November 12, 2010
Killing and Dying
By BOB HERBERT
In the spring of 2007, American soldiers in the Second Platoon of Battle Company, part of a regiment in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, began a 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. It was one of the most dangerous places in the country.
A feature-length film called “Restrepo” documents the soldiers’ experiences and captures the almost primeval elements — the living, breathing, killing and dying — of a combat tour with a close-up intensity that is, frankly, chilling.
When the guys, many of them unbearably young, show up in the grim, mountainous, sparsely populated landscape, they react with what seems like a combination of awe and dread. One said his mind told him he would die there. Another wondered, “What are we doing here?”
The film, which won the grand jury prize for an American documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was made by Sebastian Junger, an author who wrote the “The Perfect Storm” in the 1990s, and Tim Hetherington, a British photographer. Junger also wrote a book about the Second Platoon’s tour called “War.”
I interviewed Mr. Junger before an audience at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library here on Veterans Day, and he mentioned “how very nonpolitical” the soldiers were about the war. As they saw it, their job was simply to fight it.
What stands out in both the film and the book, besides the mind-boggling dangers of combat, are the horrendous conditions these troops were forced to endure and the maddening ambiguities of their mission. They lived in filth, isolation and constant fear, which they almost always had to mask. And there was no coherent answer for the soldier who asked what they were doing there. He might as well have been asking the wind.
Here, for example, is Capt. Dan Kearney of Battle Company, speaking in the film to a group of bearded elders from a nearby village:
“You know, 5 or 10 years from now, the Korengal Valley will have a road going through it that’s paved and we can make more money, make you guys richer, make you guys more powerful. What I need, though, is I need you to join with the government, you know, provide us with that security — or help us provide you guys with that security — and I’ll flood this whole place with money and with projects and with health care and with everything.”
Was that ever really going to happen? Was that kind of nation-building the ultimate goal of the incursion into the valley? And, if so, did it have any real connection to the attacks by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001?
You both feel for and admire the troops cast into this pit of ambiguity. We watch them function in unison and with remarkable courage and poise when under enemy fire, and we watch them weep for comrades wounded and lost. We also see them fight without anger among themselves to help fill long, nerve-racking hours of boredom, and we watch them dance wildly to a favorite song.
Restrepo is the name of a shabby outpost that the men built and then named for their friend, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, a 20-year-old medic and aspiring doctor who was shot and killed soon after they arrived in the valley.
An environment in which the primary goals are to kill and to avoid being killed takes a psychological toll that is greater than most civilians realize. A soldier named Anderson told Junger, “I’ve only been here four months, and I can’t believe how messed up I already am. I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said, ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’ ”
Misha Pemble-Belkin, who was called Peanut Butter by his fellow soldiers, and then simply Butters, talked softly about trying to save a badly wounded colleague. “You could see it in his face that he’s slowly dying,” he said. “He was turning really ghost-looking. His eyes started sinking in his head, and he started to get real brown around his eyes. And he kept saying, ‘I’m getting really dizzy. I want to go to sleep.’ ”
Pemble-Belkin used an expletive as he tried to explain how rough it was to watch one of his best friends die, essentially in his arms. At one point in the film, he described his reluctance to tell his family about his experiences: “When Restrepo got killed, it was a few days before my mom’s birthday, so I had to suck it up when I called my mom on her birthday and act like everything was O.K. and say, ‘Hey, Mom, happy birthday. Yeah, I’m doing real good out here. Everything’s fine.’ ”
The film closes with the printed words, onscreen: “In late 2009, the U.S. military began withdrawing from the Korengal Valley.”