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Young Men At Work: Restrepo

Private First Class Juan S. Restrepo, from Pembroke Pines, Florida, was a 20-year-old single father of one child when his army unit was sent to Afghanistan from its Italian home base. In a mobile-phone video shot during a train trip with army buddies, Restrepo is ebulliently and ingratiatingly vocal as he and his friends goof and joke.

Restrepo, his company’s medic, was so genuinely liked among his mates that after his death while on patrol in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains, the company’s 15-man Second Platoon named the operating post they found themselves in after him. It’s an odd but heartfelt tribute, one of the very few the men could bestow in their circumstances.

Soon after arriving in the valley in the summer of 2007, the platoon was sent out from the comparative security of the forward operating base to build and man the outpost on an exposed rocky premonitory, Outpost Restrepo. Not long after that, journalists Tim Hethrington and Sebastian Junger began a year-long project of intermittently embedding themselves with Battle Company and the Second Platoon and recording their members’ experiences, at work, at rest, on patrol and under fire. This latter situation occurred all too often. Sometimes the platoon’s men were too much like sitting ducks.

Junger is probably still best known as the author of the nonfiction bestseller of over a decade ago, The Perfect Storm, but he could become identified with this movie (and his accompanying book, War), if, that is, people are attracted to it. Recent history does argue well for that development. Hethrington is a veteran of documentary filmmaking and music videos. Over the course of 12 or so months, the two men experienced much of the hardship and extreme hazards of the platoon. Some of what they shot was done under very difficult, and sometimes deadly conditions. The Korengal Valley is a craggy depression amid a mountain range whose eastern end overlooks Pakistan. By the time Battle Company arrived there, it was a Taliban stronghold, and, as writer Sue Halpern noted in a recent New York Review of Books article, “one of the most disputed and dangerous spots on the planet.” Shortly before Juan Restrepo’s death, the platoon’s senior non-com was killed. By the time the base and outpost were abandoned several months ago, forty Americans had died there.

The filmmakers didn’t undertake to make Restrepo to illuminate American war aims or policies. They wanted to show the experiences of men at war at extremely close quarters, and they succeeded brilliantly, sometimes with frightening and dismaying results.

The men of the Second Platoon, including their company leader, 28-year-old captain Dan Kearney, were essentially ignorant of the war setting into which they were headed. Flying over the valley on their way in, Sgt. Aron Hijar later recounted that he said to himself, “Holy shit, we’re not ready for this!”

But neither the soldiers’ nor the movie’s directors address the political rationale for or the ramifications of the war. They’re fighting. Their motivational thrust is much more personal and crucially contingent. It’s become an almost banal phrase, but the words “band of brothers” really does seem to apply to these mostly young men (some of whom seem improbably boyish despite their battle-hardened skills and histories). Their concern is to protect themselves and each other. They’re far from unintelligent, but they’re professional warriors, with jobs to perform. This is one of the movie’s “points.” The closest we come to a recognition of “larger issues” is when a baby-faced soldier struggling with repositioning an automatic gun on its base says with mordant irony, “Hearts and minds!”

These are the young men we’ve hired to fight our wars for us, even if many of us are having second and third thoughts about the protracted, costly struggle in Afghanistan. Americans haven’t shown much interest in or stomach for movies about the war in Iraq—last year’s Oscar-winning feature The Hurt Locker grossed a paltry $16 million. Now we’ve got another war and a film about it we can try to ignore.

Watch the trailer for Restrepo

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