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Afghan War Documentary: RESTREPO - One year in a U.S. Army outpost

Written by Subject: Entertainment: Movies

Sebastian Junger is perhaps the most daring, dashing, admired and risk-taking mainstream media print correspondent and author working today. He has made a name for himself by not only writing good stories about real people (such as THE PERFECT STORM, which was made into a major motion picture, and perhaps his most celebrated work so far), but as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, as well as free-lance work for Vanity Fair and other publications, he has lived and worked in far flung war zones such as Bosnia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Afghanistan. Both talented, good-looking and willing to go where the story is, one can’t help but wonder when a movie will be made about him! Maybe they’ll get fellow New Englander Ben Affleck to play him.

Junger’s latest book is WAR, about his experience as an embedded journalist with the 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan, in a place called the Korengal Valley. While there with the troops for nearly 16 months, he and cinema photographer Tim Hetherington also were filming. WAR was released about 5 weeks ago. The documentary that came out of the same experience is called RESTREPO, and has been playing in select theatres around the country for about 2 weeks now. It won the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury Prize earlier this year. (“Doc” Restrepo was the company’s medic, and one of their first fatalities in the Korengal, after whom they named the outpost that would become their home.)

Having read the book weeks ago when it came out, I was very impressed. Junger has once again turned out a very insightful journal of what it was like to be there, and does the best job of anyone I’ve yet read on the subject of men (and boys) in war and at describing the psychology as well as the feel of the place. I eagerly awaited the Phoenix engagement of the documentary RESTREPO Friday, and saw the first showing.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

While many people agree that a movie is never as good as the book, I had figured since the author of WAR was the same guy who also co-filmed and produced the RESTREPO documentary, that it should follow the movie would be perhaps equally dazzling. But perhaps I was just too impressed and pleased by the flow and enlightenment from the book WAR, that I expected too much from the moving pictures. Which is not to say that there isn’t some entrancing raw footage that grabs you by the gut and commands your attention. There certainly is. But perhaps it is just the nature of the sudden and random action and events of life in a combat outpost, that many of the important moments that make the book so good, just never got captured on film.

But let’s first understand that this was not Junger’s first time in Afghanistan. Having more bonafides than most journalists covering the war there, Sebastian travelled to the region before 9-11, in November 2000. Back then, most Americans had completely forgotten the fate of the Mujahideen who had fought the CIA’s proxy war against the Soviets. Hardly anyone cared what was transpiring there. Only the odd international or war zone news junkie knew the Taliban was consolidating power there, or who they were. One of the legends of that war, Ahmad Massoud, “The Lion of the Panjshir”, who had been the single most effective guerilla leader against the Soviets, was also the least controlled by the CIA. In 2000, he was also the most ardent resister to Taliban dominance of the country, and was single-handedly keeping the Taliban from conquering the entire land.

Thusly, as Junger explains in his book, he feels very attached to the Afghan people and their plight and struggle. Like few others, he arrived in country for this assignment better armed with local knowledge and experience than nearly any of his colleagues.

Geographically, the Korengal Valley is an odd mixture of parts of the Vietnam experience and what you would expect Afghan climate and terrain to look like. Agriculture is the economy, as well as cedar timber harvesting on the high mountains. But the slopes are so steep, that only the bottoms of the river valleys are able to be worked for crops like rice and wheat.
There is some terracing, but the terrain is unable to be modified in that way very much. Arable land is such a premium, that the locals do not live down on the flat areas, but instead have built their homes directly into the mountainsides, in stone-built communities that look a lot like American Indian ruins in places like Arizona. (In fact, many Arizona soldiers have commented upon their return how eerily the countryside appears like much of central Arizona’s gold country.)
During the day, the farmers work their fields and tend to their animals. And one never knows if the man they see walking a ridgeline is looking for a stray goat, or plotting out locations from which to fire down on Americans.


The terrain is such a nightmare for an occupying army, and the fighters from there were so fierce, that in fact, the Soviets, during their entire time in Afghanistan never actually made it into the Korengal. And the fight over the valley has been so deadly for Americans since they arrived, that the Korengal earned the unenviable reputation as the deadliest post assignment in the U.S. Army.

As many might remember, when a total of 27 Navy Seals and Special Forces soldiers were killed in 2005 on Operation Red Wing, from which the only survivor, Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, managed to escape and evade to safety (and wrote another excellent riveting book, LONE SURVIVOR),…that took place just over in the next valley from the Korengal. Yes, you are very at risk of getting killed there. Even if you just write books and news stories for newspapers.

In fact, the moment Mr. Junger was almost killed is the opener scene for RESTREPO. While riding in a Humvee on a convoy along the Pesh River from the main American support base to the KOP (Korengal Outpost), a command-detonated IED goes off just 10 feet in front of them. Only because the Taliban fighter misjudged and fired the device too soon, is Sebastian’s wife not a widow and his kids orphans.


 Another powerful scene in the film is when Sergeant Rougle, perhaps the most admired and skilled soldier in the company, is killed. A good friend of his breaks down at the news, and the morale of the company reaches a new low.

But that moment caught on film is the only one which actually exceeds the image and understanding provided through the book. In my opinion, the film needed Junger (or some voice actor, perhaps) to provide some sort of narration. It is Junger’s skilled narrative in WAR, after all, that makes it so enlightening and allows the reader to get into the frame of mind that it is to live the experience. The film hardly addresses, for instance, the absolutely incredible revelation about the high percentage of soldiers on psychotropic drugs to treat them for their combat stress WHILE STILL IN-COUNTRY AND PULLING TRIGGERS! The problem is so bad, according to Junger, that nearly a full 40% of the soldiers serving in the Korengal were thusly on medication! One soldier, who after only 4 months in country, concerned he was already so psychologically traumatized and stressed visited the battalion medical officer to see if he should be placed on drugs as well. The doctor informed the soldier that his symptoms didn’t yet reach the level that required prescription meds. Asking the doctor what he should do, the doc, incredibly, said “Do you smoke?” “No,” answered the trooper. “Perhaps you should start,” was the medical professional’s reply. It would seem that manpower demands on the U.S. military is so high, that traditional policies of removing psychologically afflicted soldiers from the line has been abandoned until further notice.

Narrated annotations of life for soldiers in the Korengal, such as that described above, would, I think, have added greatly to the ability of the film to bring the viewer closer to understanding the soldiers that are the documentary’s subject. And a bit of history could have been illuminating as to relations between the soldiers and locals. As simple, illiterate farmers with no radios or connection to the outside world, when the Americans first marched into the Korengal Valley, the locals thought they were Russians. No one living in the Korengal knew the Soviets had been gone for over a decade!!

Perhaps Mr. Junger was merely aware that his talent lays as a writer, and rather than trying to make the film tell the story that the book does, he aimed to just let the raw visuals speak their own language. While I value the film as a valuable adjunct to reading the book, I guess I was expecting that they would tell the same story. They don’t. The book takes you inside the grand picture. The book gives you the history, the analysis and perspective. The film only gives you the moments.

RESTREPO is only playing for a few more weeks in different places around the country. National Geographic bought the distribution rights during the Sundance Film Festival, and later this fall will play it on cable and satellite TV on the NatGeo Channel. So if you don’t get out to the theatre to see it, don’t fret. In fact, while the cameras used by Junger and Hetherington were light enough to hump up and down the mountainous terrain (as they certainly needed to be), they were not the best for taking pictures of enough resolution to make for good viewing on the big screen. But it will look good on your TV, which is where I recommend you view it. Just beware, however, if you have kids in the home, there is plenty of shocking language and blood and dead bodies. Whether NatGeo will leave all that intact when it airs is unknown, but if they do, this is not family viewing material,…unless your kids are recruitment age, of course.

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