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 of the combat experienced by the 20,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company,” Junger reports. Within days, Battle Company’s highest-ranking noncommissioned officer had been killed, and not long after that, on July 22, the company medic, a Colombian-born flamenco and classical guitarist, Juan Restrepo, whom everyone called “Doc,” was shot in the face during a patrol and died before he could reach a field hospital.
Doc Restrepo, who is shown in footage taken from his cell phone silly-drunk, on leave, and clowning around with his buddies in Italy days before they ship out, was everyone’s best friend, the one who made the group a group. So when the company’s Second Platoon is sent out of the relative safety of their forward operating base—itself completely exposed to attack—to establish a small outpost on a promontory in the heart of enemy territory—“the most vulnerable base in the most hotly contested valley”—they quickly christen it Restrepo in his honor. It’s the same name that Junger and Hetherington give their movie, but not what Junger titles his book. War, generic and big, stands in great contrast to Restrepo, a single soldier who lost his life on patrol. In a similar way, the book attempts to characterize, in a larger setting, the experience of the singular group of men portrayed in the film. Their combat duty is a stand-in for combat duty more generally.
Almost all of Restrepo, the movie, takes place at Restrepo, the outpost. When the Second Platoon gets there, there is nothing, just mountainside hardpan, so they set about building a defensive barrier with picks and shovels, scratching at the ground until it gives up rocks and soil that they deposit in tall wire-mesh bags lined with moleskin called Hescos. They dig and fill, stopping only to respond to the welcome-to-the-neighborhood rounds of the enemy.
There’s a gaming quality to it until, suddenly, one day, there isn’t: the rounds start to come in from every direction—it’s a full-on ambush, with bullets raining down on the Americans. Everyone is shouting, and men are getting wounded, and one is shot to death as the camera is rolling, and there is nothing make-believe or exaggerated as the platoon takes on the work of waging war and the instant and deep emotions of loss and loyalty and fear and anger and grief simultaneously. It’s been a long time since journalists have shown combat so close up; it’s possible that it has never been shot so intimately. There’s nothing prurient or exploitative or glorifying or even editorial about it. The camera is there. We are there. The story reveals itself.
Film has the capacity to be nonjudgmental, to be always showing, not telling. To some extent this is an illusion: films are edited, after all. Still, Junger and Hetherington are careful to stay in the background, to let the images speak for themselves. As a consequence, and to their credit, Restrepo is neither pro-war or anti-war, much like the soldiers it portrays. (Though it is, expressly, pro-soldier; Junger, especially in War, does nothing to hide his admiration and affection for the men of Battle Company.) This is not Vietnam; these young men were not dragged into this conflict; they have made it their job. It’s not that they are coldhearted or dispassionate—clearly they are not—it’s that they are focused on the tasks at hand—staying alive being the paramount one—and anything else is a distraction. As Junger writes in War:
The moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero. Soldiers worry about those things about as much as farmhands worry about the global economy, which is to say, they recognize stupidity when it’s right in front of them but they generally leave the big picture to others.
Because Junger and Hetherington are not interested in the big picture either—Afghanistan is context, not text—it’s possible, as a viewer, to forget about it as well. The camera is focused mainly on the men and their immediate environment, which is typical of a war movie, even a documentary, where place is a prop for character. But then, every so often, the men of Battle Company actually interact with the civilians whose land they are ostensibly securing, and intentionally or not the big picture is in fuller view. These encounters are so pathetic and absurd that they suggest—and turn out to presage—the futility of the entire operation.
Halfway through the film, for instance, a group of villagers visit the outpost to ask for compensation—about $500—for a cow that has been killed after getting tangled in the base’s concertina wire. After consulting with higher-ups, the soldiers tell the villagers that because the cow ran into the wire, no money can exchange hands. The Americans counteroffer bags of rice and other staples equal to the weight of the cow. Unsatisfied, the villagers continue to press for cash compensation, and the Americans continue to shake their heads and rebuff them, all the while failing to disclose, to their higher-ups or the Afghans (who probably know) that, in fact, they chased the cow into the wire, killed it, and ate it. So much for winning hearts and minds or even caring to do so.
In another scene, the company commander, a square-jawed twenty-seven-year-old named Dan Kearney, tries to appeal to a council of elders, most of them twice his age, with a gung-ho, cheerleading, “we’re all in this together” speech about why helping the Americans is in their best interest. The elders look on impassively, but then interrupt the commander to inquire about a young man from the village who was taken away by the Americans for questioning. Kearney explains that taking someone in for questioning is not the same as jailing him. The nuance of this distinction seems to be lost on the council, and other American “outreach” efforts also go nowhere. Not long after one of these meetings, the council declares jihad on the Americans. Watching the Afghan elders sitting there like bored schoolchildren as Kearney talks at them, it seems clear that they will wait out the Americans until they, like the Russians before them, and the long line of invaders before them, pack up and leave. It’s a game of chicken, and while the Americans have the more expensive firepower, the Afghans have something far more powerful: time.
So what is it like to be a combat soldier in the United States Army in the twenty-first century? For Battle Company, at least, fighting a guerilla war over inhospitable, precipitous terrain, against an enemy that is often indistinguishable from civilians, it’s a punctuated disequilibrium. The threat of attack is constant, requiring constant vigilance; there is often little to do but wait, and waiting, Junger points out, is typically worse, psychologically, than fighting; nothing happening means something might happen. Restrepo shows the men passing the time more than it shows them firing their weapons—shows them building things, playing guitar, dancing, drawing, writing, wrestling with one another until passing out is an option—because in the fifteen-month equation of a deployment on a mountainside with no running water, no electricity, no Internet, no phones, no women, and no hot food, waiting is the largest variable.
Even sleeping, hand on a grenade, they are never at rest. In his book, Junger tries to get at what that does to a man—he talks about the neuroscience of it—but in the end, what it seems to come down to is this: it makes them very good at being warriors and not very good for any other kind of life. According to Junger:
Almost none of the things that make life feel worth living back home are present at Restrepo, so the entire range of a young man’s self-worth has to be found within the ragged choreography of a firefight. The men talk about it and dream about it and rehearse for it and analyze it afterward…. It’s the ultimate test, and some of the men worry they’ll never again be satisfied with a “normal life”—whatever that is—after the amount of combat they’ve been in. They worry they may have been ruined for anything else.
Such is the cost, and the benefit, of maintaining a professional army.
These men are trained for combat. It is what they do, what they are good at, and what they are paid to do. It is also a gateway to the height of living. As Junger writes:
War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know…. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number no one has ever heard of.
This may be Junger’s key insight, and since it is not obvious from watching the film, it suggests the limitations of only showing, not telling, and why a full-on director’s commentary, like War, adds value. Book to movie, movie to book, there’s a symbiotic relationship here that gets us closer to the experience of war—at least the kind of war in which America is now engaged—than either medium does on its own. Just as the well-meaning but clueless American soldiers need translators when dealing with the Afghans they believe they are protecting, the 99 percent of us who will never go to war benefit from Junger’s interpretation of what he calls the human terrain of battle. Watching a humvee blow up from the inside, which happens in the beginning minutes of Restrepo (with Junger inside), offers a powerful sense of immediacy and fear, but how that fear plays out, over time, is better suited to words on the page than images on the screen.
Junger’s other revelation in War, while not original, is also reinforced by tandem showing and telling. It is that if there is one thing that these young men love more than war itself, it is one another. They are a brotherhood; they die and live by that. Theirs is a love so profound that it compels them to act with the ultimate selflessness, to sacrifice their own safety for the safety of the group. It’s a great thing, but may it spoil them for any love that comes after, and overwhelm any love that came before? Junger writes:
When men say that they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at—you’d have to be deranged—it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.
When the young men of Battle Company arrived in the Korengal Valley, and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington joined them a week later, Afghanistan was not yet known as Obama’s war since he was not yet president. It was Bush’s war when they went in, and since then more than forty Americans, and countless (because no one is counting) Afghans, were killed in the fighting there. This spring, at just about the same time that both Restrepo and War were released, the Korengal Valley was in the news again. In one of his last major acts before being fired, General Stanley McChrystal, the disgraced American commander in Afghanistan, ordered all American troops out of Korengal Valley: it was too costly, too dangerous, unwinnable.
On YouTube it’s possible to watch what happens next. One report, from NBC News, shows the Americans packing up their equipment, blowing up munitions, setting Restrepo ablaze. The other, from al-Jazeera, was filmed within hours of the NBC story (and uses some of its footage). The Americans are gone and the Taliban are picking through their detritus, which they say includes stores of ammunition and fuel that they will be happy to use against Americans, wherever they find them.
It has been three years since Doc Restrepo died and his friends named their outpost in his honor. From what they have told Sebastian Junger, it was the worst place in the world, and it was the best. It is gone now, but not really.