A Sit-Down With the Directors of Restrepo

A prizewinning documentary at Sundance, Restrepo reached SIFF at the same time as co-director Sebastian Junger's companion book, War. He made two separate May visits to Seattle, speaking before packed houses at Third Place Books and Town Hall, then again at the SIFF Q&As with his co-director, Tim Hetherington, a noted English photographer. When the two men sat down to discuss the film at the W Hotel, Junger (The Perfect Storm) seemed exhausted by the publicity ordeal. Yet both endured worse during the roughly five months they spent, with breaks, among a forward combat company in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley during 2007-08. Hetherington broke an ankle, and Junger tore a hamstring; both wielded small video cameras during moments of intense boredom and intense combat.Shortly after their doc premiered at Sundance, and before SIFF, U.S. forces withdrew from Korengal Valley, causing the filmmakers—and the men who fought there—to question why troops were deployed there in the first place. If it was so important, Junger asked in an op-ed for The New York Times, why not stay? His movie, and Outpost Restrepo, were named for a Colombian-American immigrant soldier, Juan Restrepo, who was killed in the valley. Was that death, one of several, in vain?That was the context as we sat down to chat."It's not a political film," says Junger of Restrepo. "Soldiers don't think in those terms about he war they're fighting. They may be the only people in the country who aren't filtering their understanding of the war through a political lens. What we wanted to do is capture their reality; and that's not a political reality."Yet those same troops are in a curious position, Hetherington adds: "These 18- to 25-year-olds in Afghanistan are on the sharp end of American foreign policy. This country asks a lot of them, not only in terms of putting their lives on the line. But also navigating very complex cultural skills. It's very difficult for people back home to digest this information, when they haven't really had an understanding of what exactly are we doing there."Both directors return repeatedly to the word "accessible," wanting to distinguish Restrepo from polemical anti-war docs (e.g. No End in Sight) and fictional treatments, like the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. They don't want it to be perceived as anti-military or pro-war, a delicate balance to strike."It's a terribly visceral war film," says Hetherington of Restrepo, though no deaths are shown directly. (Indeed, try to imagine standing up during a firefight to film a movie.) "At Restrepo, they were the tip of the spear in the Korengal."It was important, Junger notes, to gain trust and bond with the soldiers in Battle Company, to neither endorse or oppose the war in Afghanistan. Speaking of the usual divide back home between peaceniks and support-the-troopers, he explains, "I think that he film can bring those two communities together in meaningful way. Rather than journalism being antagonistic with the military. There is a middle ground between propaganda and antagonism."But what motivates these soldiers to risk their lives in nearly decade-long conflict that's so unpopular, and ignored by the media, back home?Junger looks at the demographics this way: "They're all 21, 22… so they all enlisted after 9/11. Some enlisted because of 9/11. Some are patriots. Some were interested in experiencing combat and didn't have a political take on it. Combat is bit of a rite of passage for men, and some of them were drawn to it for that reason. Some had fathers in Vietnam and wanted to carry on that tradition. There was essentially every race in the world. I would say that they were mostly middle-class kid. There was one black guy; there were a lot of Latinos. There were a bunch of kids from suburban white families who I think were out for a little adventure. There was a real cross-section."As he explores in his book War, Junger sees in Restrepo an intense male desire for combat and camaraderie. The reenlistment rate is high. He recalls "only one guy" who served a single tour and went home. "They wanna be back there. They're saying they miss it—the degree of friendship, and the significance that they feel. It gives their lives meaning, as it were, and they miss that."I think one of the things that civilians have a really hard times coming to grips with is the idea that, something happens at war that men feel compelled to return to. And it's confusing to those guys. War is pretty bad. They all lost good friends out there. They all almost died out there. It was physically miserable. It was horrendous. But they all miss it. It's like missing a really, really bad marriage."Hetherington chimes in, "It's the same as with war reporting. There's a misunderstanding that you go back to it for the adrenaline. For the soldiers, it's about other, bigger issues. As it is for the war reporter." (Both contributed reporting and photos to Vanity Fair during their time in the Korengal.)But someday the war will end. How will these soldiers adjust? And will they even remain in the military during peacetime?"It's hard to generalize," says Junger. "Some will. Some guys, when they get out, I think they'll be okay. Some are disasters. You don't know where their lives would've gone without the Army. I think it really does save some of these guys, and it really does destroy some of them. I don't think it's a socioeconomic issue, but there are guys who sign up who are pretty troubled kids. And the Army pretty much straightens them out. Would they have destroyed themselves anyway? Maybe. It's a very hard thing to compare."Do the soldiers debate whether the war will end sooner or later? "No," Junger responds. "They don't think ahead that much."Yet, he cautions, "After the dust has settled in Afghanistan, there's gonna be another ten years of dust over here to settle socially. I've been getting a lot of emails from mothers and wives saying, 'Thank you. Reading the book really helped you understand what my son has being going through, what our marriage has been going through. It's been therapeutic. These are things he couldn't say himself.'"The guys were fighting together in combat, and they had the security of their closeness. But the wives are alone in this. They're in the most terrifying place for a soldier—which is you're by yourself on a battlefield. And the battlefield is their marriage. They're really scared. A lot of these young women are fighting quite heroically to save their marriages. And they're doing it alone. I got so many emails, and I started thinking of this as a hidden war."Back in the field however, back in Afghanistan, the war drags on. Even as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is fired and replaced by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the debate whether to add or reduce troops continues. And Junger's book frankly addresses how a few lightly armed Taliban fighters can pin down our overloaded, well-supported American troops with a few rifle shots, then flee over a ridge top. All our might and money is no guarantee of success; and no one advocates a return to the napalm and carpet bombing of the Vietnam War."That's the strength of insurgency," says Junger. "It doesn't always work. The strength of a modern mechanized army is that it's very powerful, but moves slowly. That's the classic military tactical argument—power versus mobility. I think what brought the Taliban down in 2001 is they fact they were so hated by the Afghans."If the war succeeds in the end, I think it'll be because finally NATO will put enough men in there. I think the number of troops they had after 9/11 was absolutely laughable. If they finally have enough men in there, the Afghans will decide, 'Okay, it's safe to reject the Taliban again.' Right now, the troop level is such that the Afghans cannot tell whether we're serious about the war or not."Ultimately the success or failure of the war is not a tactical issue. It's a social issue."  

 
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