An intimate view from the front lines in Afghanistan
A review by James O’Barr
Since the publication of The Perfect Storm in 1997, Sebastian Junger has made a considerable career writing about humans in extremis. For the past four years he has focused on soldiers in combat, the grunts who do the everyday work of war, at the meanest level, on the ground, under fire. What’s it really like, and why do they do it? In 2007 and 2008, on assignment with Vanity Fair, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington took the opportunity to experience the answers to these and other questions about war: on and off for fourteen months they were embedded with the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The soldiers of Battle Company were assigned to the remote Korengal Valley, a Taliban stronghold that was deemed to be of prime strategic importance. Their mission was to deny the Valley to the insurgents. To document what happened in that “hell in a very small place, (see Bernard Fall), Junger and Hetherinton brought not only writing instruments and still cameras and film, but also portable high- and standard-definition video cameras.
The experience yielded two pieces of ambitious and highly praised work: Junger’s best-selling book, War, and Junger and Hetherington’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Restrepo, screened by Depot Docs at the Philipstown Depot Theatre on Jan.14. Restrepo follows the men of Battle Company’s 2nd Platoon, as up close and personal as it’s possible to get when you’re in a highly exposed position on the side of a mountain, regularly under fire and shooting back. The filmmakers also go along for meetings with village elders and for other encounters with Afghanis in efforts to win hearts and minds while explaining “collateral damage” and the regular humiliations and depredations visited upon poor peasants by men waging war.
The name of the film is the name of the outpost built and maintained by the 2nd Platoon, which in turn takes its name from Pfc. Juan Restrepo, a 20 year-old medic who was killed early in the deployment. His fate, made all the more poignant by our only view of him in a brief, playful video, describing himself as “loving life and getting ready to go to war,” hangs over the film like a hungry ghost. Part of its power is that it makes real what the words, “harm’s way,” so casually used by politicians and pundits and others who will never have to be there, mean. In Restrepo, they mean that we send mostly very young men, armed with a staggering array of very high-powered weapons, into regions of the world that they have neither the experience, nor the language, nor the cultural acumen to understand, and where they are clearly not wanted. And the reasons they are sent are always mutable and subject to change: in April of 2010, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the Korengal Valley after five years of occupation, 40 American and uncounted numbers of Afghan deaths and much destruction, leaving it to the insurgents.
Restrepo will be shown at the Philipstown Depot Theatre, Garrison’s Landing, on Friday, Jan. 14, at 7:30 p.m. There will be a Q&A and a reception with the film’s co-director, Sebastian Junger, following the screening. The screening is currently sold out, but cancellations do occur. To be put on the waitlist, call the Depot Theatre at 845-424-3900, or go to www.philipstowndepottheatre.org.