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‘Restrepo’ Has Always Been the Best Movie About the War in Afghanistan

The grippingly intimate 2010 documentary focuses on U.S. soldiers fighting in one of the country’s deadliest regions. What the film shows us — and what it chooses not to show us — says everything about the futility of our 20-year occupation.

When the U.S. began its bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001, it was already apparent what our next target would be: Iraq, where (we were told) Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Initially, the invasion of Afghanistan made a certain amount of sense — that’s where Osama bin Laden was, right? — but even back then, that war just seemed like the opening act. Iraq would be the main event — we were finally gonna get Saddam. The Bush administration spent months drumming up support for the Iraq War — it was everywhere on the news. Iraq, Iraq, Iraq: That’s how we were going to beat the terrorists. How, exactly? Don’t worry, we just will. When we invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was a television event. There was endless buzz about just how quickly we would capture Saddam. We’d be greeted as liberators, we were assured — it was all very exciting. The fact that we still had troops in Afghanistan no longer mattered — that war was passé. That was so 2001.

Twenty years later, we’re finally pulling out of Afghanistan, which was probably news to lots of Americans. Wait, we were still there? Wasn’t the War on Terror over? A cultural fog had fallen over the country — we’d been so emotionally invested in Iraq for so long that we’d completely forgotten about the first country we’d invaded after 9/11.

That amnesia wasn’t just in the news media. In Hollywood movies, the Iraq War captured the public imagination — and sometimes won Oscars in the case of The Hurt Locker. As for Afghanistan, well, that just seemed too far from the “real” action to be considered as dramatically compelling. (Even though Kathryn Bigelow’s superb follow-up film, Zero Dark Thirty, was partly set in Afghanistan — and ended with bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan — it felt more like a movie about 9/11 than Afghanistan.) There’s no shortage of documentaries about the War in Afghanistan, but few of them caught on with audiences. One of the exceptions was Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Best Documentary Oscar, telling the story of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who was detained by the U.S. military and died under mysterious circumstances. It’s a terrific film, but I’d like to recommend another because of what it shows — and doesn’t show — about our time in Afghanistan. It’s called Restrepo

The documentary, which came out in the summer of 2010 and won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, focuses on a group of soldiers stationed between 2007 and 2008 in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, dubbed the “most dangerous place on Earth.” It was made by two photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, who were embedded with the troops, observing them during their downtime and also in the midst of intense firefights. Like so much U.S. foreign policy, our troops’ mission was ostensibly noble — build trust with the locals, wipe out the Taliban from the area — but Restrepo has no illusions about how successful either mission will end up being. (Spoiler Alert: The U.S. military pulled out of the “valley of death” in 2010.)

The failure of that mission is, understandably, not laid at the foot of the soldiers. As we see them go about their work, they come across as supremely competent and honorable. But the Afghans whose trust they’re supposed to earn seem suspicious of them — and why shouldn’t they be? After all, before the U.S. came knocking on their door, the Afghans had engaged in a 10-year war with the Soviet Union and then a decade of civil war, which led to the rise of the Taliban. As Junger put it in 2011, “[T]hrough no fault of their own … the Afghans … were propelled into what is 30 years of conflict.” It’s now 40.

Restrepo doesn’t analyze the big picture or interview American generals — this isn’t a documentary with a lot of talking-head experts offering context and perspective — because it really just wants us to understand what the soldiers go through. It’s a movie about their bond, which is hammered home by the fact that their base is named in honor of Juan Restrepo, a cocky, well-loved private who died there during combat. The filmmakers stressed that their film was meant to be apolitical — it was supposed to be an honest look at what soldiers go through, and how they don’t spend a lot of time debating the rationale of why they’re in Afghanistan. They’ve just got a job to do.

There’s an inherent flaw in Restrepo in that, because Hetherington and Junger keep their cameras trained on the troops, we don’t see much of the Afghan communities the troops are supposedly trying to help. That lack of balance might seem to be part of the overarching problem with America’s mindset — we’re so concerned about our boys that we don’t take the time to ponder the lives we’re impacting by invading their homeland — which is worth considering as you watch the film, currently available for rental on iTunes. The soldiers we see will have a difficult time transitioning back to civilian life because of the trauma they’ve endured, but the relative absence of Afghan men and women in Restrepo tells us something about how we meddle in other countries’ affairs. We want to “help” them, but we’re really doing it for our own selfish interests. Unwittingly, the documentary reflects that philosophy.

Not that you’ll walk away from the film with anything other than sympathy and respect for these soldiers, who have been thrust into an impossible situation and still try to make the best of it. (In 2014, Junger made a follow-up documentary, Korengal, that focused even more on the individual lives of soldiers and how they’d been affected by what they’d witnessed.) Restrepo, which was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, is haunted by Restrepo’s death, but a year after the film came out, Hetherington died at the age of 40 while covering the Libyan civil war, killed during the middle of battle. He’d often gone to war zones and had actually broken his leg while making Restrepo. Like Junger, his goal with the film was to humanize the troops we weren’t thinking about. “In some ways, you can’t intellectualize war,” Hetherington once said, “so we try to bring you emotionally close to it. And I think that experience makes you wake up and see these guys as individuals, not as ciphers or symbols as they’re often represented in the press.”

There’s not much in the way of a happy ending in Restrepo, just as there wasn’t for the U.S. in Afghanistan. (Ironically, the film hit theaters almost exactly at the same time as General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of multinational forces in Afghanistan, was stepping down from his post after making derogatory comments about the Obama administration, describing the president’s slowness at bringing more troops to the region as “painful.”) Ten years ago, Junger was asked about whether it was time then for American forces to pull out of the country. He thought it was a bad idea:

“[I]t’s very, very important when you evaluate the war on humanitarian terms that you understand that this is Afghans’ best chance of development and progress and is the lowest number of casualties they’ve seen in more than a generation. That sometimes comes as a surprise to people.

“According to Afghan human rights groups, 85 percent of those civilian casualties are caused by Taliban attacks. There’s no love lost, and it gives an idea of what would happen if NATO pulled out just in terms of the human suffering in Afghanistan. I completely understand Americans saying, ‘I’m tired of our kids coming home in boxes. Bring the troops home.’ I get it. But I do sort of recoil a little bit when someone says, ‘We need to leave Afghanistan for the sake of Afghans.’ NATO pulls out and that country goes back to the bloodbath that it was in the 1990s. That’s the only reason we’re tolerated there, much like the cops in a high-crime neighborhood.”

You can disagree with Junger’s argument and still see his overall point. We couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever, but whenever we did leave, it was going to bring profound misery, as we’ve seen over the last several days. Watching Restrepo now, you’ll feel for the waves of soldiers who risked their lives for decades far away from home. And you’ll be hit even more by how tragically futile that mission always was. But also spare a thought for the Afghans that the documentary doesn’t show, who are now left to pick up the pieces from the mess we left them with.