In my real job I frequently interview soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan after they’ve gotten a pat on the back from one of the most patriotic men I’ve ever met, our local county commissioner. The interviews started before I was hired and I have continued them faithfully. It’s always interesting because each soldier has a different story to tell and it gives a whole new perspective to the nightly news. My most recent interview was with a man returning from the Korangal valley, a place that has seen more intense fighting than any American conflict since Vietnam, from my understanding. The commissioner told me this before the interview and recommended I watch Restrepo, a documentary about a platoon stationed in the valley for 15 months.
I wish I hadn’t.
It’s not that it’s a bad documentary. Far from it. Restrepo is the type of documentary that cuts through all the political BS and just tells a story. It stretches beyond the John Wayne glamorizations and the Michael Moore accusations and just presents a group of young men in a very difficult situation. In doing so it paints such a raw picture of modern warfare that one can’t help but be affected by it.
The Korangal valley is an odd place in an odd period of history. As humans continue to develop a deeper understanding of the value of a human life, their method of fighting wars has evolved, and this evolution is further, or perhaps mainly, driven by advancements in technology. I have no doubt that Cesar would be baffled and likely disenchanted by the whole thing. In places like Afghanistan and Iraq Americans aren’t marching down a field and meeting their enemy face to face. Starting in Vietnam, or possibly Korea, the enemy has hidden itself within the civilian population. I would not be surprised to learn this tactic was developed by the Soviets. After all, who could risk the political fallout from nuking another civilian population? But it is plausible that it was developed locally. When a native fighting force blends in with its civilian population it can be a horrifying surprise for enemy combatants. It breeds suspicion and distrust.
Amazingly, the men followed around by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington manage to keep their heads on their shoulders. About halfway through the movie the platoon leader decries his mistake after he orders an A-10 Warthog to hit a target that, while killing Taliban, also kills several civilians. That brings in a lieutenant who explains to the villagers that allowing the Taliban to hire their sons to shoot at Americans only gets their sons killed while the Taliban hides in caves.
The American response to this has been to create good will amongst the civilian population by providing them with things they may not otherwise be able to obtain. No, not shiny beads and blankets full of Small Pox. We learned that lesson. American soldiers today offer jobs and infrastructure. They are focused on economic development in a country that raises goats and opium. Many of the soldiers I have talked to have said that most of the Afghan people are beginning to realize the benefits of capitalism and the safety of an honest living. They chase out the Taliban, the Americans protect them and help them build roads, schools, Mosques, all sorts of important civic things they need.
But in Korangal valley it’s a different story. The Taliban has decided that the valley is their line in the sand and as such they will stop at nothing to defend it. The outpost is so remote that the only way in or out is by helicopter and all travel is done by foot. The place is so hot that between 2007 and 2009 70 percent of all munitions used in combat by the U.S. military were used in this little corner of Earth. The daily firefights are unnerving, especially when you consider these are real people with real bullets flying over their heads. But it’s the bullets that find their mark that give Restrepo its emotional impact.
The film is named after Juan Sebastian “Doc” Restrepo, a member of the platoon killed early in their tour. The platoon also named their forward base after Restrepo. A base that stretched farther into the Taliban controlled valley than they had previously been able to reach. The film never shows anyone actually being shot. During firefights the cameraman is mostly scrambling to get out-of-the-way. Never the less, they do show the aftermath. Interviews with the platoon members shot in Italy prior to their return home are interspersed throughout the action, and each man clearly states the low point of their entire deployment was the operation in which the civilians were hit and they lost their staff sergeant. The footage of men running up a hill to find their dead friend is gut wrenching and puts a whole new perspective on the brutality of war.
One of the things that I hate about movies like this is it can make viewers over-confident. It is very easy to slip into a mindset in which you feel you can relate to the soldiers returning from the front lines because you were there. You saw Restrepo. You saw Apocalypse Now. You saw Full Metal Jacket. But the fact of the matter is, you weren’t there. Those weren’t your friends lying bleeding on what might have been considered a beautiful hillside in another life. It wasn’t your head bullets were whizzing past. It wasn’t your family that waited and fretted 15 months for you to come home.
And when I sat across the table from a man who had been there when an already dicey situation in Korangal deteriorate before his eyes I saw his thousand yard stare and I knew. I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell his story. He’s not in a position to tell it himself right now. Maybe that makes me a poor writer, I don’t know.
What did I say to man who went without a supply drop for two months? Who lived in a camp that had to burn its own feces because there was no other place to put it? I said thank you. I said it was an honor to meet a man who as an 18-year-old boy was willing to stand up for his country knowing he may be knocked down so hard he could never get up again. And what did he say in response? He said it was all worth it. He said it was a valuable life experience he wouldn’t trade for anything.
So you can watch Restrepo, and I suggest you do, but we will never know what it’s like to sit in your bunk at KOP and listen to OP Restrepo taking heavy fire knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.