Restrepo, dir. Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
The great war correspondents are understaters. Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Fall, Jonathan Schell, and even hoary old Ernie Pyle dealt with war by applying the rules of daily journalism: a distanced, supposedly objective voice, describing events in a remote third person voice. The reporter may have been present, but he or she never appeared in the story.
This method endured for a century or more, but foundered, as did so many paradigms, on the shoals of Vietnam. New voices discovered that Vietnam’s complexities—bottomless layers of contradictions, moral and political ambivalences, the emerging disconnect between the sacrifice and heroism of the soldiers, and the stupidity of policy—cried out for a less complex depiction. Action, not explanation—a primal sword to cut the Gordian Knot. The ne plus ultra of that approach is Michael Herr, whose Dispatches remains the masterpiece of the Vietnam War, and of the consciousness of that time. Herr, who wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now and co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, understood that the only way to address the contradictions of the war was to embed them, unexplained, in the reports of every incident. Instantly obsolete was the NY Times style of David Halberstam, who attempted to enlighten. Herr’s coverage was existential; he hurled his reader into the experience and let them sort it out. It altered language. It debased language, created phrases that meant the opposite of what they said, failed to capture new, technological solutions and problems that derived from killing and trying to stay alive in a fundamentally senseless universe. Herr knew where to find the only language that possessed any clarity—on the contested ground.
The sharp end of the war—the soldiers fighting it and their grunt-slang—held all the clues one needed, but one had to know how to read them. Grunt sentence construction, as innovative in conveying reality as policy sentence construction was at depicting fantasy, offered far more truth, truth in blood, than any general’s briefing or presidential address. So Herr dispensed with anything except the day to day experience of the foot soldiers, and how his life as a correspondent overlapped with theirs. Most of Dispatches appeared first as reportage in Esquire in its heyday, and as that magazine was to the rest of magazines, so Dispatches was to all other Vietnam coverage. Over the decades, and mainly through Herr’s work on the two key Vietnam movies, his attitude has become the prism through which we see that war. If you haven’t read Dispatches yet, do. It illuminates our current wars uncannily.
As Iraq/Afghanistan proves this generation’s Vietnam, so the coverage follows. Conventional reportage, again à la the NY Times, proved helpless against the multi-layered realties and the relentlessly promulgated delusions of the U.S. government. Two crucial books emerged, both which share Herr’s view of how war met policy as a deadly, hallucinatory fun-house. The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, employs a post-Herr tone of brutalist absurdism and a Herr-ian investment in what foot soldiers have to say and how. Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, cuts straight to the absurd, using a less slangy tone to describe the complete disconnect between the policy-makers hiding in the Green Zone and everyone else out there dying beyond its walls. The Forever War focuses on combat, and is the more visceral of the two, but both deliver a sense of great dread, helplessness, and folly.
For all the bombast of The Hurt Locker or Jarhead, it’s HBO’s Generation Kill (based on Evan Wright’s vastly inferior Iraq reportage) that follows Herr’s path in that it illuminates Iraq through the language of the field. The Wire’s team of David Simon and Ed Burns created and wrote most of the episodes, and they find the bloody absurdity of the campaign to be best expressed in the random remarks of the troops. All the drama of the show, as was often the case in The Wire, derives from some throw-away remark expressed in an in-group argot so arcane it takes three episodes to figure out what that soldier said and why it mattered so. This does not in any way diminish the sense of the truth in the moment the show captures.
After The Perfect Storm and the careful creation of his blowhard public persona, Sebastian Junger is about the last guy one would think of as an understater. But his Afghanistan documentary, Restrepo, emerges as a touchstone, the unlikely Dispatches of this war: the depiction we will return to again and again. Its narration-free presentation of the lives of U.S. soldiers on a firebase in the deadliest valley in the country is an astonishing exercise in pared-down modernism. Nothing is explained; we must learn from the context, decode the soldier’s language, attempt to sort out, as they do, when they’re in mortal danger and when it’s just another day. I’ve seen it twice and much still remains mysterious: does the compassionate and self-examining Captain understand how counter-productive most of his tactics are? Does anyone really think for a moment they are getting through to the hard-faced 13th century Afghanis who surround them? Is the violent horsing around, violent dancing, violent hazing, and violent sex-talk of the soldiers homoerotic love or just dudes who kill people blowing off steam? Is there any difference?
Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington use after the fact interviews to discover their subjects’ thoughts and feelings at the worst moments: when one is wounded, when a colleague dies, when the best thought-out decisions prove utterly wrong. But even those direct-to-the camera confessions do not clarify. They provide emotional underpinnings, not facts. The war remains a blur of firefights, boredom, military horseshit, fearsome technology, adolescent longing, and shooting at targets that are never, ever visible.
The directors are not ironists. They present this world as they find it, and given the months they spent in-country, the 93-minute running time is another mark of their masterful, respectful restraint. We do hear their voices as they query the soldiers in the midst of battle; we hear soldiers yelling at them to “Get down!” Otherwise, we have no idea who’s filming. The visual style is quiet and tight. We leap from day to day, but every day we see is iconic, and clearly incarnates how many other days passed similarly. No expressive camera or cutting: every moment is as basic, understated, and laden as can be.
Now that the firebase the subjects of this movie fought and died to defend has been shuttered and abandoned, the theme of Restrepo echoes even more clearly: the pointless sacrifice and heroism of the grunts. How hard they fought, how tenaciously they tried to change a world that will not be altered, how much sincere, heartbreaking effort they put in, even as they increasingly knew it was all for nothing. The Hydra-headed oxymoron of Vietnam returns: guys dying bravely for a policy that will never work.