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Sounds Simple, Nearly Impossible

By (August 1, 2010) One Comment


Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, directors
Outpost Films, 2009

As the theater lights came on and “Barroom Hero’ by the Dropkick Murphy’s finished over fading credits, the nine of us sat still. No one made a move for their bags. No one donned a hat and gathered their garbage. The somber, snack-free mood that had been a constant through the movie continued. Only when the screen went black did the spell break, but even then the images stayed with us. I was the last one out of the theater and a nice gentleman held the door open for me. I thanked him and he nodded quietly, avoiding eye contact. Part of me wants to say that this reaction came from living in a city for years, but we both knew it was because of the Korengal. On my way out, I stopped and asked the ticket taker, a small college student, if anyone ever spoke whenever they came out of theater six. “No.”, she said, “People are always quiet, like they just left a wake.”

Restrepo is the companion film to Sebastian Junger’s book War, published earlier this year. Filmed by Tim Hetherington and Junger himself, the movie chronicles a small company of soldiers as they fight their way through life in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Taking five trips over a fifteen month period, Junger and Hetherington spent much of their time at Observation Post Restrepo, with Second Platoon. Named after a fallen medic who was well loved, Restrepo is little more than a patch of earth on a hillside surrounded by HESCO barriers and sandbags – but it’s also strategically vital, the deepest base the United States military had in the Valley

The mission of Battle Company, of the 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne, was to befriend the local population, turn them against the Taliban and assist the United States in the war against the enemy forces. Sounds simple, nearly impossible. The local elders hesitate to help the Company, commanded by Captain Kearney, because of the civilian deaths caused by previous groups of soldiers. To the village elders, all soldiers care about the same thing: themselves. The elders keep up weekly meetings with Capt. Kearney, but little progress is made. Their greatest success in the valley, Capt. Kearney explains, is the building of OP Restrepo. The soldiers who built it erected the base through the middle of the night. When dawn broke, they received fire from the Taliban who constantly patrol the hills. In the course of one day, they got into five separate firefights, more than some soldiers in Afghanistan see in their entire careers. The soldiers of OP Restrepo would use picks and shovels to break up the rock hard clay, fill up HESCO barriers and sandbags, set their tools down and return fire then start right back up as soon as the firefight ended. Simply getting the place built counted as a major achievement.

Kearney calls this success, but, as he points out early in the film, the HESCO barriers at the Korengal Outpost were riddled with bullet holes. So the soldiers of Battle Company were dropped into the middle of the middle of nowhere, easily an hour away from any other American units, to defend a firebase that no one but the enemy knew existed, surrounded by barriers that might or might not stop a bullet, all for the advancement of peace.

Our introduction to the Korengal is Junger’s footage of a patrol he joins late into his tour. Through shaky but effective camera work, we are shown a soldier staring into the valley earnestly searching for the enemy; soldiers taking fire, hiding behind HESCO barriers and returning fire; a tire scraping the edge of oblivion as the Humvee Junger is in rounds a corner, following another vehicle; the sounds of soldiers murmuring to each other and muttering reports into a radio, interrupted by a boom so loud and so powerful it breaks the mic on the camera; sand and smoke engulfing the Humvee, swallowing the vehicle like Jonah’s whale. Confusion is palpable inside the cab, ears muffled, blurred sounds, a barely audible small tinny voice over the radio shouting ‘Get out of there! Get out of there! Move! Move! Move!” One of the soldiers checks the turret gunner, who was fully exposed to the blast, then orders everyone out of the car – Junger’s scrambling footsteps on a broken and cracked patch of ground, shattered by the blast of the improvised explosive device, IED. The miracle isn’t that the Humvee didn’t explode but that the humans inside came out without a scratch.

This is the welcome we get as we make our baby steps into the Valley. Frightening. Disorienting.

The rest of the film is comprised of actual footage from the Valley and interviews with about a dozen the soldiers who were there, sometime shortly after they left. Filmed in Italy, the main withdrawal point for the Army, these soldiers are still fresh from their tour of duty. As one explains, the Army is sending psychologists to study and examine each of the soldiers because no unit has come under as much fighting since World War II.

Restrepo is an important film because it isn’t about politics but about the basic idea behind war: survival. When thirty-odd men are dropped into nowhere, resupplied by air every six weeks and told to bring the fight to the enemy, troop movements, closed door meetings, three button suits and friendly meetings with dignitaries don’t matter one bit. Reloading the 240, cleaning your M-4 daily, working out and staying alive are all that matters. When a firefight does erupt, adrenaline junkies rejoice and return fire. “It’s like crack. There is no greater high,” one soldier explains. When asked how he’s going to fare when he returns to the civilian world, he admits that he doesn’t know. With mouth open and chest heaving, he shakes his head and walks away.

The survival imperative is a constant for these soldiers. Firefights happen daily, a fact that Capt. Kearney and everyone else had trouble understanding before they were deployed. Routine patrols are always gambles as they snake their ways along open hillsides to nearby villages, only to have villagers hate them, sneering as they walk into town. After the soldiers finish searching for weapons and contraband, they are almost always engulfed in enemy fire. Ambushes happen almost hourly. We’re spared none of it, and none of it is dressed up to be anything more than what it is; even in a 90 minute documentary, the effect is soul-searchingly wearying – no wonder all those audiences were leaving in reverential silence.

Even in Hell, some spots are hotter than others. When asked what their worst typical duty was in the Valley, several soldiers explain that Mission Rock Avalanche was the worst. With an objective to visit remote villages, nearly the entire company is flown in (Junger joins them, recording everything). Tension begins to build as soon as they jump off the helicopter, everyone knowing that they are somewhere they shouldn’t be, a place that hates them with special virulence (after all, this is the outer edge of U.S. military presence; there’s never been any possibility of assimilation). The mood is steady and quiet, with everyone anticipating an attack. On the third day, the company fans out over three hills to avoid a complete ambush. Instead, when the trap springs, all three hills are hit at the same time in a fantastically coordinated attack. There’s almost no footage until after the initial firefight; instead, the battle is explained through the words of the soldiers who fought it, leaving the burning tracer movements and the explosions to the imagination. Three soldiers are hit, with one KIA. Sgt. Rougle, a Scout leader, was killed when he broke from his squad to talk with another sergeant. When the attack began, none of his soldiers knew exactly where he went. During a break in the fire fight, his men go looking for him. From War:

Now the Scouts come running forward looking for their commander and all they find is blood and gear all over the hilltop and a body covered by a poncho liner…”Is Rougle and them up?” a Scout named Clinard asks. Hoyt glances at him and looks away.

“What?” Clinard says. No one says anything and Hoyt walks over to him and just cups his hand on the back on Clinard’s neck.

“Who’s over there?” Clinard says, voice is rising in panic.

“It’s Rougle,” Hoyt says quietly.

A strange animal noise rises up out of Clinard and he breaks away from Hoyt and backs up in horror…”Let’s go, brother. Come on.” Hoyt says, beckoning Clinard with one hand. Clinard just sits there shaking his head. “That ain’t Sergeant Rougle-you’re lyin’ right, man?” he says.

“I ain’t lyin’-why would I lie about something like that?”

Reading this in a book is one thing: you remain safely removed despite Junger’s effective prose, but to watch this same scene on a screen, with the ‘strange animal sound’ coming out at you as the man makes it, is a far more wrenching experience. Witnessing a soldier’s pain over the death of his commander is not only crushing but representative of the experience created by the entire documentary. We are ushered through a door most Americans don’t know about or want to know about. The ugly daily realities of war are often politely avoided in a ‘civilized’ culture; that makes documentaries like this one (all descending from Matthew Brady’s unsparing Civil War photographs) all the more wrenching. Von Clausewitz said, “War is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others.” Or, as Capt. Kearney explains during a meeting to discuss the emotional toll of losses taken by their sister outfit Charlie Company, “No one came here not knowing the risks they were going to take. What happened when Vimoto was killed? We got hit the very next day. What about when Restrepo died? What if we threw our guns down and just hid behind our fortifications? Went down into the hooch and felt sorry for ourselves? Exactly what happened to Charlie Company! We have to mourn and move on and take the fight to the motherfuckers who did this!” These men are Clausewitz’s bloodshed, the human price of those great interests getting settled (or coming to nothing).

Confederate dead at Antietam. Matthew Brady, 1862

Restrepo is an incredible documentary that I wish I hadn’t seen. One shot in particular sums up my entire reaction to the movie: a soldier, Jones, holds an M-60 to his shoulder, finger on the trigger guard, searching the hillside. The camera moves from the ground, where the chain of bullets is resting and follows the bullets up, making the brass and steel resemble the belly of some exotic snake. The bullets disappear into the chamber of the gun. Jones is peers through a scope and asks if they have men near a line of pine trees. We can’t hear the response. He clarifies, and we still aren’t sure of what the answer is. While watching this soldier determine if he needs to defend himself, we are right there with him. The silence is painful in the dark and, on the surface, you don’t want him to pull the trigger but, deep down, like a secret from your past no one knows, you really want him to.

I hated to watch it: hated watching the pain, the fear, the thousand-mile stares of the men who are interviewed in Italy, knowing they will be haunted for the rest of their days. One soldier, a still-young man named Cortez, admits that he’s been on five different sleeping pills and none have worked. “I would rather be awake and not have to dream than sleep and suffer those nightmares. I can’t have those images in my head.” Another soldier admits that he’s “not sure how he’s going to deal with this” but he’s never going to forget it. “I never want to forget it,” he says. “Maybe I’ll learn how to process it but I’m never going to forget it.” Then he stares off into nothing, reliving a battle we can’t share with him.

But I also loved watching this. I was able to learn from these men, to try to understand what they saw and went through. I will never have their experiences, nor will I ever fully comprehend the hellfire they walked through but I will understand that they chose to do this, that they’re out there while I’m safe back here watching it all in a movie theater. They chose to walk into the Valley of Death, as Time has called the Korengal, and fight. Junger and Hetherington’s work has shown me what life in the outer marches of the world is like, showing me a small patch of the Earth that I will never visit. This movie has shown me a glimpse of war, just like a View Master shows a small glimpse of an alternate reality.

American forces withdrew from the Korengal entirely in April of 2010, leaving behind four years of work that claimed fifty American lives. The villagers will not miss the American presence (the Taliban sure as hell won’t miss it), but the soldiers will miss the Valley. Not for the fighting or the constant danger, not for the adrenaline high that comes with being shot at or the politics behind the mission, but because of the experiences they shared there.

From War:

Collective defense can be so compelling-so addictive, in fact- that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo secretly hoped he enemy would make a seriously try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men. For sure there were guys who re-upped because something like that hadn’t happened yet. After the men got back to Vincenza {Italy}, I asked Bobby Wilson if he missed Restrepo at all.

“I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow,” he said. Then, leaning in, a little softer: “Most of us would.”

Andrew Warner is a freelance writer and military history buff living in Boston.

One Comment »

  • Lonnie says:

    Thanks Andrew, This is the best review of “Restrepo” and if you (those who have and have not seen it) ever watch it, you will be inclined to research everything you can to learn to know and understand Sgt. Rougle and Doc Restrepo. You see their face alive several times in the film and then they are just gone. You feel their death and their soul through this film and its all about survival with your buddies. Sgt. Rougle is a Scout Leader who really isn’t part of the films main focus of 2nd Platoon of Outpost Restrepo, he just joins them on a mission called “Rock Avalanche”. But you see his face as they are gearing up for the mission.

    When you research about Sgt. Rougle, its then that you connect with him and his family. He knew he wasn’t going to survive another tour in Afghanistan. That’s what’s so sad about it all. Also the fact that Doc Restrepo is such a happy face in the beginning of the film on the train. I got real involved in this emotionally and spiritually. Lonnie

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