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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; E03

In "Restrepo," a documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, an officer addresses his troops after a demoralizing enemy attack in Afghanistan takes a heavy toll on American soldiers.

"We make them pay; we make them feel how we feel now," says Capt. Dan Kearney, urging his troops not to despair and to take the fight to the enemy.

The film, which screens Sunday night at the Silverdocs Festival, might be the apotheosis of the "grunt documentary," the soldier's-eye view of the war. Junger and Hetherington each spent about five months in the Korengal Valley, at the time one of Afghanistan's most dangerous and contested places. Junger, an experienced war correspondent who was working with a video camera for the first time, and Hetherington, a veteran war photographer, shot 150 hours of footage from the field, supplemented by interviews made a few months after the troops left that country.

This intensive, dangerous and time-consuming approach yielded the two brass rings of war documentaries: chance encounters with extreme violence and scenes of unguarded camaraderie. Two scenes are particularly harrowing: the explosion of a bomb underneath a military vehicle and a soldier breaking down on the field upon discovering the body of an ambushed comrade.

The filmmakers have issued a statement explaining their approach: "The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: We did not sit down with their families. We did not interview Afghans. We did not explore geopolitical debates."

Films such as "Restrepo," with its vérité-style camera work and its goal of political neutrality, are being hailed as a new generation in war documentaries, an important advance over the overt political commentary that defined Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and other tendentious films. "Eight years after the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan and nearly seven years after the invasion of Iraq," writes Eric Hynes on the Sundance Festival blog, "Restrepo" and "The Tillman Story," another film that played at Silverdocs, don't "concern themselves with questions over the wisdom or justifications for these missions."

"Restrepo," he argued, is "a document of pure experience."

There is a subtle and problematic claim being made by the makers of "Restrepo" and in Hynes's suggestion that there is such a thing as a "document of pure experience." The implication is that by avoiding political commentary and focusing on the nitty-gritty of the soldier's experience, documentary can achieve a new kind of objectivity. The closer the camera gets us to the raw texture and emotional reality of war, the more it approaches the truth of war.

It's easy to sympathize with this view. In the post-Vietnam era, artists, writers and filmmakers have sought closer communion with members of the military. Part of this is no doubt a long-standing redress for the neglect and in some cases overt hostility with which soldiers returning from that highly divisive war were treated. It also reflects a real sense of obligation and indebtedness to the troops in the age of the all-volunteer army.

But part of it is also an act of self-protection. By viewing the war through the prism of the soldier's experience, the artist can insulate himself or herself from the danger of appearing anti-military. "The Tillman Story," for instance, criticizes government propaganda about the war through the experience of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, the football star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. (That film, which also played at Silverdocs, will have limited release in late August.)

"Restrepo" also forces the viewer to question whether limiting the account to the soldier's view is not merely another form of argument about war. It is a far better film than the fictional "The Hurt Locker," to which it has been likened, but both films ask the viewer to process the war through the emotions -- excitement, fear, sorrow -- of the soldiers. As you enter into sympathetic connection with them, you may begin to endorse their understanding of what is permissible in war, whether that is the irresponsible bravado of "The Hurt Locker" or the impatience and sometimes condescension with which some soldiers deal with Afghan locals in "Restrepo."

The invitation to feel sympathy is never neutral; it constructs a world in which American soldiers are not agents of a foreign policy, but privileged arbiters of how that policy is viewed. At its most extreme, the soldier's-eye view of the war simply reconstructs what so many sophisticated artists and filmmakers claim to be subverting: simple-minded hero narratives in which the hero's bravery and sacrifice give him a monopoly on the truth.

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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