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Film Review


In 1973, after more than 30 years, the military draft in the US ended as the Vietnam War ended. During WW II, Korea, and Vietnam, the draft was used to fill most of the services (but not the Marines or Air Force during the latter two wars), and for all men now younger than 55, the draft was the elephant in the room. Only men; women were not required to register. During the Vietnam War especially, there were tremendous inequities in the draft: college students generally were given deferments, as were married men, or learned how to avoid it, whether through phony medical issues or even fleeing to Canada. Consequently the draft fell disproportionately on those not in college, such as the poor, minorities, inner city youth, etc. I certainly saw this in my own platoon. It became increasingly unfair. Congress voted to end the draft in 1973, and went to an all volunteer military, which has certainly increased the professionalization of the services, but with some not so obvious costs. Now only about two percent of Americans serve in the armed forces, or any other national service. There has been a growing separation between the military and the civilian worlds, since so few men and women now serve or have served in the armed forces. This has, in my opinion, made Congress more willing to use the military, knowing that there will be far less outcry if middle and upper class men and women do not have to share the burden of military service. Further, young Americans are losing the experience of being put into a highly diverse group in a structured organization, learning discipline and often being forced to do boring jobs or worse, jobs that risk life. The loss of these experiences and the disproportionate burden of military service on the poor and working class is not healthy for a democracy. Although many will not agree with my thoughts here, please keep them in mind if you read further.

Restrepo is a powerful documentary made by two journalists who embedded with the 2nd Platoon, B Company, from the 173rd Airborne, stationed on an isolated, dangerous hill top outpost in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, and Tim Hetherington, an experienced war photographer, stayed with this platoon, beginning in mid 2007, and filmed more or less continuously for a year. The film opens with shots of the platoon on a train, clowning for the camera, headed for deployment. Then we are in Afghanistan, with a backdrop of rugged, stark mountains, and a few fertile valleys. The platoon helicopters in to a remote base, and some express doubt that they will return in one piece. Then many of them march to a second, even more isolated outpost, named Restrepo, in memory of a beloved medic who was killed nearby shortly after being deployed. We see and listen to close ups of each man, talking about their fears, their day to day living, their patrols, and most affectingly, their memories of home. One very boyish soldier describes his hippy parents, who refused to allow him to play with toy guns when he was young. He is now a machine gunner. Another says "once you've been shot at, you can't come down." These accounts alternate with footage of life in the outpost and the patrols. There is no question that the film makers took many risks in filming, not only at the outpost, but as they accompanied the patrols. When taking fire, the camera begins to move erratically, sometimes pointing at the ground, as the cameraman no doubt is ducking. There is nearly constant clowning in the outpost, from wrestling, to dirty jokes, to playing a guitar, and all the other things that men do when they are bound together. The camaraderie is intense, and it sustains them. It has often been said that men fight for the guy next to them, not for abstract causes. The unit's captain is impressive, determined to try to win the hearts and minds of the locals. He meets weekly with village elders, but with little success. He promises to "flood the valley with money", but no one believes him. They want compensation for a cow that was killed. Later an operation goes wrong, and civilians are killed and wounded. As any junior officer soon learns, the sergeants are vital and provide experienced leadership that is indispensable. Toward the end, the film documents a push, named Rock Avalanche, further into Taliban territory, and the consequences. Again, this is interspersed with accounts by the men afterward. Many of these are articulate, very moving, and haunting. Yet, after nearly three years in the Korengal Valley, the Army decided to abandon the effort. In all, 50 men died in this valley, with many more wounded. The film never asks the question directly, but you leave wondering what purpose was served, and why did these men die?

The cinematography is riveting, and the editing particularly outstanding. It is cinema verite at its finest. There is no narrative, only the voices of the soldiers and the sounds of battle, which have a power that will stay with you. This film would not have been possible before the development of small high definition digital video cameras. Some of the footage was shot at dawn and dusk, with very low light levels, again something only recently possible. Restrepo is important for many reasons, showing us, in a very intimate, powerful, and truthful fashion, what these men endure. Some may die, others may be severely wounded, and more traumatized, with life long effects. These men sacrificed for us, and yet despite improving efforts by the Army and the Dept of Veterans Affairs, some will never recover, and some will end up on the streets. We surely owe them more than the usual bumper sticker, "Support our Troops". Freedom isn't free, but only a tiny minority pay the real price. It's free for the rest of us. Junger and Hetherington have made a great film, one that all Americans, including every member of Congress, should see. Just opened at the Bridge, appropriately, a few days before the Fourth of July.

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