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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.

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As the American War in Vietnam staggered to a close, U.S. troops were in an open state of rebellion.  Fraggings -- attacks on commanders (often by fragmentation grenade) -- were rising, so was the escape into drug use.  Troops bucked orders, mutinied, and regularly undertook “search and evade” missions, holing up in safe spots while calling in false coordinates. 

AWOLs and desertions went through the roof.  During World War II, Marine Corps desertion rates peaked at 8.8 per 1,000 in 1943.  In 1972, the last full year of U.S. combat in Vietnam, the Marines had a desertion rate of 65.3 per 1,000.  And precious few Marines were even in Vietnam at that point.  AWOL rates were also staggering -- 166.4 per 1,000 for the much more numerous Army and 170 per 1,000 for the Marines.  In a widely-read 1971 Armed Forces Journal article, retired Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., wrote, “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state of approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.” 

It didn’t take rocket-scientists to figure out that you couldn’t conduct long-term, wheel-spinning occupations in distant lands with a military like that.  And so the long-occupation-friendly all-volunteer force that Junger has come to know was born.  That he has such a hard time understanding the citizen-soldier response to the American lost cause in Vietnam essentially ensures that the civilian story of war, especially that of alien civilians in a distant land, would evade his understanding.  This is what makes the relative isolation of the unit he deals with in Restrepo so useful, even comfortable for him as he assesses a very American version of what war is all about. 

By 1969, it was apparent where the Vietnam War was going and, increasingly, soldiers balked at the prospect of being the last man to die for their country in a disastrous war.  While it turned out that about 15,000 Americans would die in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 (almost as many as had died from 1965 to 1967), the troops were increasingly angry about it. 

Body armor, drone warfare, ultra-rapid medevacs, and a host of other technological innovations, not to mention battling tiny numbers of relatively weak, ill-armed, and generally unpopular guerillas, has meant that Junger’s new model military can fight its wars with minimal American casualties and, so far, less upset at home (or even perhaps in the field).  Today, the numbers of dead Americans like Juan S. Restrepo, the medic for whom the outpost in Junger’s film was named, remain relatively few compared, at least, to Vietnam.  Just over 1,100 U.S. troops have died in and around Afghanistan since 2001. 

On the other hand, who knows how many Afghan civilians have died over that span, thanks to everything from insurgent IEDs, suicide attacks, and beheadings to U.S. air strikes, special operations forces’ night raids, and road checkpoint shootings, not to speak of every other hardship the American war in Afghanistan has unleashed, exacerbated, or intensified?  Who knows their stories?  Who has documented their unending suffering?  Few have bothered.  Few, if any, have risked their own lives to chronicle day-to-day life for months on end in embattled Afghan villages.  Yet it's there, not in some isolated American outpost, that you would find the real story of war to film.  In the place of such a work, we have Restrepo.

Even an all-volunteer army will eventually collapse if pushed too far for too long.  Soldiers will eventually slip, if not explode, into revolt or at least will begin to evade orders, but the prospect looks unlikely any time soon for the U.S. military.  Unlike Afghan civilians, U.S. troops go home or at least leave the combat zone after their tours of duty.  And if most Americans don’t necessarily give them much thought much of the time, they evidently have no problem paying them to make war, or engaging in effortless tributes to them, like rising at baseball games for a seventh-inning stretch salute.

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