War correspondents are the toughest, most unjust reviewers a film about war could possibly have, especially if it is about a conflict they are familiar with firsthand. The subject is way too close to their hearts, to the most subjective of buried emotions, the rawest of nerve endings, that anything that rings the least bit off-key inspires instantaneous outrage, or at very least a catalogue of caveats. We all feel that in a sense we own our wars, and God help anyone else who trespasses there. Hurt Locker, for instance: The look of the film was magically true to the Baghdad I grew familiar with in 2004, but the portrayal of the soldiers and the whole Intentional Explosive Device syndrome was just far enough off to make me lower my rating of the film from “masterpiece” to “damned good try” and “****” instead of “*****.”
For the record, I was with a Civil Affairs team in Baghdad, not a squad of explosives engineers, but CA 13, Alpha Company of the 425th, ran into enough IEDs in the course of our missions, cordoning off the area and keeping civilians away – Iraqi kids flocked to the scene of unexploded IEDs like birds to a feeder – that we “knew” the whole IED syndrome all too well. We only “hit” one IED, a pair of remote-triggered 155 shells, during my time there, resulting in one Purple Heart)…. But for Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary about an outpost in the Kunar River drainage of far eastern Afghanistan held by a handful of American GIs, I have nothing but unqualified praise.
The film was a tricky one for me, because of my empathy for both sides: not for the hard-core Taliban, those fools and fanatics organized as a proxy invasion force by the Pakistani military, nor for the incompetent American officers like the visiting Colonel who sabotaged the Restrepo garrison’s situation with his idiotic excuse to local village elders for a recent bombing attack on civilians, but for the soldiers and their Afghan neighbors who found themselves caught up in a tragic conflict neither wanted but could not avoid in the end. Restrepo was one of the American garrisons tasked with protecting a local road-building project that looked like something positive to the GIs on the ground, but to the Afghan locals seemed like yet another attempt by the government in faraway Kabul and its mysterious foreign allies to interfere in their precious autonomy. In this light, the footage of Restrepo’s soldiers and the area’s village elders attempting to communicate with each other took on an air of inevitable failure as the film showed, “close up and personal,” the tragedies that resulted: the death of the charismatic medical corpsman Restrepo, whom the outpost was named after; the broken and bitter hearts of his comrades; the bombing of the village and the inevitable “collateral casualties;” the death of another soldier during a poorly planned patrol.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, I accompanied the mujahideen when they bombarded Soviet posts like Restrepo from the mountains overlooking the Kunar River valley, not too far from the scene of Junger’s and Hetherington’s film. Some of my closest friends are comrades of those men; they are the reason I continue to work on behalf of Afghanistan’s civilians today.
Later, when I got to live alongside American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, I found most of them to be good-hearted, well-intentioned, courageous, made of the purest human gold. Sometimes they were forced into the role of destroyers and wrongdoers by poor leadership and ignorant mission-planning, but when given the chance they were far more often genuine heroes, people one was proud to have been allowed to know.
One often felt that if they had been allowed to run our wars themselves, things would have been a whole lot better for everyone concerned. Through immense courage and incredible skill, the makers of Restrepo have succeeded in honoring the human beings on both sides of this confused and confusing conflict, and in so doing have created that rarest of things, an artistic and moral masterpiece.