Even before it won last year’s Oscar for Best Picture, the Iraq war movie The Hurt Locker, which was nothing if not a celebration of battlefield bravery, was taken to task by veterans for its inaccuracies, hyperbole, and all-around Hollywoodization of what went on during that conflict. Without an allegiance to the facts, the experience of soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan would, in the words of Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, “continue to be lost in translation.” “Someone, do us a favor,” he asked, “and tell our story properly.”
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, journalists with extensive war-reporting resumés, began following a group of American combat soldiers during their fifteen-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The film they have made, Restrepo, is everything The Hurt Locker is not: authentic, unsentimental, modest, nuanced. Of all the films that have come out of our ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is closest to The War Tapes, an unflinching documentary assembled from a year’s worth of footage taken on the ground by a handful of New Hampshire National Guardsmen in the early years of the Iraq war. But unlike that film, which was shot, for the most part, with helmet- and dash-mounted cameras that showed, explicitly, the experience of individual soldiers, Restrepo takes a small step to the side, widening the lens to take in the whole group, the young, eager, ripped professional soldiers we pay to enforce our foreign policy and do our bidding at the end of a gun.
As Junger explains simply in War, the companion book he wrote about his time in Afghanistan, “I’m interested in what it’s like to serve in a platoon of combat infantry in the US Army.” And so he and Hetherington, under the auspices of Vanity Fair, embedded themselves on and off with Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne based in Vicenza, Italy, considered to be one of the best fighting units in the United States Army. At the time, the war in Afghanistan, already in its sixth year, was the poorer, mostly overlooked cousin to what was going on in Iraq, which was the “surge”—yet the Korengal Valley, where Battle Company was headed, was one of the most disputed and dangerous places on the planet.
For journalists aiming to understand what it was like to serve in combat, the Korengal Valley was an ideal spot. A deep rift between towering mountains that border Pakistan at one end, it is a conduit for weapons and foreign jihadists, as well as a Taliban stronghold, and from the moment it arrived there, Battle Company was under fire. (There were thirteen firefights the first day.) “Nearly a fifth…
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