If you want an idea of what daily life is like for U.S. soldiers serving in a heavy combat zone in Afghanistan, you can’t do any better than the riveting and often harrowing Restrepo. Named for a soldier who was killed early in his deployment, this documentary follows the exploits of a company that served 14 months in Afghanistan, much of it in the Korangal Valley, billed as one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington risked life and limb to make their movie, and it’s impossible to watch Restrepo without wondering what was going on in the minds of the filmmakers, who did a ton of filming in combat zones before conducting interviews in Italy, the country where the company was sent immediately after its Korangal tour.
Junger and Hetherington don’t tilt the movie in any particular political direction, but it’s very difficult to watch Restrepo without wondering what the hell is being accomplished in Afghanistan. (It’s also important to know that the U.S. military left the Korangal in the spring of this year, part of a declared shift toward counterinsurgency in population-heavy areas.)
The men we meet in Restrepo are determined and brave; their leader – Captain Dan Kearney – seems capable. But it sure doesn’t look as if the U.S. is winning many hearts and minds in a country where residents are fearful of Taliban reprisals for cooperation with the U.S.
We meet a variety of soldiers, and their testimony lends perspective to the combat footage, which tends to be understandably chaotic. During their stay in the Korangal, the company built an outpost, which they named for their fallen comrade. Outpost Restrepo becomes their home for most of the their deployment, and they’re constantly fighting off attacks. We never see an enemy combatant, but the wounded and dead testify to their very real presence.
At one point, the men embark on Operation Rock Avalanche, an attempt to take the fight to Taliban warriors. A Taliban ambush unhinges at least one soldier; the death of another – billed as the best fighter in the company – leaves everyone shaken. As one GI asks, if the best soldier gets killed what chance do the rest have?
Heavy fighting mixes with fraternity-style horseplay, which serves to remind us that these men are young. Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo never saw his 21st birthday.
As is the case with most GIs, the men don’t have time to contemplate the larger reasons for the fighting. In combat, geo-political considerations become a preposterous luxury, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about what these – and other young men – are going through, and, beyond that, whether their sacrifices have wrought any tangible results.
I found it difficult to watch Restrepo without concluding that "victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that means -- may be impossible. Much of the terrain is isolated and impassible, and the promise that the U.S. will enable rural Afghanis to lead better lives seems a hard sell. (The company’s initial mission involved providing security for a road that was to be constructed through the Korangal.)
From the outset, it’s clear that Restrepo is no ordinary documentary. Junger and Hetheringon capture the shock of war, and they deserve credit for their bravery. The same goes for the soldiers, who were brave on two fronts. Not only did they fight a wily and often unseen enemy, but they also allowed themselves to be filmed doing it.
After the film concluded, I found myself shaking my head. Whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan, it had better be worth it. The men who built Outpost Restrepo deserve nothing less than a clearly defined reason for scars – both physical and emotional – they may well carry for the rest of their lives.