Director: Sebastian Junger
Cinematographer: Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Producer: Nick Quested
by Jon Cvack
Restrepo was an intense and intimate portrait of a Marine Platoon stationed on the front lines of the War in Afghanistan, offering a terrifying glimpse into their quotidian lives, only mixed up by the occasional firefight. It’s been over five years since I’ve seen the first film, but the images still burn into my head, as I discovered that combat is far from what we see in movies, with combat often involving long bouts of taking cover behind the trees and rocks as they attempt to neutralize the enemy, whose position is unknown, with bullets coming from random directions, until - at times - finally hitting and killing one of the Platoon’s own. I recalled thinking about how - counter to most war films, specifically the acting - the soldiers are near calm and collected, with insipid emotion, before few finally break down, excusing themselves to go cry privately. In this case one of their brothers in arms was hit by a sporadic bullet - alive one minute and gone the next. The most terrifying element being the muted reaction of the soldiers, to the point where if these were actors in a film, you’d consider the performance detached and unrealistic.
Korengal picks up where things left off, at another base neighboring Restrepo, still positioned within the highly lethal Korengal Valley. It includes one of the soldiers from Restrepo (I can’t find his name, but he wears a beanie in every interview for both films), as they navigate the fifteen month stay at the fort which is built from nothing but plywood and sandbags, with no running water, little electricity, and nothing to do between patrols and combat but read, play guitar, and debate who would win in a fight between George Clooney and Fabio for six hours.
Like Restrepo, the documentary does a fantastic job of showing the mundanity of life, in which there’s so little to do that the soldiers crave the combat, as it fills them with a burst of adrenaline, allowing them to feel - well - anything. Thus when the combat ends, the boredom from before the battle is now worse, as they’re left with their blood pumping and nothing to do except pick up another book, start the next discussion, or wrestle one of the soldiers down to the ground.
The film is full of heart breaking and brilliant insights that I would imagine could shut up the most irrationally harsh critics of the military. All of these men volunteered, with many questioning why they did. One of the black soldiers explains what it’s like to be one of the few African Americans in the Platoon and the sense of alienation it provides. In the movie’s best interview portion, another soldier talks about being judged by God, never considering himself a religious man, angry when people tell him he killed because “he had to do what he had to do”, knowing he doesn’t necessarily have to kill anybody, and now, though not religious, fears that there could be a God he has to face and that the excuse of only doing “what he had to do” will fail to cut it, and therein is the curse he's forced to now live with forever. Another soldier despises people who wonder how he could kill, in that when someone wants to kill him, it's a matter of self defense to take their lives. In one scene, when one of the enemies is killed and the soldiers celebrate, the documentarians ask how they could express such joy. The soldier responds that it’s because it’s one less person to worry about, or maybe it was even one of the soldiers that killed one of his brothers a week, month, or year before, providing vindication. The logic is near air tight when taking all of these opinions in - just because they volunteered doesn’t mean they enjoy taking life, but when people are trying to kill them and one dies, they no longer care as much in takin the enemy's life, because the enemy never cared for them.
It’s a film like this which provides a splash of cold water to those gun nuts who fantasize about a Red Dawn style attack - living deep in the wilderness, fighting against whatever enemy attacked us. Sure, the Platoon has a fort and big guns and they're all by themselves, always on edge about when the next attack will come. We hear about their inability to sleep, especially when long bouts of enemy inactivity extend for weeks, knowing they’re probably queuing up for a larger attack, messing with all of their minds day in and day out. When they go on patrols into the village, simply trying to help, they see the complete unwillingness of some of the tribesmen who don’t trust the Americans any more than the Terrorists. The Afghan citizens men are exploited by both sides, and on account of that, there’s a complete lack of trust toward both sides, making the Natives caught in the actual and figurative middle of the conflict. I can’t imagine living in a place like that for fifteen months and retaining my sanity; avoiding complete madness as I never know when an attack will come, or when the random bullet will strike. To think of what these men go through is awe-inspiring. Near everything by comparison seems trite and insignificant. To volunteer is all the more impressive, especially with the beanie soldier knowing what the experience entails.
It's the bonds the soldiers form with each other that keeps them coming back. I often read about the inability to relate to anyone else. I have close friendships, a few friends that I’d be willing to die for. But a whole platoon, based on relationships per necessity rather than common interest - that’s another type of bond that I don’t think anyone could understand. They deserve our praise. They’re willing to go wherever, right or wrong, and be willing to die, not just for us, but for each other.
BELOW: What an actual smalls arms battle looks like and how unglamorous and confusing it actually is
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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