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'Restrepo': The defining film about the Forever War
Few consequential films were made about the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Except the one that encapsulates it.
The title of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s 2010 documentary Restrepo refers to an outpost deep in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S military when Hetherington and Junger shot the film in 2007. Nestled in the eastern mountains close to the Pakistan border, the area was a Taliban stronghold and soldiers stationed there could expect to take fire every day. Efforts to win the hearts and minds of local elders had never borne fruit, but the expectation that American troops—specifically, the Second Platoon, B Company, during a 15-month deployment—make some kind of progress remained. Mostly, as one soldier notes, they’re “fish in a barrel,” a daily target for insurgents to pick off.
And so, they made progress, of a sort. Led by Capt. Dan Kearney, a model of get-‘er-done sturdiness, the platoon sought to establish an advanced observation post (OP) that brought them deeper into enemy territory, a “middle finger” to the Taliban. They would work through the night, digging and digging, until finally building a fortification that would put them in further danger, but also allow them to make the sort of strategic inroads necessary to inch further forward on the road to victory. When the deployment ended, Kearney reflects in the documentary,this O.P. they’d named after a fallen medic named Juan Restrepo stood as their greatest achievement in Korangal. A closing title coldly informs us that the U.S. military withdrew from the valley in 2010.
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A few weeks ago, less than a month short of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, America finally withdrew from Afghanistan. It became the first time in years that the longest war in the country’s history got headlines. That astonishing neglect was reflected by the movies, too. The war in Afghanistan never got its Apocalypse Now or Platoon or Casualties of War. Hollywood ignored it almost completely, unless you want to count the Tina Fey comedy Whisky Tango Foxtrot, which, fittingly, centered on the difficulty journalists faced in drumming up printable stories about the war. And for independent filmmakers, too, the war seemed as out-of-mind-out-of-sight as it did for a national media that did not have the patience or the attention span to monitor a quagmire. The great documentary The Tillman Story tells one important piece of this story through a football star, Pat Tillman, who lost his life to friendly fire after volunteering to serve—but not before losing his faith in his country’s purpose for being there.
Yet it’s Restrepo that feels like the true soul of the war, in part for the startling immediacy achieved by having two filmmakers embedded with the unit, and in part because of the tragic fecklessness that defined so much of our time there. American troops were sent to Afghanistan because it was understood as a safe haven for Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. A safer America demanded taking out Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that allowed it to operate.
Hetherington and Junger are photojournalists who do as little as possible to impose a point of view on the images they’ve captured here, other than to reflect the experiences of the troops on the ground. Their one simple, devastatingly effective tactic is to allow interviews conducted later, after the platoon had left its deployment for Italy, to set the context for the Korangal Valley footage that we’re seeing. The filmmakers understand themselves as reporters, not polemicists, though obviously the truth can lead to certain conclusions here. (The year after Restrepo came out, Heatherington was killed by shrapnel in another war, covering civil unrest in Libya.)
But the unsaid impression of watching these Americans in the Korangal Valley, taking bullets from unseen insurgents, is that it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all. The Afghans in Korangal, farmers and goat herders, have been living the same way for centuries and will continue to live that way for centuries more after these foreign invaders leave. An outpost like Restrepo is just a sandcastle, doomed to be swallowed by the landscape at high tide, with no evidence that it ever existed.
Acknowledging these truths should not trivialize the courage of Kearney and his men, who are not trained to think about the larger picture, but committed to the job they’ve been given and to their own brotherhood. In that basic sense, all wars are the same.
Restrepo has always been a microcosm of our misadventures in Afghanistan, a cold reality that’s more clear than ever now that the war is over. We’ve seen 20 years of incremental advances washed away with breathtaking speed, as if we were never there at all. In 2021, we’re so distanced from our original purpose for waging this war that headlines both satirical and crushingly sad have noted that many men and women of fighting age have no idea what a pre-9/11 world could have looked like. We’re also left with the thought that the troops in Restrepo will not forget the trauma that’s been visited on them by the constant firefights and the friends they lost, as in the film', particularly in the Operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day operation that brought them straight into the hornet’s nest.
We should be outraged over the hubris and arrogance of waging war in this “graveyard of empires” or the mission drift that also took us into Iraq and other perceived terrorist havens in the Middle East. We can wonder how to stop the next bloody quagmire. In its raw, narration-free way, Restrepo allows us the space to contemplate such things, but it also asks us to spare a thought to the soldiers who were out there fighting a war long past the point that anyone was paying attention. Their war didn’t end when their deployments were up. And it didn’t end for them when the U.S. military finally withdrew from Afghanistan in August. They’re still residents of the Korangal Valley.