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Into the Valley of Death Rode the ... 15?

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Posted on Jun 24, 2010
National Geographic Films / Tim Hetherington

Misha Pemble-Belkin (left) and Ross Murphy of Battle Company, 173rd U.S. Airborne, relax at Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

By Richard Schickel

Restrepo was the name of an American Army outpost in Afghanistan’s beautiful, dangerous Korengal Valley. It was built and maintained, from May 2007 until July 2008, by 15 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade with the goal of interdicting Taliban troops as they moved freely through the valley, aided occasionally by the local inhabitants, who also at times at least pretended to be allied with the Americans. The outpost was named for an American soldier, a medic, who was killed early in the fighting, and “Restrepo” is, as well, the title of a documentary film by Sebastian Junger—he of “A Perfect Storm” and currently the author of the best-selling “War,” which draws on the same material as the film—and the well-known combat photographer Tim Hetherington. Together and separately they visited the outpost 10 times, for stays of up to a month in duration.

I think you can quite easily imagine the tenor of their film. The small-unit-under-pressure is a subject that has attracted both documentary and fictional filmmakers for decades. This is, at least, a subgenre and, as such, it operates within the confines of certain fairly rigid conventions. The fictional variety often offers a psycho commanding officer or a grunt who has doubts about the value of the unit’s mission and has to be brought around to its value by the good nature (and the sacrifices) of his fellows. The documentaries, not requiring much in the way of melodramatic pressure, dispense with such figures. They are, in a sense, much more existentially oriented. They present their characters as dutiful, trusting and without any particular questions to ask or ideological axes to grind.

So it is with “Restrepo.” The luck of the military draw has brought this disparate group together in a dangerous and uncomfortable place. Their task is simply to soldier on until their tour of duty ends. The filmmakers wisely do not interview their top commanders about the larger meaning of their assignment, and the men simply accept, as a given, that what they’re doing must have some larger strategic value. The implication is that despite their hardships, despite the fact that they are regularly engaged in firefights (and take casualties), what they’re doing may be more interesting than the alternatives available to them in civilian life. This unworthy thought sometimes occurs to the viewer: Their stay at Restrepo is something like a camping trip in rough, remote country, but with real bullets flying around, and with the possibility that at its end they may become better men as a result of their experience.

They grouse, they laugh, they listen politely to their captain’s attempts to explain their mission, but mainly they watch one another’s backs and bond quite easily as a result of their shared adventure. The filmmakers justifiably like them and, as a result, we do, too.

But this brings us the crux of films like “Restrepo” and its ilk. One day the soldiers’ tour of duty is over. We see them happily climbing onto helicopters and flying out of the Korengal Valley, bound for a peaceful base in Italy and, I guess, eventual deployment back home. A title card then informs us that the high command has decided to suspend operations in the area. Which means that their 14 months of blood, sweat and (perhaps) manly tears have been meaningless. No ground has been taken, the Taliban is still moving through the valley at will and a mission once thought to be vital turns out to have had no lasting value whatsoever. None of the men whose company we have come to like is heard to comment on that point. They are just happy to have come through in one piece, with war stories, as one or two of them observe, to tell their children or grandchildren.

Photo by Tim Hetherington courtesy National Geographic Films

To them it is just another of those snafus that are so much a part of military life. I like it that Junger and Hetherington make this point without direct, moralizing comment. The notion, so frequently played out in World War II combat movies, that each small unit’s triumphs or martyrdoms inevitably contributed to a much greater common triumph—booming voice-over narration, inspiring music (sometimes played against shots of the United Nations’ massed flags moving toward a dawning sun)—is long (and gratefully) gone. I think we now fully understand that soldiers in the field fight only for their buddies, for their unit’s survival. Geopolitics is somebody else’s business.

There is, however, a cost to this taciturnity. Limiting our emotional response to the travails fighting men endure is a little bit like limiting war aims; it distances us from the conflict, prevents us from engaging fully, dramatically, suspensefully, in it. Certainly in this instance no one in this beleaguered group becomes fully particularized as a human being.

This standoffishness became a ruling convention in films about the Vietnam War. Putting it mildly, our moral qualms about that war prevented everyone this side of John Wayne from unambiguously identifying with our troops. Which left us with a rather squishy humanism—“Oh, the poor guys, it’s not their fault; let’s go levitate the Pentagon, instead”—to tide us along. Because the aims of our wars since have not particularly advanced, that’s pretty much where we remain. And that’s pretty much where “Restrepo” is entrapped. We eventually take our leave of these soldiers with sympathetic feelings intact, but also with the sense that we have been here before, that the filmmakers have not narrowed the distance between us and their subjects, not given us a film that leaps the gap between us and them. Or, for that matter, diminished the distance between the high command and the lowly dogface, each lost in contradictory—though possibly equally absurd—military obsessions.

Richard Schickel, whose celebrated and prolific career spans 50 years, has been the film critic for Time and Life magazines, has written more than 20 books and has produced, written and directed numerous documentaries.


New and Improved Comments

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By Felix Razon, June 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No mention of the Afghan civilians killed, babies and
others, or those arrested and taken to jails and probably
tortured under interrogation. What about the racist and
ethnocentric attitude to the Afghanis in the village? Self-
serving and self-focused, Schickel’s “enlightened”
comment can only serve to continue the US occupation
of Afghanistan, and by extension all other countries
targetted by a profit-seeking corporate empire.

Report this

By b. franklin, June 27, 2010 at 9:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Squeeky
“Your complaining about the war in Afghanistan or
American imperialism is academic until you diagnose
and cure the illness and not the symptoms!”

nuke america.  worlds problems solved.

Report this

By gerard, June 27, 2010 at 8:53 pm Link to this comment

Hey, y’all:  War is killing itself—gradually, painfully to be sure, but before we get out of Afghanistan it will be on its deathbed.  It’s already gasping for air.

Talking won’t een it—but it certainly won’t aid and abet it—which is one step forward at least.
Getting out in the streets, under present circumstances, is problematic.  Only if hundreds of thousands, and worldwide—not only from the U.S.—might make some waves that would move the human race in an anti-owar direction. Working on alternatives helps a lot, though in unseen ways.

Events like global warming, oil spills, massive starvation and disease, economic collapse all help, terrible as they are.  Every crisis tells more and more people that the present systemic injustices are killing the human race and the planet.  Such disasters are so all-encompassing and disastrous that it is impossible to prevent media from reporting them. 

My feeling is (and it is only an intuition) that Mother Nature is on our side, and She is doing all she can to help us and Herself. Whatever we do or say can push things in the direction of survival.
It’s up to us.  And action will come as a result, eventually.  People argue about whether it will be soon enough, but it is impossible to see the total pictiure.  There is, however, some reason to hope.

The main thing is to keep up courage, work toward alternatives however one can, and nurture life—as always. Killing either body or spirit is counter=productive.

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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, June 27, 2010 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

Okay; everybody has had their say!
Do you feel better?
Have you truly made a difference?
Blah, blah, blah; so what?
It just goes on and on and on, despite your most
strident protestations; wake up!
Your rulers don’t give a shit what you think because
they don’t have to.
All of the blogs should go dead; why?
Because everybody quits talking and goes to the
streets where the real action is. Blood in the
streets is the only thing that will change anything!
But; blood is too extreme and your docile behavior is
all your willing to sacrifice! So, whipped dogs you
are will suffer the consequences.
Serfdom; it’s what we deserve!

Report this

By Squeeky, June 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm Link to this comment

John Ellis: Great! You show me how to raise the social conscience of 300,000,000 americans, and treat that mental illness, you can count me in.

Report this

By john crandell, June 26, 2010 at 11:44 am Link to this comment

lyndon baines obama DOES NOT want you to know:


“The U.S. Is Literally Funding The Enemy, As Violence Escalates Daily In
Afghanistan And More U.S. Soldiers And Marines Are Dying Than Ever Before”
“The Business Is War And The War Is Business And You’ve Got ‘Warlord Inc.’
Going On Over There”
“The More Money You Pour Into Counter-Insurgency Efforts, The More Money
You Are Giving To The Enemy To Fight Against You”
“In Many Areas, That To Carry Out Any Reconstruction Projects Or U.S. Funded
Counter-Insurgency Efforts Requires Large Payoffs To The Taliban”

“The fact that we have such dire times at home, we need money for schools
and for health clinics and job creation and job training, and we’re spending
2.16 billion dollars - a good part of which is going to criminals and warlords-
that’s shocking,” Tierney said.

June 21, 2010 By Lara Logan, CBS

Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are fuelling corruption in Afghanistan and
funding the insurgency, according to a six-month investigation by the House
subcommittee on National Security and Foreign affairs.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., told CBS News: “the
business is war and the war is business and you’ve got ‘Warlord Inc.’ going on
over there.”

That would mean that the U.S. is literally funding the enemy, as violence
escalates daily in Afghanistan and more U.S. soldiers and Marines are dying
than ever before in this war.

It also means that while the U.S. has been publicly pointing fingers at the
Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai for not cleaning up corruption
in his government, in fact the U.S. is a huge part of the corruption problem -
and until now, has done nothing about it or even acknowledged that fact.

The committee investigators focused on one contract - the Host Nation
Trucking contract or HNT - that is worth $2.16 billion U.S. dollars and divided
between just eight companies - three of them American, three from the Middle
East and two from Afghanistan. Over six months, they conducted dozens of
formal interviews, dozens more informal interviews and ploughed through
more than 20,000 documents.

They discovered damning evidence of the complete lack of oversight from the
U.S. military and other agencies at the sub-contractor level of those contracts
- and anecdotal evidence from the eight contracting companies that payoffs
were being made to the Taliban to keep the convoys on the roads.

But the reality of Afghanistan is that the Department of Defense has been
following a policy endorsed by the U.S. government from the very beginning of
this war: to use various warlords, criminals, corrupt powerbrokers etc where
the U.S. deems it necessary.

From 2001, when the CIA carried in suitcases of cash to pay off tribal leaders,
the U.S. strategy has included relying on “bad guys - as long as they are ‘our’
bad guys.”

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By gerard, June 26, 2010 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

Other key sentences: “...the high command has decided to suspend operations in the area. Which means that their 14 months of blood, sweat and (perhaps) manly tears have been meaningless… turns out to have had no lasting value whatsoever. None of the men whose company we have come to like is heard to comment on that point. They are just happy to have come through in one piece, with war stories, as one or two of them observe, to tell their children or grandchildren.”

What nonsense!  Where is the understanding and truth in the minds of people who try to point up the value of “war stories to tell their children etc. etc.”? 

Ask any of the hundreds (actually unknown numbers) of vets suffering from PTSD, nightmares and substance abuse how much fun they are having telling war stories to their children!

The ability of people to lie about war is absolutely appalling—always mouthing off about “courage” and “bonding” and “heroism” and “the love of comrades” “bands of brothers,” etc. etc.

Why do you suppose the “high command” (Westmoreland et al.) dare not stop the madness? Because it will make all the blood, sweat and tears meaningless ...which, in real reality, it is!  No other reason whatsoever for not stopping—except possibly that there are no jobs for returning veterans. So then what?

Face up, people.  War is, was, and always will be hell.  Time to try a new gig—like peace, food, houses, medical care ... and human bonding on a broad scale fit for a world of human beings.

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thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, June 26, 2010 at 3:58 am Link to this comment

I’ll give it a shot:
1. Everybody who wants the United States to have its big boots on the necks of Afghans and Pakistanis should forthwith salute President Obama, the latest architect of “the right war”.
As Robert Fisk recently pointed out:
“What was more instructive, however, was Obama’s behavior. Every month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heaps humiliation and insult upon the impotent and frightened Obama, who responds by clicking his tongue and then swearing further lifelong fidelity to Israel. But the moment his top man in Afghanistan tells a few home truths about his boss, Obama throws a hissy fit and fires him. McChrystal would obviously have done much better in the Israeli Army.”

And it does not stop there, for Robert Fisk also points out:
“Ironically, one of McChrystal’s last acts was to pull his men out of the Korangal Valley and close down OP Restropo. Indeed, al-Jazeera’s reporter managed to enter the abandoned outpost a few days ago with a bunch of leering Taliban—who joyfully discovered that the Americans had left them plenty of ammo. So much for the sacrifice of the Second Platoon and the far greater suffering of the Afghan villagers who they blasted away in the interests of the “war on terror”. “

For many in the United States, reality is so tasteful that they pretend it is not, and do as the Sony corporation instructs: make.believe

Reality is quite a bite in the ass. You dear reader, will read and hear endless wailing and lamenting over the evil British Petroleum Corporation. Never mind that BP is in the strategic national interest of the federal government, by supplying heaps of oil for the never ending U.S. wars, for all the armies in 175 countries. (Don’t take the beerdoc’s word on this, Google-up what Nick Turse has discovered, Especially a recent post titled: How Taxpayers Are Subsidizing BP’s Disaster Through The Pentagon.)

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, June 26, 2010 at 3:06 am Link to this comment

This tells me all I need to know about this documentary and the men in it;

“..the men simply accept, as a given, that what they’re doing must have some larger strategic value.”

I have better things to do than watch these infant gargoyles playing war.

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By Squeeky, June 26, 2010 at 12:40 am Link to this comment

Blah Blah Blah,

In all your whining and complaining, you all fail or forget, to understand that the Army is a tool commanded by civilians!!!! Ultimately the President is the Commander in Chief and the war is funded by congress.

Your complaining about the war in Afghanistan or american imperialism is academic until you diagnose and cure the illness and not the symptoms!

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm Link to this comment

re:By felicity, June 25 at 6:22 pm:

I’m saying that—regardless of how people regarded WWII at the time—this has
become a dominant narrative interpretation of it, a narrative supposedly proving
the goodness of WWII and therefore of the USA.

If you want to get a perspective on this American mindset, as it looks from the
outside, read the article “Why the French Hate Chomsky” by Diane Johnstone. In
it, she captures and clearly sets out the basic structure of this post-WWII
American mythology that is so maddeningly hard to crack:

‘In various ways, the “humanitarian” power intellectuals exemplified by Bernard
Kouchner work to promote the American “three Vs” division of humanity: Villains,
Victims and Victorious Saviors. This particular fateful triangle serves as the
procrustean bed for all major world events, starting of course with World War II as
it is now taught in most schools: the drama of a Villain (Hitler), Victims (the Jews)
and the Victorious Savior (the United States armed forces).’

http://www.counterpunch.org/johnstone06142010.html

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By felicity, June 25, 2010 at 2:22 pm Link to this comment

Ed Harges - “save the Jews” was an expression I never heard during WWII. Where did you read or hear that?  I’m not dissing you, I’m really curious.

I do know that as a young teenager living in San Francisco in the ‘40’s the ‘war’ was not some distant event that would never endanger us directly as subsiquent stupid ‘wars’ have been.  Our city was regularly ‘blacked out,’ we were required to wear ID tags around our necks at all times (so we could be identified if found dead after a bombing), food and gas rationed…in other words, I seriously doubt that we were concerned at the time with ‘saving the Jews.’

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By gerard, June 25, 2010 at 11:20 am Link to this comment

Ed, what will dim the superannuated visions of American “exceptionalism” and the glory of WWII?  Time (which is inevitable) and now the almost-daily increasing disasters beyond control:  viz. wars, pollution, environmental deterioration, deep-water oil spills and mine disasters, governmental deceit and lying and favoritism toward corporations, corporate crime, economic collapse, widespread starvation and disease, fear of “terrorism,” repression, over-population, cruelty and torture, incessant and increasingly lethal and cowardly wars.  What have I missed?
  Horrible as it all is—and planet-threatening in the extreme—there is some hope, because every calamity informs unknown millions of people (thanks to the internet etc.) that if they don’t wake up and figure out ways to save the world—yes, that cynical old cliche that everybody hopes in his/her heart somebody else will do—will actually come about through the magic of that hopey-changy thing called desperation.  Another word for it is creativity. 
  Control of the spread of this kind of information is impossible.  The corporations have already lost, though they don’t know it yet.  There is more hope for the future of that housewife in Kenya whose Oxfam-donated hens are laying eggs fertilized by a neighbor’s rooster that for the over-stuffed yacht-crazed CEO of Goldman’s Sacks..
  It’s impossible to really see all that is happening
but one thing is for sure.  More people know more than they ever did before—if they can just keep up their courage….

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 25, 2010 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

re:By gerard, June 25 at 2:23 pm:

More power to you, but I’m telling you, the anti-war movement
in the US will never win, as long as WWII remains, in the American
psyche, an untouchable ideal of “good war”, in which we, the
victorious liberators, “save the Jews”.

The nation’s psychological self-defense, its belief in itself as a
good people, depends on maintaining this dogma
—otherwise, how can we excuse Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

How do we justify our support for Israel?

All the pretty lies are made possible by the eternal idealization
of that infernal Good War.

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By gerard, June 25, 2010 at 10:23 am Link to this comment

Ed Hargas:  As you have probably noticed, I’m an anti-warite.  Rabid, radical, unreconstructed to the end.  I may not succeed, but I plan to die trying.
It’s time.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 25, 2010 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Gerard: in the US, any condemnation of war per se,
such as the one you eloquently offer here,
will immediately be met with “so you think we shouldn’t
ever fight wars, so you would even have been against
our entering World War II, which everyone knows was
the Good War ™, so you think we shouldn’t have Saved the Jews ™,
and so you’re an anti-Semite ™ ? ”

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By felicity, June 25, 2010 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Eloquent, Gerard.  I’ll add that ‘conditioning’ men and women to function effectively in combat requires that they develop personality disorders, which may lead to the possible conclusion that humankind is not predisposed to kill each other but must be trained and conditioned to do so?


Alive during WWII, I recall that there was much talk then about the inability of American, and perhaps other, soldiers to fire their guns even when being directly attacked by the ‘enemy.’ They literally froze, so the story went.  (Of course now that America has become a rogue military state we may assume that that affliction has been trained out of our young military men and women?)

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, June 25, 2010 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

When Americans STOP VOLUNTEERING for active duty in nations where we simply are unable to “win” something of value, then I’ll feel more compassion and concern for our military. If the “call to arms” is that powerful given all the evidence to the contrary, then it’s extremely hard for me to believe men and women serve because “it’s the right thing to do.”

I know it sounds “unpatriotic” to say it, but the U.S. hasn’t won a war (really) in over 100 years. We can argue the little details, but WWII was an Allied Victory and that’s about the best we’ve done. So when the military (and civilians) say soldiers are “fighting for our freedom” I can’t really agree. Essentially, our ill-conceived and incredibly expensive forays into other lands do nothing but line the pockets of the profiteers, fill our hospitals with frustrated and broken x-soldiers and ultimately divide us rather than galvanize us.

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By Lalameda, June 25, 2010 at 6:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I haven’t seen the film, just clips and interview on Maddow and one other program. I also got the idea that it is about young men bonding more than about the war. From teams to gangs or fraternities or platoons, there seems to be a grouping phase young men go through. And they will do things in groups, good or bad, that they would never do as individuals. This is something usually observed about our enemies, but I wonder, is war tied to this anthropological phase?

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By DarthMiffy, June 25, 2010 at 2:58 am Link to this comment

Nice one Gerard. Well done.

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By Bisbonian, June 24, 2010 at 9:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dang, gerard…that’s one of the most insightful, reasoned, well organized comments I’ve seen posted on a news site.

Mine’s simpler:

“I think we now fully understand that soldiers in the field fight only for their buddies”

Yup.  There’s not much time or energy for anything else.

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By gerard, June 24, 2010 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment

Key sentence:  “Limiting our emotional response to the travails fighting men endure is a little bit like limiting war aims; it distances us from the conflict, prevents us from engaging fully, dramatically, suspensefully, in it.”

This deliberate “limiting” is a primary necessity for instigating, organizing, and getting support for any and all wars. Conversely, what ends wars is when this artificial impression of distance and its accompanying sense of carelessness breaks down, and a majority of fighters/organizers/supporters see the truth.

Therefore it is a primary objective of all anti-war people to constantly renew and keep in people’s minds the natural, inborn human reaction to the observed sufferings of sll victims.  Once that sense of shared suffereing, common human pain, universal similarity is restored and maintained, wars can and will be stopped and prevented.

To “sell” a war is to block this awareness of common humanity by any and every means from name-calling to denigration to baldfaced lying.  This is the job of the media in wartime and they are paid to do it.  It is the job of boot camp and military discipline.  It is the mind-set of officers, technicians, supporters of war at every level.  They dare not be free to feel.  They must close themselves off.  Eventually it often leads to psychological damages that is now called PTSD, and sometimes is incurable.

Learnng about others whose cultures are different, whose beliefs are contradictory helps to prevent or limit the damage of military brainwashing.  A strong internalized moral/ethical belief also helps.  But nothing is absolute guarantee of immunity to the blandishments of submission to hysteria and chaos, and the hopes of reward either in status or in money.
The military offers both, though it seldom fulfills its promises without exacting a horrible price in return.

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By sophrosyne, June 24, 2010 at 4:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Few filmmakers wouldd aree xpose the imperial nature of the war, the dark forces behind it, and the desperate class differences that lead the cannon fodder this movie portrays to have to sign up for oblivion.

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