Last night, I had a chance to see Restrepo, the documentary film that Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington cut from 10 visits to a U.S. unit in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
I had a variety of reactions, both emotional and intellectual, across the span of the showing.
But my first reaction may have frightened me the most: why did it take 9 years of conflict before I saw a movie about the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan? That realization hammered home just how disconnected the U.S. populace has been from the conflict, and I most certainly do not exempt myself from blame for such negligence. The New York Times articles simply do not do it justice.
Interspersed with truly beautiful shots - like mountain birds wheeling overhead or a soldier smoking in the sun on a cold morning - Restrepo was largely unvarnished, which gave it heft. The makers established a minimalist narrative at the outset, but it was not always clear what, if any, message was intended. Overall, the subtle hint seemed to be, very simply: war is senseless and hellish, and it should be avoided because nobody involved gets by unscathed.
The language is coarse, the conditions are harsh, and some of the missteps and less-than-perfect decisions by the U.S. forces might make you squirm or groan a bit. The platoon, in its attempt to relieve stress, also seems goofy at times. But that's another part of the strength of the work in its attempt to convey the frontlines to the citizenry back home (and perhaps one of its weaknesses as a film): it's a bit jumbled as it traces the multiple facets of conflict, and it evokes a corresponding variety of emotions.
The troops are young, they are very human - and sometimes the odds stacked against them, such as terrain, locals intermingling with the enemy, and non-military duties, seem almost absurd (and they unavoidably raise the question: why are we even here?). In that sense, I think Junger brilliantly used his embedded position to create what may be, at root, an anti-war film that nevertheless passes entirely under the radar because it does not overtly question the bravery or efforts of the troops as individuals.
I'm reading General Petraeus' Counterinsurgency Field Manual right now as well, and it was interesting to synthesize the points and lessons of the written work with the realities shown in the movie. It also made me wonder, as a friend suggested, if COIN, even if ultimately successful in a given country or region (I do think it's a brilliant development for U.S. forces), is actually worth the major outlay required in terms of finances, manpower, and time. Or if it should be done by U.S. troops.
Overall, especially given the dearth of decent movies out there right now, I'd recommend seeing Restrepo if you happen to find it playing in a theater near you.