Restrepo: Sebastian Junger’s War Report From Afghanistan

The worst violence Sebastian Junger reports in his new book War, based on his Vanity Fair dispatches from Afghanistan, can't be captured in this excellent companion film. (He co-directs with photographer Tim Hetherington.) Because, really, who can be expected to stand up with a video camera in the middle of a firefight? There is combat in the documentary, but it's brief and inconclusive. The Taliban are mainly testing the U.S. soldiers at a forward base (named for fallen soldier Juan Restrepo); with their fast, light, and cheap nuisance tactics, they keep our slow, well-funded troops pinned down. And, after untold millions to put them there, with the filmmakers regularly visiting for more than a year, U.S. forces just withdrew from the Korengal Valley. In effect, the Taliban won. But the great virtue to Restrepo (and War) is to strip away the geopolitical context in favor of nose-to-the-dirt particulars. War is scary, but these men are here by choice. "You can't get a better high," says one grunt after a firefight. "It's like crack. You can't top that." It's an intensely male environment, where soldiers wrestle half- naked in their free time, lift weights, or dance together to cheesy pop. Venturing to the valley floor, where they conduct useless shuras with village elders—all the young men are fighters up in the hills—it's a shock to see actual women; you forget they exist in such an environment. Subsequent interviews with the members of Battle Company, safe on leave in Italy, allow them to comment on their deployment. One asks, "What did we achieve?" It's a rhetorical question that he leaves unanswered.

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