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In 'Restrepo,' the Afghan war's brutality as viewed through the soldier's scope

Post writer Phil Kennicott says the exhaustive, first-person accounts for "Restrepo," the new war documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington "yielded the two brass rings of war documentaries: chance encounters with extreme violence and scenes of unguarded camaraderie."

The soldier's-eye view is proposed as a necessary antidote for the long-standing politicization of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite claims of a new, neutral paradigm in war documentaries, what's more remarkable is the ongoing profusion of firsthand accounts from the war zone, as if there can never be enough of this one, singular understanding of the subject. The "grunt documentary" has, in fact, been fertile ground for filmmakers for much of the past eight years. Films such as the 2006 "The War Tapes," which used footage shot by National Guard soldiers in Iraq, and the 2007 "Operation Homecoming," based on the writings of American soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have given unprecedented currency to the front-line soldier's view of the war. The Internet has also produced a flood of "grunt" perspectives. Even the art world has adopted intimate sympathy with the soldier as a basic trope, as seen in Nina Berman's photographs of a severely disfigured soldier (at the Whitney Biennial) or Jennifer Karady's almost-too-clever restaging of war traumas in a photographic series called "In Country: Soldiers' Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan."

Far from compensating for the supposedly unheard voices of the common soldier, current documentary practice seems to privilege the soldier's eye-view as the essential, most truthful understanding of the war. As one soldier interviewed in "Operation Homecoming" put it: "I may not be a very good soldier, but I may be a very good witness."

One doesn't doubt that. But is he a sufficient witness? Does the sympathy for soldiers generated by the grunt film create an implicit, self-perpetuating argument for the war? Junger has been confronted with these questions, in reviews and in person, while promoting the film and his accompanying book, "War." In one such confrontation, available on YouTube, an angry and vociferous conspiracy theorist identified as Anthony J. Hall calls Junger's work "classic propaganda," deriding it as "all about the human interest stories of our boys . . . "

This is unfair to Junger, and may be just another atavistic return of the old failure to distinguish between antiwar sentiment and hostility to the troops themselves. But as the wars drag on, the soldier's-eye perspective -- a limited and not-necessarily-neutral view of the war -- is yielding less and less valuable data. Even in the hands of antiwar artists, it often devolves into an entertainment experience that fundamentally reinforces a pro-war view.

The larger question is all there in Kearney's rallying cry to his troops, a "Henry V" scene that boils down, in essence, to this: an eye for an eye. It is an essential survival philosophy in the middle of a brutal war zone, and it is a great narrative moment. But it is almost certainly an inadequate understanding of how a superpower can find peace and safety in a hostile world.


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