Unfortunately for the human species, war is one of the most dramatic things that life can offer, so there’s no surprise that documentary films about combat hold a much-vaunted place in the non-fiction canon. Of course, films about war are varied; critical compilation narratives about America’s conflicts across the world have their important place and time and are crucial to the role of media in a functioning democracy. Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, Emile de Antonio’s Year of the Pig, Barbara Trent’s Panama Deception, Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, and even Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 are just a few that come to mind. But a kind of Holy Grail in this genre is the film that “embeds” with combat soldiers to give a “real” taste of what fighting feels like. CBS Reports got close during Vietnam (its famous piece on Charlie Company still stands up to what can be accomplished when there is minimal interference from military hacks), as did films such as Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’s Occupation: Dreamland, filmed during the earlier years of the Iraq invasion.
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s striking documentary Restrepo—filmed in Afghanistan over the course of a year—illustrates this particular niche in filmmaking. In classic vérité style, it delivers a tangible sense of “being with the soldiers” far more than any embedded network correspondent during the Iraq invasions ever offered (although some of this footage was broadcast on ABC’s Nightline before the film was made). The film follows a platoon of U.S. soldiers situated in one of the most dangerous parts of the Afghani countryside, mostly in or near a remote 15-man outpost called “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. There is (thankfully) no voice-over, no interviews with experts or higher-ups who aren’t in the valley where these men are stationed, no graphics, no news reports—just footage. It’s basically 90 minutes of viewing a deployment of men confronting the quotidian aspects of building a base camp, dealing with local villagers who want restitution because one of their cows was killed and eaten by soldiers, and going out on missions to nearby villages in order to try to find suspected Taliban. We see the commanding officer try to explain what they are doing to ancient village elders (with beards dyed hues of orange and red) who look at these mostly white American men with a mixture of wonder and amusement tinged with hostility. But, most effectively, we see these young men a) screwing around and giving each other shit in the way that close buddies around the world do, and b) taking fire, giving fire, and reacting when some of them are injured or die. There’s little doubt the film sucks you in to a point where you become sympathetic and impressed by these men’s dedication to and honor for each other. The days of somehow blaming the troops (if they ever existed) are long gone.
Ultimately, the film captures the bonding experience of war, a Petri dish of what happens when you put basically a bunch of post-teens into a distant situation in which they are heavily armed and frequently being shot at. A situation which they, of course, blow off steam with each other and bond as a Group against an Enemy. There is no real political analysis, no larger discussion of questioning what is right and wrong in this context (as if that is something so easy), no judgment as to how and why healthy young men should even be in this place. Rather, it shows the age-old experience of largely masculine combat and honor.
But throughout Restrepo I couldn’t help wondering if this was just what U.S. military psychologists and the larger military establishment had come to espouse and engineer long ago: the “band of brothers” who, most effectively, fight primarily for each other, not some higher ideal (though that is sometimes rhetorically mentioned). There is true pathos, true love, true valor throughout the interactions of these men under the duress of combat against the Other as they fight essentially alone (except for some nice air support) in a distant outpost in one of the harshest terrains on the planet. While capturing this on film is superb, it’s not only upsetting, but perhaps fundamentally perverse that this is the kind of situation that brings out these usually buried shards of vigorous interpersonal integrity in the human species. War is hell, as the cliché goes, but war also forces people into intense bonds that are as reduced and raw as any love affair.
And that, in itself, is the saddest message of all.