Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
You have never seen a documentary like “Restrepo” and perhaps you never will again. “Restrepo” is the story of a platoon of American soldiers in eastern Afghanistan who are sent (by unknown superior officers) to hold a small outpost in a section of the country now dominated by the Taliban. There are many things wrong with the outpost: It is in the bottom of a river valley, overlooked by mountains on both sides, where the Taliban forces can pick them off, or at least keep them from ever doing their job, which is to assist the local populations in building a road. “Restrepo,” which is the name the men give their outpost in honor of their fellow soldier ‘Doc’ Restrepo, who was killed early in their deployment, becomes their home and, for a few, their gravesite, before their fifteen month deployment is over.
The two directors of the film, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, lived with the platoon in Restrepo for the fifteen months, recording daily life, fire fights, death, and the interactions between the soldiers and the civilian population. There is no narration to the film, no direction by the filmmakers as to where we should look or what we should think about. What the men see is what you and I see, what we hear is what they hear, no more and no less.
If this sounds familiar to you, the New York Times also did a series of stories about the futility of establishing a base there. But in the film, you are there day and night; you go on nighttime patrols, you are in a firefight, you dig protective bunkers, and you get to know a bit about the men stationed there. One point, important to the men of Restrepo, is to establish a forward base on one of the hills nearby, to gain a bit of high ground against the enemy. Everything we see and hear is concerned with the moment; what is happening today, what will happen tomorrow. There is no talk of whether their assignment is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ no debates about the Taliban and the culture of Afghanistan, nothing about colonialism or American policy.
And then, in the way of war or bad decisions, when their fifteen months are up, they are airlifted out of Restrepo and the United States simply abandons the outpost. Why were they there? Who made the decision, first to establish it and then to abandon it? No one knows. Interviews with most of the men show, sadly, that many have PTSD and know it. What will happen, to them and others like them, is not for us to know.