How does a soft, liberal-arts civilian like me even approach a document like "Restrepo"? I don't give myself to blind, reflexive worship of the military; before, I have reviewed "Taxi to the Dark Side," an investigation into some chilling crimes committed by individuals in the armed forces, almost surely with the knowledge and approval of their superiors. This, however, is a film, shot by two insane journalists who spent a year with American Army troops in Afghanistan's Korangal valley, and it portrays men who are different from the rest of us in that they have faced and survived the impossible.
Outpost Restrepo was named after a beloved comrade killed in action, and it was dug and fortified under constant enemy gunfire. The Taliban just hated giving up the position, and the men describe how they would dig for several minutes, then be forced to pick up their weapons and return fire, and after the gunfight died down, go right back to digging. The outpost is only several hundred meters from a larger base, but in case of an attack, support might as well be stationed in Germany.
The all-seeing documentarians capture the men's brutal physical labor under a constant state of siege and barely-adequate resupply, until violence and discomfort become life's permanent background. The soldiers are forced to go on regular patrols through the countryside, tracking the progress of development projects and trying to build trust among the locals, whose allegiances are never clear. If they are only listening with one ear, if they're only out to hedge their bets between the fighting sides, who can blame them?
The film culminates in an account of a firefight during an offensive called "Rock Avalanche" – words that the testifying soldiers cannot say without a shudder. The mission consists of the men being loudly airdropped on a hilltop and moving around valleys and mountains until attacked by the Taliban. They push onwards, trying not to think which step will finally trigger the inevitable ambush. The ambush occurs; the live footage cuts out, and for several minutes, we follow the brutal firefight only through the soldiers' testimony. It is gut-wrenching. The pain and terror of the men who return fire without knowing which of their fellows are still alive and if they themselves will live for another minute are suffocating. Then, the footage is back, and we see a private wailing like a child over the dead body of the unit's favorite commander. If this can happen to the best among us, he says, what chance do the rest of us have?
It is an astonishing thing to contemplate, but even at the end of so much hostile fire, the Americans have the better deal. The young men who passed through the trials are scarred and damaged by their experience, but they knew the date when it would end, and the bird was there to take the survivors back to a better life. The local Afghans' pain has no end. Frightened, grimy faces peer out of gashes in dirt walls. Children hide their eyes, dressed in scraps of their grandparents' clothes. The doorways of their mud shacks open into black pits – even in midday, the sun is unable to dispel the darkness. The village elders are a sight from another millennium – gnarly, weather-beaten, half-decayed faces that seem to have been chopped out of rotting tree trunks. You could easily give every one of them a couple of centuries, but who knows? They may still be in their thirties. I've had some rough years as a child of the third world, but I can't imagine even a tenth of what these people go through in their lives.
So many excellent films have come out of our latest painful conflicts – "Restrepo," "Generation Kill," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Gunner Palace"
Almost all of them have been financial failures. Who wants to spend ten dollars to get depressed and emotionally drained? What exactly are we supposed to feel at the end of "Restrepo"? Not hope. Maybe futility, weariness and an incredible desire to think about something else.
I wondered if the place I saw in "Restrepo" really exists on the same planet as the Metropolitan Opera. Will its misery ever end?