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Why Can't Mainstream American Journalists Tell the Truth About the Horrors of America's Wars?

Sebastian Junger's new documentary "Restrepo" presents the story of US soldiers at an isolated combat outpost, keeping Afghan suffering safely off the screen.

I’ve never heard a shot fired in anger.  But I might know a little bit more about war than Sebastian Junger.

Previously best known as the author of The Perfect Storm, Junger, a New York-based reporter who has covered African wars and the Kosovo killing fields, and Tim Hetherington, an acclaimed film-maker and photographer with extensive experience in conflict zones, heard many such shots, fired by Americans and Afghans, as they made their new documentary film Restrepo -- about an isolated combat outpost named after a beloved medic killed in a firefight. There, they chronicled the lives of U.S. soldiers from Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, during a tour of duty in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

The film has been almost universally praised by mainstream reviewers and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  A New York Times “critics’ pick,” Restrepo moved the newspaper’s A.O. Scott to end his glowing review by telling readers: “As the war in Afghanistan returns to the front pages and the national debate, we owe the men in ‘Restrepo,’ at the very least, 90 minutes or so of our attention.”  In the Los Angeles Times, reviewer Betsy Sharkey concluded in similar fashion: “What ‘Restrepo’ does so dramatically, so convincingly, is make the abstract concrete, giving the soldiers on the front lines faces and voices.”

Along with Hetherington, Junger, who has also recently experienced great success with his companion book War, shot about 150 hours of footage in the Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008 during a combined 10 trips to the country.  “This is war, full stop,” reads website prose above their directors’ statement about the film. 

It isn’t. 

Junger and Hetherington may know something about Afghanistan, a good deal about combat, and even more about modern American troops, but there’s precious little evidence in Restrepo that -- despite the title of Junger’s book -- they know the true face of war.

War on Your Doorstep

Earlier this year, Junger reviewed a new Vietnam War novel, veteran Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, for the New York Times Book Review.  In a glowing front-page appraisal, he wrote, “Combat is not really what ‘Matterhorn’ is about; it is about war. And in Marlantes’s hands, war is a confusing and rich world where some men die heroically, others die because of bureaucratic stupidity, and a few are deliberately killed by platoon-mates bearing a grudge.”  Analyzing Junger’s misreading of Matterhorn helps to unlock his misconceptions about war and explains the problems that dog his otherwise cinematically-pleasing, and in some ways useful, film.

Millions of Vietnamese were killed and wounded over the course of what the Vietnamese call the “American War” in Southeast Asia.  About two million of those dead were Vietnamese civilians.  They were blown to pieces by artillery, blasted by bombs, and massacred in hamlets and villages like My Lai, Son Thang, Thanh Phong, and Le Bac, in huge swaths of the Mekong Delta, and in little unnamed enclaves like one in Quang Nam Province.  Matterhorn touches on none of this.  Marlantes focuses tightly on a small unit of Americans in a remote location surrounded by armed enemy troops -- an episode that, while pitch perfect in depiction, represents only a sliver of a fraction of the conflict that was the Vietnam War. 

It’s not surprising that this view of war appealed to Junger.  In Restrepo, it’s his vision of war, too. 

Restrepo’s repeated tight shots on the faces of earnest young American soldiers are the perfect metaphor for what’s lacking in the film and what makes it almost useless for telling us anything of note about the real war in Afghanistan.  Only during wide shots in Restrepo do we catch fleeting glimpses of that real war. 

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