Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Chronicle of Warriors in the Kill Zone: Restrepo

When Tim Hetherington ventured behind rebel lines while covering the Liberian civil war in 2003, an order for his execution was handed down by dictator Charles Taylor -- now on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Luckily, the British photojournalist was never captured but, once you’ve had that sort of fatwa on your head, why the heck not trek to the most treacherous part of Afghanistan to report on American troops under constant attack by the Taliban? That’s exactly what he did, along with New York City colleague Sebastian Junger, from June 2007 through August 2008. They went to the hazardous region on behalf of Vanity Fair, ABC News and their own documentary, Restrepo, a harrowing look at a U.S. military operation in the remote Korengal Valley.

The co-directors, who made ten trips there over the course of 15 months, were embedded with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Hetherington, now 39, and Junger, 48, observed soldiers in their early 20s, not all destined to survive the grim battles fought in harsh mountainous terrain. Restrepo, which won a top prize at January’s Sundance festival, employs a cinéma vérité style juxtaposed with individual narratives from some of the men upon their return to their European base in Italy. Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin, whose hippie pacifist parents in Oregon did not allow him to play with toy guns, explains that his decision to enlist in the Army was inspired by 9/11. He was probably about 15 years old when the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Although the filmmakers bonded with these patriotic youngsters, topics of conversation were somewhat limited. “They mostly talked about bikes and girls,” recalls Hetherington, during a recent phone interview. On camera, the boys in camouflage are seen wrestling and fooling around during the rare moments of peace at Outpost Restrepo, a fortification they have literally dug out of the rocky soil on a ridge surrounded by steep hills that harbor the enemy. This precarious-looking place is named in honor of Private Juan “Doc” Restrepo, a beloved platoon medic killed earlier in their deployment. The purpose of the mission is to secure the Korengal so that other soldiers can later build a paved road.

“We’re going to try to bring progress here,” platoon commander Captain Dan Kearney tells impassive elders in a village that looks as if it hasn’t changed in a millennium. These devout Muslims rightly fear cooperation would bring Taliban retaliation. Later, when a cow belonging to one of the locals becomes tangled up in the outpost’s razor wire, it doesn’t help that the American interlopers butcher the wounded animal and enjoy fresh steaks in place of the Meals Ready to Eat supplied by the Army. Savoring bovine “new meat” apparently trumps winning human hearts and minds.

When the platoon first arrives in the region, they hear howling monkeys that serve as a sort of eerie presage for what’s to come. There’s an otherworldliness about the Korengal and its older male inhabitants (the women tend to be kept out of sight), many of whom traditionally use henna to dye their long graying beards a bright orange. Although never glimpsed in the film, the Taliban can be imagined by viewers as almost ghostly creatures stalking their prey in a horror movie. In one instance, as the platoon disperses on a forlorn hillside, a soldier is shot in the head from just 20 feet away.

Casualties such as that make revenge a personal matter for Pemble-Belkin. “By the end,” he says of his targets after leaving the valley of tears, “I was wishing they were closer so I could see them when I killed them.”

Restrepo also reveals the aftermath of an air strike on a village where the platoon has detected Taliban gunfire: Five civilians die, some of them children, and ten are wounded. Much like in Vietnam, the insurgents cannot be easily distinguished from ordinary folks, but this collateral-damage scenario is guaranteed to put them all in a jihad frame of mind. The Korengalis probably are unable to read English. Even so, the word “infidel” tattooed across the chests of five soldiers, according to Hetherington, seems like a counterproductive taunt that confuses bravado with bravery.

This situation informed his new book, Infidel, which he describes as a portrait of “brotherhood” that will be published next month. Junger, who wrote 1997’s The Perfect Storm, visited Afghanistan in 2001. If hostility about the American presence is the prevailing mood now, attitudes may have been quite different when the conflict began. “People hugged him because they were so happy to be rid of the oppressive Taliban regime,” Hetherington says. “What alienated Afghans is that we turned our attention to the invasion of Iraq. The film is a testimony to that blunder. This is what a bad counterinsurgency looks like. We need to create a paradigm shift in the conversation about this war.”

The focus must turn from nation-building to “giving the people a reasonable opportunity to be secure,” contends Hetherington, who will return to the country in October with Junger for another Vanity Fair assignment. One year after the men observed in their wrenching film went home, the Army abandoned Outpost Restrepo, the Korengal itself and the proposed road to nowhere. The absurdity implicit in this decision might remind cineastes of a 1957 Stanley Kubrick drama, Paths of Glory, about French officers sending a unit on a similarly impossible mission during World War I.

And the contemporary platoon’s reaction to the futility of their Korengal sojourn? Hetherington suspects these voluntary soldiers would hesitate to challenge the logic of military strategy. “Our troops don’t have the big picture,” he says. “These are the guys on the sharp end of American foreign policy.”

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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