The Moving Image
By: Kalev I. Sepp
There is a saying among soldiers, that combat is long hours of boredom, occasionally interrupted by moments of terror. As true as this may be, it doesn't mean that a wartime documentary should pattern its storyline in the same way. Yet "Restrepo," the true-life story of a U.S. Army infantry platoon fighting in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, manages to take what should be an intensely interesting subject – men at war in a distant, forbidding land, fighting a tough, elusive enemy – and make it somehow mundane. For a military professional, its lessons call for patience and reflection.
Any criticism of "Restrepo" requires caution, for two reasons: the first is that the duly-celebrated filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who worked with the author Sebastian Junger to produce this film, was recently killed while filming the civil war in Libya in April 2011. One does not wish to diminish Mr. Hetherington's lifetime of accomplishments and contributions by disparaging his last major project, and that is certainly not the intent. This review acknowledges his Sundance Film Festival prize for best documentary, his nomination for an Oscar award for "Restrepo," the widespread acclaim from movie critics and ordinary moviegoers, and many other awards. This commentary does not challenge the cinematic qualities of the film; rather, it addresses what value military and defense professionals might find in viewing this documentary.
The other reason to take care in analyzing "Restrepo" concerns what a noted American war correspondent has called the "cult of patriotism" in the United States. In the decades following the painful end of the Vietnam War, Americans came to realize that the insults and attacks made by anti-war protesters against the individual soldiers sent to fight in Indochina were fundamentally wrong. The soldiers – both conscripts and volunteers – were only obeying the laws of the nation, and fulfilling their obligation as citizens. The mature view now held by American society is that it is appropriate to criticize elected leaders and government officials for their policies, but not the troops who dutifully follow their orders. However, some people have carried this outlook to an extreme: all soldiers, whatever their service or character, are "heroes," and anything said of them or their conduct must be cast in terms of praise and honor. Anything less is "anti-soldier," and wholly unpatriotic. This review recognizes their service and sacrifice – the film takes its title from the solitary outpost named for a fallen U.S. soldier, Private First Class Juan Restrepo – but considers if they are suited, as Americans, to the kind of war they have to fight.
If there is a benefit to watching "Restrepo," it is to see one possible explanation why the United States armed forces had not succeeded by 2009 (when the filming was done) in overcoming the Taliban in the mountains and villages of Afghanistan. The focus of the documentary – 2d Platoon, "B" Company, 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, of the 173d Airborne Brigade – is only one small unit, but in terms of the quality of its members, could be seen as a fair representation of the infantry platoons deployed to the war zone. After almost eight years of counter-insurgency fighting, and declarations by analysts and senior commanders that the United States military had mastered this brand of warfare, there are disturbing scenarios that portray a different view.
Collectively, these incidents, played out in the film both in real-time and in post-deployment interviews, reveal a unit isolated from the population it needed to engage in order to find and thwart the Taliban guerrillas. Before arriving in the Korengal Valley, the company commander, an infantry captain, casually admits he didn't study anything about the valley or its people – so as to arrive "with an open mind." He calls the rocky, tree-filled valley, reminiscent of the Sierras and the Rockies, "the ugliest place on earth." An American patrol passing though a village refuses the hospitality of a local man when he offers them chai (tea), and hurriedly marches on.
The American officers do meet with the village leaders, in weekly shuras. The paratroop battalion commander visits once, to address the contentious issue of civilian casualties (the film shows destruction of homes by aerial bombing and attack helicopters, soldiers speaking of the women and children who have been wounded, and an Afghan man cradling a baby with fresh burn marks on its body). This colonel, wearing his body armor, speaks to the Afghan elders in English; not in sentences, but in lengthy paragraphs, without pausing for the interpreter. He calls the Taliban "foreigners," and says his captain will discuss job projects with them. In another shura, the captain parlays with the same elders, and tells them in the same rapid English: "... we can make more money, make you guys richer, make you guys more powerful. What I need, though, is I need you to join with the government, you know, to provide you with that security, or help us provide you guys with that security. And I'll flood this whole place with money and with projects and with healthcare and with everything." The dictum of the counter-insurgent to never over-promise, against the possibility of under-delivery, doesn't seem to be the captain's concern.
In a particularly telling scene, an Afghan man comes to Outpost Restrepo to ask for compensation for his dead cow. The viewer comes to understand the grazing cow became entangled in the barbed wire around the small base, where the U.S. troops then killed, dressed, barbequed and ate it ("It was delicious," recalls a soldier). When the platoon consults their headquarters by radio, an officer is heard refusing to provide a new cow, or to pay a cash restitution. Instead, the voice on the radio offers an amount of rice, beans and sugar equal to the weight of the cow. His face strained with frustration, the Afghan man repeats his claim for compensation, without success. Huge cargo helicopters fly overhead. Troops exercise with gymnasium barbell sets, and practice driving golf balls from their bunker roofs. One strums a guitar, others smoke and play videogames, and listen to rock music on portable stereos, while their meals are prepared on restaurant-size gas grills. No one is ever shown studying or practicing Pashtu.
There are no cowards or shirkers to be seen.Yet as the whole film reveals, this is not enough for 2d Platoon and "B" Company to prevail against the insurgents.
There is no question, as the occasional combat footage in "Restrepo" plainly shows, that the American troops are competent and disciplined infantrymen. They move quickly under the heavy load of their body armor and field gear, wear their kit properly, handle their weapons adeptly, and follow orders under fire. There are no cowards or shirkers to be seen. Yet as the whole film reveals, this is not enough for 2d Platoon and "B" Company to prevail against the insurgents. Mundane or not, watching "Restrepo" is worthwhile as an anecdotal study of one American unit and its leaders in combat, after the country that gave it its soldiers, and the Army that trained and deployed it, have been at war for almost a full decade. In this regard, the film is a commendation for Sebastian Junger, and a fitting memorial to Tim Hetherington. The limit of what the United States, and perhaps any nation, can achieve in a counter-insurgent struggle in a culture so different from its own, is the lesson of the battle for Outpost Restrepo.
Dr. Kalev I. Sepp is senior lecturer in Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He earned his Combat Infantryman Badge in the Salvadoran Civil War.