dir: Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
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Back, way back in the dim, distant reaches of last century, there was a war in a little-known and already forgotten place called Korea. The battle was between the noble South supported by the United States (and other allied nations of course), and the evil and horrible Northern Communists supported by the terrible Chinese. There were many battles, much slaughter, even towards the end of the war. The Battle of Pork Chop Hill in April of 1953, not only resulted in the slaughter of many noble soldiers, but resulted in a war film that made the careers of a lot of shiny Hollywood dickheads. It showed how random death on the battlefield can be, and how countless soldiers can die horribly because someone far from the front lines commands some men to hold a seemingly strategically important hill.
The supreme irony comes when soldiers who have given almost everything to defend a position, who’ve seen all their buddies die for it, can be told to retreat from the position because of some other strategic need or because it’s decided that, in retrospect, it wasn’t really that important, or that some other hill was the really crucial one that’ll win the war.
Cue scream of forlorn and impotent rage in the face of the universe’s cold disinterest.
Back, way back in the dim, distant reaches of the 1980s, they made a Vietnam set movie called Hamburger Hill, that was about the same kind of topic, being killing and dying for your country, but a different battle and a different hill, in a very different conflict. Much of the flick is given over to the harsh treatment returning vets received at the hands of the general populace, even by their family and friends, but the vast majority of it is about a bunch of guys dying to defend a position, only to be told at the end of the battle to abandon the position and march to some other hill to die on instead.
Cue scream of sadness over the futility of war and the death of your buddies, and the image of returning home from Vietnam only to find your wife have sex with some other guy in your own bed while hippies throw shit at you.
Today. It’s a very different era. Everything’s fine in the Koreas, China has the second biggest economy in the world, and Vietnam is a popular sex tourism destination. Satellites and predator drones do a lot of the fighting these days, but the same essential qualities of war: as in, it’s dumb and it gets a lot of people killed, remains the same, evermore, everafter.
This being a new age, with a battlefield transformed by technology, it requires new films to capture it. But this here film is a documentary, which purports to capture the reality, not to fictionalise the experience in order to make it more palatable to lazy audiences. And yet, somehow, it manages to evoke the timeless reality of the futility of war.
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent a year on and off embedded with Second Platoon B Company 153rd Airborne Infantry in Afghanistan. Their footage is incredible, and the story, such as it is to tell, is stunning as well, though it is entirely ‘commonplace’ in terms of the experiences of tens of thousands of US military personnel over the last decade.
The footage and the way it’s been put together, dating from 2007, is amazing only because it’s purely you-are-there footage, filmed opportunistically by the people who, obviously, were there on and off over the course of that year. Led by the arrogant but earnest Captain Kearney, they are ordered to man an outpost in the Korengal Valley in what’s considered to be one of the most dangerous parts of the whole dangerous country.
The thing is, the battlefield, the enemy and the way the battle is being fought have all changed in honour of the new century. Also, the way we expect them to act and, I hate to say this, to die, has also changed dramatically. These soldiers are ordered to maintain the outpost with an eye towards providing stability in the area, to allow for a road to be built and sustained to improve trade, and to prevent the Taliban from dominating the area and the local population, many of whom appear to be Taliban.
They’re not there to eradicate a specific group or force of Taliban fighters; they’re there as a symbolic as well as a diplomatic force, that the Taliban randomly take shots at or, more rarely attempt to overrun, that is also meant to establish a positive rapport with the local tribal leaders.
This kind of stuff is unheard of, at least in the context of watching war films. Can you imagine Saving Private Ryan where the Hank’s Baker Company rejects sit down over some strudel and try to establish a rapport with the French’s Bavarian Overlords in order to convince them to send back Private Ryan unhurt?
Watching the carrot and stick approach playing out, with actual footage of the meetings between the tribal leaders and the officers is unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable. Most unbelievable is the fact that these old tribal guys put red henna in their hair and beards, and lots of black kohl around their eyes, so they look kinda like ancient shrivelled up and gayer Captain Jack Sparrows.
But these are the guys they have to win over, in order to stop the attacks on their outpost, which are relentless yet sporadic and unpredictable. In this strange situation, these twenty five or so guys, with all the technology in the world at their fingertips, with iPods and laptops and satellite phones and high-power optical equipment and fully automatic weaponry, are still at the mercy of guys who eventually get jack of their presence and drop their shepherd’s crooks for rifles, on the off chance that they might take out one of the soldiers before being cut to pieces.
None of this flick is devoted to looking at the reasons for the war, whether they should be there or not, or any of the politics surrounding the invasion and what it hoped to achieve. It just looks at what happened on the ground, mostly for the enlisted men who really did all the literal heavy lifting.
We get to hear a little bit about some of the soldiers, especially from a very young specialist who talks about his hippy parents never letting him play with guns, which naturally leads to him putting his life on the line in the one place on Earth no empire has ever successfully invaded. Mostly they talk about their day to day experiences in natural and believable ways. The makers don’t make the mistake of trying to turn them into battlefield poets or philosophers, though sometimes their inarticulation in the face of trying to describe the horror of some of the things they’ve seen, and the corrosive impact it’s had upon their souls, says far more.
Later in their deployment, the soldiers are tasked with setting up a second outpost, OP Restrepo, named after (as is the documentary) PFC Juan Restrepo, a medic who died early on in their tour, whom we only see briefly in home video footage at the beginning and the end. I liked it when Specialist Mischa Pemble-Belkin talks about the fact that, considering the back-breaking labour involved in setting up the place, and the constant threat of death, and how much they themselves hated the place initially, he and some of the other soldiers resented the fact that the outpost was named after him, because they loved and missed the guy, and his name was appended to a place they hated.
Of course people have the awesome ability to get used to, and eventually care deeply about, things and places they have carved out with their own flesh, blood and lives. The footage of firefights isn’t as shocking as the reactions of some of the soldiers when some of their own are cut down. It’s an open-mouthed shock, a horror, that we are not used to, and shouldn’t be. War doesn’t have to be bloodily graphic to be confronting, and it should always be confronting. And yet its power to shock comes from the fragility of even the toughest troops in the face of constant attack.
Even then, it’s the mundanity of the daily grind, the effort involved in maintaining their place carved out of sand in inhospitable terrain, the blithe manner in which they deal with the locals who resent them no matter what, that impacts the most.
Being a documentary, it’s denuded of the standard clichés and tropes that define our expectations of cinematic representations of war. But it’s still, at least for me, impossible to watch this without viewing through the lens of war films. Reality can’t compete with fiction, I know, but the thing is the sting in the tail of this documentary is the same kind of sting that I mentioned from those earlier films: by necessity, the higher-ups have to make decisions and use strategies that means a lot of individual sacrifices and pain ends up being without purpose in the end. And it’s hard to marry that reality with the rhetoric of necessity, hearts and minds and other rationalisations.
It’s probably the best documentary of 2010, but that’s not saying much, because, after all, this flick is about something that really happened.
8 times I wonder how those soldiers involved in dancing around to the song Touch Me feel about the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell out of 10
“You’re not understanding that I don’t fucking care” - Captain Kearney through a translator to a tribal leader – if it was a feature movie, John C. Reilly would be playing him – Restrepo.