Can there be an upside to war? Possibly. In "Restrepo," a new documentary by veteran combat journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, we find ourselves on patrol with a company of U.S. soldiers in the Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest corners of the ongoing Afghan conflict. It's the spring of 2007, and the men have just weathered a heavy firefight. One of them emerges from it jacked-up and exultant. "That was fun!" he says. "You can't get a better high. Once you get shot at ... you can't top that."
The film vividly captures the dust and blood and the sheer drudgery of war. The unit has been assigned to build a new forward outpost right up against the edge of Taliban territory. Build it from scratch with picks and shovels, while from the surrounding mountains, enemy potshots are continual. The Taliban warriors come so close they can be heard talking to one another. But the American soldiers work straight through the night, and make a good start. They never complain. They christen the new base Restrepo Outpost, after a departed comrade, Juan "Doc" Restrepo, who recently took two bullets in the neck and bled out on the med-evac helicopter. They talk about Restrepo a lot, and we see footage of him goofing around on the flight that brought the men over here from a base in Italy. Like them, he was very young.
Still sleepless, they set out on patrol. They pass through battered villages, stopping occasionally to interrogate suspicious-looking locals. ("You got pretty clean hands for a goat-herder.") They meet with village elders and promise to "flood" the area with money and medical supplies if the villagers will only help fight the resurgent enemy. But the people caught in the middle of this conflict have defeat written on their faces. One man tells the company's captain, through an interpreter, "If we let you know about Taliban, then we will get killed." Alternatively, of course, this man could be Taliban. As was the case in the Vietnam War 40-odd years ago, in which the U.S. fought another indigenous enemy that didn't wear uniforms, it's virtually impossible to know.
The company moves on. Intermittently, the crack of gunfire flares up, and the camera jostles wildly in keeping up with the GIs as they hit the ground and crawl through the dirt. One of them has been hit, shot dead. One of his friends briefly breaks down in tears. Another soldier tries to comfort him: "It was quick," he says.
The unit comes to another village. This one has been chewed up by missile fire from the Army attack helicopters whirling overhead. Five civilians have been killed, more wounded. Inside one house we see women, children, even a baby wet with blood. This is the face of collateral damage.
Somewhere there's a grand plan for this war, a political scenario devised by a regiment of office warriors back in Washington. But the soldiers here don't talk about it. All they know is that there's an enemy their country is fighting, and their job is to kill him. They're tough and brave, and they're good at it. They casually discuss the fact that they may well die here, but that's not what concerns them most. What concerns them most is the possibility that one of their fellow soldiers may die — one of their pals, the only family they have in this hostile place.
The movie follows this company through 2008, when the men completed their 15-month deployment and were being flown back to Italy. What we don't see is the aftermath. This past April, having alienated the local populace, the Army withdrew the last of its troops from the Korengal Valley. Earlier this month, the Afghan conflict, which began directly after 9/11, became the longest war in U.S. history. More than a thousand U.S. soldiers have died in it. Last December, President Obama announced his intention to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of U.S. forces in-country to 100,000. But at the same time, he also announced that he'll begin pulling them out again next year. The president has since wobbled on that commitment. Still, it's hard to imagine the Taliban not feeling that victory in this long war is now mainly a waiting game.
The directors, Hetherington and Junger, acknowledge that they are men of the political left. Apart from the editing decisions they've made, though, their documentary recalls, in a smaller way, the disturbing images that emerged out of Vietnam, and ultimately turned America against that war. "Restrepo" is the answer to a question that will surely continue being asked.
Check out everything we've got on "Restrepo."
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