“The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Sebastian Junger’s documentary, Restrepo, which premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York last Friday and opens commercially on June 25, has been racking up the superlatives. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The New York Times surmised it just might be the “most frightening” of the many recent films that takes a hard-nosed look at the daily experience of war. And according to Slug Magazine, Restrepo “may be the finest documentary created about war in our time”.
The film, which traces the second battalion in the Korengal Valley over the course of their deployment in 2006-2007, gives us the raw experience of war in this dangerous region of Afghanistan. We hear the snap snap and see the smoke of the machine guns and rocket fire during the daily firefights. We feel the loss of “Doc” Restrepo, who bled out on the helicopter after being shot in the legs in the first months of the mission, but whose death did not prevent the group from penetrating deeper into the steep mountainside to build an operating base named after the fallen. We witness and vicariously feel the shock of being ambushed on the mission to keep pushing the boundary farther and, in the midst of battle, we see the young men turn behind them, where the body of their friend, who has just caught enemy fire, lies. We are with the men in quieter moments too, playing the guitar, dancing arm in arm to the tune of “Touch Me,” and joking about their sex lives. Basically being “normal guys.”
These scenes are powerful and worth documenting. In a time when most Americans are so divorced from the experience or sacrifice of war, Restrepo drives these realities home. Individually and collectively, the men in the film have an important story to tell—from Captain Dan Kearney, the no-holds-barred leader who needs to keep the mission and his soldiers moving forward, to specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin who reflects fondly on his hippie pacifist upbringing as he fires a machine gun across the valley into the opposite ridge.
As illuminating as the American soldier’s perspective may be, it is only one vantage point onto the experience of war. Especially when it comes to feature films, this angle generally gets more emphasis than any other, partly because it makes for good drama and partly because of relative institutional, cultural, and logistical ease. Embedded journalism and film have so dominated our window onto the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, that they threaten to marginalize the larger context of these wars.
The Korengal valley, or “valley of death,” as it has been dubbed by Americans, is a small region in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Most of the fighting occurred around its population cluster, which consists of a handful of villages and several hundred houses. The remoteness of the valley lends itself to a sense of Korengal as a timeless region in “the middle of nowhere” and “away from everything.” This, combined with the heavy fighting and high casualties in the region, has made Korengal the subject of many a returning soldier’s nightmares. As Michael Cummings recounts in his blog about the war, “In my dream, I had returned to the Korengal Valley, later nicknamed the "Valley of Death." I only spent a couple months in the Korengal, but it felt much longer. The place haunted me before I arrived in Afghanistan; it still haunts me.”
From such a vantage point, one can easily lose sight of Afghanistan as a place with a people and a history of its own. In contrast to the long scenes of soldierly camaraderie and life on outpost Restrepo, there are only a few short scenes of the soldiers’ weekly meeting with the village elders. The camera spans the room full of cross-legged old men with red beards and glaring beady eyes, but the focus is mainly on the Americans who vent in frustration at these impenetrable double-talkers who say one thing and do another. The Americans will build a road for the people of Korengal, explains Captain Kearney to the elders. “It will make you richer and give you more power.” If there is a response from the elders, we aren’t privy to it. Here, the choice to focus so heavily on the American perspective and to preclude any larger political context is especially problematic. Before Kearney’s soldiers arrived in Korengal, local groups had been fighting among themselves. The antagonism has become mapped onto support for and against the central government. The road the Americans want to build promises to link Korengal more closely to the nation of Afghanistan. Exactly the opposite of what some powerful elders in Korengal want. Many of the IEDs that killed American soldiers in Korengal were planted on the site of this would-be road.
When it comes to under-representing the local political context of Korengal, Junger is certainly not alone. The video reports of CJ Chivers made a point of mapping out the political as well as geographic terrain of Korengal. But Chivers is the exception. Much of the mainstream press has tended to portray Korengal as more a mysterious locale of horror for American soldiers than a place with a people and a politics. A recent photo essay of Korengal in Time magazine strikes a particularly haunting tone. Below a photo of smoke rising from the gorge in the distance, a caption reads, “No one knows what — or who — lies at the end of the 6-mile-long valley because no one has been able to make it that far.”
Explaining its decision to withdraw from Korengal this past spring, the Pentagon similarly emphasized the region’s lack of population. With so few people, Korengal ought not to be a priority in a war whose strategy rests on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. But, as any counterinsurgency expert will tell you, this strategy is all about getting the Afghans to support the national government. In this sense, while Korengal may not be strategically important, it points to the most important barrier to the US strategy in Afghanistan—lack of support for the Karzai government.
On the basis that the soldiers they followed didn’t care much about the politics of the war, Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington chose not to examine this aspect of the story. But, in the midst of the war in Afghanistan, American audiences want and need to examine the larger context. In the Q and A period following the film’s screening at Lincoln Center, one audience member asked Hetherington whether there was any way out of Afghanistan or if we were going to be stuck there forever. Sensing the implicit analogy, Hetherington was quick to respond that Afghanistan was no Vietnam, that the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] had 160,000 troops while the Taliban numbered less than 10,000. He made no mention of the ominous and perhaps more important political parallels—of two governments lacking the support of a rural population and unwilling to implement serious social and political reforms that might turn the tide in their favor. Neither did he mention the similarity in the US refusal to fully acknowledge the limits of its power in such situations.
While documentary and other films about Afghanistan can’t directly impact US policy in the region, they can help Americans understand that policy better. For this reason alone, it would be nice to see more films that consider the Afghan perspective—the history and current context of the local political battles that are taking place across the region. Unfortunately, neither of the two movies about Afghanistan featured in this year’s Human Rights Watch film festival put the perspective of Afghanis front and center. The other film, Camp Victory, profiles the Afghan National Army (ANA), but mostly in the context of its relationship to the US and coalition forces. It thus relegates to the background the social and political attitudes of the soldiers that illuminate why the ANA is proving to be such a weak fighting force.Some recent films have actually attempted to shift the focus in this direction, but they haven’t gotten nearly the level of press or praise as Junger’s. In addition to considering the war from an American perspective, Robert Greenwald’s Rethinking Afghanistan considers the war’s impact on everyday life and politics in Afghanistan as part of its larger argument against the current counterinsurgency strategy. The film was quickly dismissed by the New York Times, which accused it of lacking balance. Perhaps Rethinking Afghanistan was a bit too propagandistic, aka Michael Mooreish, for most viewers’ tastes. But if we are going to be sticklers about balance, then we have to ask whether there is much of that in a film that focuses solely on the experience of American soldiers to make a comment about the war. Or more problematically, whether it is fair to use the mountains of Korengal as the vehicle for a grand philosophy of military camaraderie rather than a more rigorous contemplation of what is actually happening in Korengal. Perhaps, among other things, Greenwald should change the title of his film. We can’t possibly re-think Afghanistan until we first think about Afghanistan.
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