Restrepo – A Year in Afghanistan

Security Patrol Outside Korengal Outpost
Image by DVIDSHUB via Flickr

I first heard about Restrepo through an interview on NPR‘s All Things Considered. I knew immediately that it was a film that I wanted to see.  The directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, wanted to make a movie from the viewpoint of a solider in Afghanistan. Not trying to answer political questions – what will happen next – nor evaluate whether the tactics of one or another administration was correct, they simply wanted people to share the soldiers’ perspective on the war.

“What I hope the film does is show us what the soldiers go through and how they form their motivations,” said Hetherington, “so we can figure out if what we ask of them is fair.”

I was not disappointed.  While the platoon did sustain a number of casualties, the film showed them in the midst of the tasks of carrying out the war – hard physical labor to build an outpost, constant vigilance and anxiety over sudden attack from all sides, loneliness and uncertainty in cross-cultural dealings. Heatherington and Junger also captured the playfulness and camaraderie of the soldiers, and their deep longing for home.

The scenes with the villagers conveyed the complexity of the US role in Afghanistan. While this platoon hoped to bring economic prosperity to the region by completing a road that would enhance trade – and thereby push the Taliban further away – this was not a goal that the Afghanis shared.  When they raised the issue of previous civilian deaths, the current captain tried to start with a “clean slate” – even though, to the locals, the Americans probably looked and acted alike. The complexities of the situation meant that, eventually, civilians would also be killed under this new captain’s command.  The distance between politics in Kabul – or in Washington – and the Korengal Valley was immense.

Juan Restrepo’s mother went to see this film.  Afterwards – with much pain – this mother of a slain soldier could only say, “There needs to be more forgiveness in the world.”

I had a second reason for wanting to see this movie.  Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are showing up in my college classroom with increasing frequency.  Some have told me how hard it is to relate to the concerns of students who might be similar in age but vastly different in experience.  A few struggle – as do some of the soldiers in Restrepo – with nightmares, memories, and PTSD.  For some, even their most important personal dreams – to pursue a career, to begin a family – can suddenly seem meaningless in the face of the tragedies they remember.  This film helps me, at least a little, to have a better understanding of their world.

These veterans are living in our neighborhood, working and shopping alongside of us. Their service to the nation was unselfish – and had much greater impact on them than they could have expected.  Giving a little time, and experiencing some of the fear and heartache, is one way we can honor their service and sacrifice – and perhaps be better teachers, neighbors, and co-workers when we meet them.

If Restrepo comes to your town, I urge you to see it.

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