"If we can't learn to live together, we're gonna die alone"

Monday, February 14, 2011

Between a Rock and a Bad Place: The Life and Times at OP RESTREPO in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley

Restrepo – The Truth

This film took a lot out of me.
Theatrical Poster
I’m a person who sometimes has trouble sitting through a documentary. I admit it. I don’t think I have ADHD or anything and it’s not like I’m un-interested in history. I guess it’s just about sitting that long sometimes in one place.. I mean, if it hasn’t been made clear I’m a sci-fi psycho. My favorite stories are the ones from the very edge of fantastic. But I’m also interested in getting the facts. Especially as they apply to here and now. It’s easy to become embittered and fed up with the news as it’s reported to us. One can easily take a dismissive attitude and just start to shut it all out, the good and the bad. I’m pretty jaded when it comes to news outlets; Fox News? We don’t need to discuss this right? CNN is pretty soft from where I’m standing… I don’t even bother with film critics anymore (ironically I suppose) because at the end of the day, as a greater man than me once said, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
It became clear early on in the War on Terror that if our information was going to be coming from the Clown Carnival G.W. was calling his cabinet we weren’t gonna be getting any clear answers about what was really happening in Iraq or on any of the other war fronts. And it wasn’t even all their fault. If the government learned anything from the debacle we’ve come to call the Vietnam War it was that you can’t have an all-out media blitz and properly conduct a theater. Even I can understand that sensitive operations in war time have got to be hindered to the point of near-impossibility with things like embedded journalism. So I admit that to some extent I gave up even wondering what was actually going on in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan because I didn’t believe there was a reliable source for information updates. I knew enough G.I.s, even in the supposed cultural and intellectual stronghold of Massachusetts that I figured waiting to hear from the people I was first-hand acquainted with would be far more enlightening than anything Anderson Cooper’s dizzying 360 degrees might confuse me with.
But one night a friend of mine brought this National Geographic DVD home called Restrepo and everything I took for granted or thought I knew about life on America’s warfronts was instantly shattered and I realized the assumed level of respect I had (and oddly, at the same time a sort of pity or smug sense of higher intelligence) had nothing to do with the reality of being an American soldier. The reality of being an American soldier in the War on Terror is dark, grim, isolated and deadly. The threat of mortal violence is very real and constant.
RESTREPO is the story of an American Platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the area that George W. Bush referred to as “the ugliest place on the planet”. Bush, with typical inability to explain even the simplest concept fails to realize that the Korengal valley is actually one of the world’s most beautiful areas. What mars the beautiful cliff faces and infinite skyscapes is not a physical blemish. Korengal is considered the Army’s most difficult deployment, more deadly than any post in Iraq. In 2010 more than 50 infantrymen had been killed in the area surrounding OP RESTREPO, the forward command center named for the first G.I. from the 173rd Airborne Division to be killed in action.
But I have to rephrase. RESTREPO isn’t a story at all. There is no narrative. The film, created by author Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm, War) is really one long action shot. There are a few interviews with platoon staff featured, and these are alternately brilliantly funny, insightful and heart-wrenching, but the majority of the shots are of the soldiers taking fire from all sides, attempting to stay alive while deciphering the source of enemy incoming, calling in air and artillery support and generally trying to make it look like they have a clue as to what to do next. It is clear as the camera looks into the eyes of the G.I.’s, a few of them whom appear to be freshmen in high school, that there is NO rulebook for these young men to draw from. The enemy is within yards sometimes 100’s and sometimes dozens, throughout the entire movie. This sense that death is tapping on the shoulders of everyone on camera is palpable. Indeed, when death does come to these men several times throughout the course of the film, Junger is able to make it feel as if you have lost someone you know. No piece of film I’ve personally experienced as evoked the level of emotion that RESTREPO does.
Particularly poignant are sequences when, in response to the death of their comrade by rocket propelled grenade, a Staff Sergeant makes a calculation based on incomplete information provided him by Afghani villagers. The conclusion he draws requires that he then call in an artillery strike on a building he believes to be housing armed insurgents. After the strike, as the G.I.s close in to sort the wreckage and procure whatever ammunition and weapons have been left or damaged, it becomes immediately apparent that someone has made a terrible mistake, the charred remains of children’s toys and clothing give way to images that leave nothing to the imagination about the true tolls and horrors of hand to hand first-person war.
The resulting footage is some of the most brutal and emotion-evoking I have ever observed. Not due to gore, but the knowledge that the reality is children are dying in this setting. It wasn’t until I got the chance to watch this movie that the impossibilities and paradoxes of war became so apparent to me, how once the point of WAR has been reached then the ability to come back from such a ledge is almost physically not an option. When children are being killed accidentally….well, how can that be explained?
RESTREPO is so difficult for me as well because I know that several of my own friends are of the age or were when major combat operations began in Iraq that their deaths in the service of our country was a very real possibility. That abstraction was never really driven home to me, even in the wake of the falling towers, that most bizarre and ghostly image forever ingrained on my own psyche. But in RESTREPO…. Well in RESTREPO people die on camera. That’s all there is to it.
Again, the power in this film lies in its ability to humanize every element, to bring each radio call, gun blast, chopper landing and bullet hole into your living room. There is no sense of braggadocio or dramatization, this is a tale of the daily operation called survival in Afghanistan. I believe this film is available for Netflix instant download right now. At your earliest convenience you should take them time to try and absorb something from the story this particular platoon of soldiers lived through.

Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Released 2010


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