Restrepo Awakens Old Emotions

I’m somber today. Actually it’s a blend of introspection, feelings of compassion, andkorengal valley gratitude, with a little confusion mixed in. I watched the movie, Restrepo last night.  It did little to guide me through the complexity and purpose of Afghanistan but it opened up memories of the isolation, solitude, and drudgery that befalls anyone who has served the country in a foreign place, thousands of miles from home where the locals don’t much care for you.

For those not familiar, Restrepo is the title of an award winning Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) documentary movie chronicling the year long deployment of a US Army platoon into one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous outposts, the Korengal Valley. There are no actors, no sound stages, no scripts. It’s raw, it’s real and numbing. Junger and videographer Tim Hetherington tweak a different sensibility about war than Hollywood offerings such as The Hurt Locker and Full Metal Jacket. No matter where your political leanings rest or your views of the military and our actions in Afghanistan, Restrepo provides a look into the lives of those that volunteer to do the dirty work of the military on our behalf.   

“Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.” (Junger)

I’m not accustomed to doing movie reviews but in this case the experience has compelled me to write from a place that I thought I had put to bed long ago. Well before I ever thought about being a BasicMan and writing smack about politics, culture and business I was a Navy pilot being catapulted off aircraft carriers with 30 caliber machine guns and 1000 lbs. bombs to ply my trade. I got to experience first hand the tensions surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran in the early 80’s complete with American hostages, as well as a bombed out and burning Beirut and Moammar Gadhaffi’s imaginary Line of Death. But these were the high points, the exciting pieces of my past. Restrepo bought back the low points of being an Army soldier, a Marine or Navy man far from home, out of communication, away from loved ones and in a position where thoughts of mortality are never far away. We knew we were there to do a job and we were willing to do it. 

The film impacted me differently however. When you drop bombs and strafe at 600 mph you don’t see faces or bodies, or even hear an explosion. You just see a flash and for whatever reason the human result doesn’t seem to really register. The film made very clear how our front line ground troops are up close and personal to death on a daily basis. They are all very young and sadly, forced to consider their own mortality on a daily basis. A few of them have actually seen death but upon arrival, none have deliberately caused it. The contrast of civilized and uncivilized is at its most extreme. The reality of the job erases any sense of youthfulness and naiveté forever.

What bothers me today is that as I sit here writing there are some awesome young adults hunkered down behind sand bags in some filthy God forsaken valley in Afghanistan fighting a war that from all indications our comfortable society seems to have forgotten. They will be there tonight when I go to bed and tomorrow morning when I have my coffee, and the next day and the next. And how many times will I think about their plight? How many times have you given it a second thought as you are seated at the kitchen table with your kids before they go to school or are yucking it up at a Saturday night neighborhood party? Those Army, Navy, and Marine Corps guys are still out there neck deep in our mess.

It’s all about perspective, remembering, and being grateful. It has nothing to do with what you think is right, your socio-political beliefs, or who sits in the White House. The freedom to express differences of opinion in our society all too often stifles our sense of gratitude and compassion for those in the military. Maybe its because we think such an emotion might run counter to the passion we hold for an opposing view. It shouldn’t, especially when one considers that a bad day for most of us is highlighted when an ATM rejects our cash card whereas a bad day for someone on a forward line is when a friend is killed.

Pfc. Juan Restrepo was one such soldier killed in action during the early days of the deployment on which the film is based. He was so beloved by his comrades that they named a strategic outpost after him with the idea that by doing so he would be remembered. Subsequent to the making of the film, American forces made the strategic decision to abandon the Korengal Valley and Outpost Restrepo. Junger and Hetherington’s filmmaking have taken on the mantle of remembering Restrepo. They have also made me reexamine my connection to the difficult and worthy lives of our forward line military personnel.

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