If you want a picture of what the fighting in Afghanistan is like, see Restrepo.
Until I watched this documentary film recently, my most in-depth exposure to the war came from reading Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. That book is an eye-opener but centers on what happened in one day, the friendly fire incident in 2004 that killed the football star.
Restrepo puts you with a U.S. Army platoon over the course of its 15-month deployment in 2007-08 in eastern Afghanistan’s menacing Korengal Valley. It’s the work of author Sebastian Junger, who crafted The Perfect Storm, and photographer Tim Hetherington, who tragically was killed last week in Libya. The 2010 film was nominated for an Academy Award, and you can borrow the DVD, as I did, from the Allentown Public Library.
What’s with the title? Restrepo was a medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, “Doc” to the guys, who was killed early on. At the start of the film, you see him kidding around in a video one of the guys shot as they were heading for Afghanistan. His fellow soldiers in the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team honored his memory by naming their mountain outpost after him.
You get an idea what it means to spend time in a dangerous area – periods of nothing happening, followed by seconds of incredible intensity under fire. There are sit-down talks with tribal leaders and questioning of villagers. In one part that really got me, one of the soldiers is killed while they’re on patrol and another, who is nearby, falls apart on hearing the news and has to be kept away from viewing the body. The guy who restrains him tries to be consoling, telling him it happened quickly.
There isn’t any opinion injected into the film, and no overall context or explanation of what our government is trying to get done in Afghanistan, where Americans have been caught up in the war on terror for almost 10 years. So you don’t get the big strategic/political picture, and I don’t think that’s what Restrepo is about.
But you have to wonder a little at the end, when the American commander is asked what the soldiers accomplished in their time in the Korengal Valley. His answer: They built an outpost.