With the wife and kids out of town, and no mistress around, last night I found myself wanting to kick back and watch something relaxing. I opted for Restrepo, the Afghan war documentary by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that came out last year. It might be one of the least relaxing films I've ever watched. I felt like I'd lived through a 90 minute firefight.
The film follows a platoon manning a remote outpost in Afghanistan's Korengal valley. The outpost, considered one of the most dangerous postings in the Afghan theater of war, is named after platoon medic Juan Restrepo who was killed shortly after his deployment. The film opens and closes with personal video of Restrepo and his comrades joking on a train as they're being deployed. It breaks your heart.
The soldiers are nearly a kilometer from help and come under fire every day. Sometimes several times a day. On the rare occasion when they're not being fired at, they worry about what the lulls in fighting might mean. On occasion they meet with Afghan elders in the battle to win their hearts and minds and you quickly realize what a Herculean task that is: The villagers are unsure of American intentions, concerned about loss of civilian lives and livestock, not to mention fear of Taliban reprisals for cooperating. The Americans offer potentially empty promises of building infrastructure in the future - in return for cooperation today. They try their hardest to be diplomatic while at the same time never knowing who they can actually trust.
Throughout the film are several post-deployment interviews of several of the platoon's soldiers reflecting on their fallen colleagues and the hell they'd been through. You realize that while they're "safe" now they're still face a long road ahead. It makes you appreciate what these guys (kids, really) do even more. It also made me wish I could just pick up a phone and tell someone important to bring every single one of them back.
Like the soldiers, filmmakers Junger and Hetherington were in harm's way every moment - capturing firefights, bullets kicking up dirt nearby and in one terrible clash, the heartrending reaction of platoon members to the death of one of their own. It's pretty much as close as you're going to get to the reality of war without being in one. Tragically, Tim Hetherington again put himself in harm's way and was killed while covering the uprising in Libya earlier this year. All the more reason to see this film.
And when you're done watching, haul off to anysoldier.com and send our boys abroad some stuff. I've done it a few times and it makes you feel like you've done something noble, especially when the closest you get to hostile fire is sitting on your sofa.