Thursday, December 30, 2010
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Restrepo - Some Thoughts
If you haven’t seen “Restrepo” yet, do so. It’s available On Demand from National Geographic and I’m sure some pirates have made it available on your favorite torrent site. It won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary.
In the film, you’re traveling with the men of B Company into the Korengal Valley, the hottest of hotspots in the Afghan war. You get to know the boys through sit-down interviews post-deployment and while they’re dug in at a tiny outpost on a hilltop named after a favorite soldier who was killed, Juan “Doc” Restrepo. For 15 months these young men, under the leadership of Captain Dan Kearney, attempt to make advances on “the bad guys.” They are a close-knit group, as you’d expect soldiers in battle to be, and you like them. There’s the baby-faced son of hippies who was never even allowed to play with a toy gun as a child, manning a 50-caliber machine gun. There’s the young lieutenant, stern-faced and determined. There’s the first sergeant, a tough old soldier with a no-nonsense demeanor who looks after his boys. They’re Hispanic, Black, White and Asian. They’re the all-American unit, and they play video games, play guitar, dance to hip-hop tunes and call their families weekly, pretending that the daily firefights aren’t happening, protecting mom and dad from the horrors they experience.
They are fighting the Taliban in the rugged terrain of an unknown world. They hold weekly meetings with village elders, discussing problems and trying to make them see the value of working with us versus working with the enemy. “But the Taliban say they will kill me if I give you any information,” one man says through an interpreter. The American officers promise roads and jobs.
During a battle, Captain Kearney calls in an air strike on a home where some Taliban fighters are known to be. Children are killed. We see the father holding a wounded baby. We see bodies under blankets. Captain Kearney says later, “I need to learn to do this better.”
Civilian casualties happen in war and you can’t lay too much blame on Kearney, even if he does come across at times as somewhat inept. But his lack of social skills when dealing with the village elders is countered when you see him in battle, cool as John Wayne, directing traffic and leading his men. That an American officer is asked to be both diplomat and infantrymen at the same time is at the very least a contradiction, and it must be a difficult assignment to execute.
The filmmakers, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, do a superb job in playing the middle. They have a bond with these troops, obviously, but at the same time you get a sense that the real purpose of the film is to convey the utter futility of the mission these men have been given.
The boys of B Company can’t wait to get home - and they are fighting in someone else’s home. They are trying to win hearts and minds, but the villagers see them as occupiers who require interpreters. It becomes painfully clear that a superior military, with armor, advanced weapons technology and the ability to call in air-support at will, is still no match for peasants and patriots defending their families, homes and villages. There is no love for the Taliban on the part of the peasants, but they are after all, peasants, trying to eke out a life in the rough countryside. The weekly meetings with American commanders are futile if they are followed by a meeting with a Taliban commander who hands out gold watches, looks just like the villagers, and doesn’t require an interpreter. And he also makes it very clear that if anyone cooperates with the Americans, they will die.
This is a lesson we might’ve learned by now. I watched this film trying to imagine it from the perspective of an Afghani villager, or even from the perspective of an American colonist. What if this was a documentary about British soldiers, trying their best to win the hearts and minds of peasant colonists and keep them loyal to the Crown? And what if those British soldiers didn’t speak English and didn’t look like us? And what if I knew a family up the hill whose children were inadvertently killed by some errant British attack? And what if the locals bent on beating the British threaten to cut off my head if I cooperate? I may have had no love for those wanting to overthrow the Crown, but now I’m afraid I might eventually be labeled a “bad guy” in the eyes of the British. What was a battle for hearts and minds in the eyes of the occupiers might become a Revolution in mine. Or simply a fight to keep my head.
Captain Kearney gives a speech to his men following a battle in which they suffer casualties. It's boilerplate high school football talk of the "We're gonna take it to those guys!" variety. And any coach of any sport will tell you that "will" plays a strong role in a team's success. "You've got to want it more than the other guys!" The boys of B Company want to go home. You don't blame them.