depiction of the soldiers in the movie does speak for itself. Preserving for the record their effort and skill and sacrifice, their youth and energy, their good humor and mutual affection, is a noble task and we should be grateful to the people who made this movie.
I hope none of the foregoing deters anyone from seeing the movie.
I highly recommend Restrepo to all of our readers.
On this Fourth of July weekend, spare a thought and a prayer for the soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan, for the ones who died, for the ones who carry the burdens of their exposure to combat, and for their families.
God bless America.