Valley of Death: One Platoon’s Tour of Duty
Tim Hetherington/Outpost Films
By DAVID CARR
Published: June 16, 2010
ASK almost any American, even those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will state that they “support our troops.”
It’s a lovely thought, that we care for the soldiers who do the fighting regardless of politics at hand. But for the most part public interest and understanding of what American soldiers do on our behalf remains remarkably limited in wars that go mostly untelevised and undernoticed. American men and women fight, die and kill a long ways from home, and many want it to stay that way. “Restrepo,” a documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, which will open on June 25 in Los Angeles and New York, is a 94-minute tutorial on life at the tip of that very sharp spear. Specifically, Mr. Junger, a veteran war correspondent and author of several books, including “The Perfect Storm,” and Mr. Hetherington, a longtime war photographer, spent 14 months, beginning in May 2007, with a platoon of United States soldiers in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan.
“Restrepo” avoids the conventions of documentary film: there is no back story, no drive-bys with experts for context, no underlying ideology or obvious message. The viewer is dropped into war, with a hard jolt, and resides, along with 15 soldiers from Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in a remote and raw outpost called Restrepo, so named after one member of the platoon who is killed early in their rotation. In practical terms the soldiers of Second Platoon hump up a mountain with lots of bullets and some shovels and dig in. During the day they make efforts at outreach, handing over food and sometimes cash to local people, many of whom return at night to shoot at them. “It is a weird sort of anti-paradise,” Mr. Junger said in a phone call from Houston, where he was on a book tour for “War,” his best seller based on the same reporting. “They were in the most extreme place in the valley, which was the most extreme place in Afghanistan. By 2007 a fifth of the fighting in Afghanistan took place there.”
The Korangal Valley, full of giant peaks and hidden enemies, has a bit of reputation inside the military.
“Everybody is like, ‘Oh, you’re going to the Korangal?,’ and they feel sad for you,” Capt. Dan Kearney says in the film. “The deadliest place on earth. The Korangal Valley.”
The battle-hardened approach to depicting the current conflicts has shown up in features, on television and in other documentaries: “The Hurt Locker,” a feature film about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq that won the best picture Oscar this year; “Generation Kill,” a 2008 HBO mini-series by David Simon and Ed Burns; and “Gunner Palace,” a 2005 documentary about an artillery unit in Iraq.
But “Restrepo” (pronounced res-TREP-o) may be the most frightening among them because the soldiers are so clearly on their own, isolated and often beyond the reach of the technological might of the United States military. Once viewers adjust to seeing life from inside a helmet, they could not be blamed for wondering how Mr. Hetherington and Mr. Junger survived. Suffice to say that both men, who each did assignments for Vanity Fair magazine while working on the film, still bear marks from their time alongside the soldiers in the Second Platoon.
Sitting in Central Park two weeks ago in shorts, Mr. Hetherington had a deep, angry series of hash marks on his ankle where he broke his fibula. After Mr. Hetherington fell down a mountain, the medic who examined him told him it wasn’t broken; that was a lie because they were four hours away from base, and there was no way to get there except to walk on his mess of a leg.
“That was not a very good evening,” he said, smiling as he looked down at the scar. “There was very little choice at the time, because you don’t want to be the person that is slowing down the platoon and putting others at risk.”
Mr. Junger learned quickly that war makes no distinction between warriors and those who are there to observe them. In one scene captured in the film, a Humvee in which he is riding drives over an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., which blows up under the engine block rather than the cab, sparing the lives of the men on board, but rocking their worlds. Later in the tour Mr. Junger jumped off a rise to avoid incoming fire and tore his Achilles tendon.
“I tore my Achilles and Tim went back, and then he broke his leg and I went back,” Mr. Junger said. “The fact that we kept coming back gave us a lot of credibility with the soldiers.”
In choosing the members of the platoon, Uncle Sam proved to be an effective casting agent. There’s Captain Kearney, a ramrod who figures that the only reasonable tactic is aggression, projecting power down the valley to keep the enemy on its heels. Specialist Misha C. Pemble-Belkin is a baby-faced dreamer whose hippie parents would not allow him to play with guns, but he seems to know his way around a machine gun pretty well. Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo is a medic and a toothy, grinning instigator who keeps his nails long to serenade his squad on guitar. And Sgt. Brendan C. O’Byrne is a soldier’s soldier who is alert to all incoming signals.
Sergeant O’Byrne, who completed his tour, has read Mr. Junger’s book and seen the film, said the movie has a practical value.
“I’ve received all sorts of e-mails from families and wives of soldiers who say the book and the movie helps them understand why their fathers or their brothers or husbands don’t like to talk about what happened over there,” he said. “There are certain parts in the middle of the movie that I can’t watch, they are so real and powerful.”
Not everyone is a fan of Mr. Junger’s approach to storytelling. Lewis Manalo, who served combat tours in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, wrote a withering critique of Mr. Junger’s “War“ on the Publishing Perspectives Web site, calling his depiction of soldiers “superficial and unsophisticated.”
In a phone call Mr. Manalo, now a book buyer at Idlewild Books in Manhattan, said that he had not seen “Restrepo,” but that Mr. Junger’s suggestion that the soldiers in Afghanistan did not have opinions about the war they were fighting was that of a “condescending fan.” He added, “People enlist as a political choice, and he takes that way from them, and I think that is doing a great disservice to the people who served there.”
Mr. Junger said that the movie reflected what he saw and heard, which was not a lot of talk about politics.
It’s clear watching the film that Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington achieved extraordinary intimacy with their subjects over time. There are noncombat moments in the film that are very much part of the military life: the men wrestle one another and in one particularly vivid scene they crank the song “Touch Me” and gang pile on one another as the lyrics “I want to feel your body” pour out of the speakers.
It’s less homoerotic than a clear antidote to the physical isolation of their posting, according to the filmmakers.
“One of the things that is missing out there is affection,” Mr. Hetherington said. “You can’t hug yourself, and the wrestling and dancing is a way to have physical contact with someone.”
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Mr. O’Byrne said that his platoon didn’t have a lot of time to pay attention to the cameras. “The truth of the matter was that in the beginning we were too busy getting shot at to worry about what kind of movie they were making,” he said, recalling that when he first arrived in the valley, he heard the monkeys howling and thought they were approaching Taliban. “After we were there, Sebastian and Tim’s first story came out in Vanity Fair, and we all read it and realized that they were good dudes, that they didn’t make us look like idiots and they told the truth, which is all any of us cared about.”
Daniel Battsek, the former president of Miramax who now runs National Geographic Films, saw “Restrepo” in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for best documentary. Now National Geographic Entertainment is releasing the film. Mr. Battsek was familiar with the film because it was produced by his brother, John Battsek, but said seeing it with an audience convinced him that it could have a theatrical life beyond the typical documentary fans. The film will open on several military bases in July, including Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell and Fort Benning.
“In this country there is a blind devotion to supporting the troops, and that is a very honorable sentiment,” said Daniel Battsek, a native of Britain. “But I don’t think we really know what that means. This movie gives you a window into the journey that these men — our troops — took when we sent them there. It’s the first time I understood what that really means.”
“Restrepo,” however, never delves into the geopolitics that put those soldiers in that deadly valley in the first place.
“We weren’t burdened by the baggage of classic documentary filmmaking,” he said. “And that included letting people draw their own conclusions. There is no room to be apathetic. These are your tax dollars at work, but the soldiers we filmed didn’t spend much time talking about the war and neither did we.”
The only hard and fast conclusion drawn about the war comes in the form of an endnote, which states: “In late 2009, the U.S. military began withdrawing from the Korangal Valley. Nearly 50 American soldiers died fighting there.”
Mr. Junger said it was less an editorial than a cold fact of military life.
“Wars have always been fought over pieces of terrain that become obsolete,” he said. “Hamburger Hill, Dunkirk, Gettysburg — at the end of the day none of that terrain really mattered after it was done. But many men fought and died there just the same. It’s the story of war.”