Restrepo could easily be renamed Days in the Waging of the Afghanistan War. A documentary filmed by journalists for Vanity Fair (but distributed by National Geographic), it follows a platoon of soldiers tasked with holding and securing the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
"Where the hell is Korengal Valley," you ask? Don't know. Its strategic importance isn't explained very well outside of, "We need to defend these people in this valley so that they will cooperate with us in opposing the Taliban." To this extent, it made me wonder as to the overall strategy of the Afghanistan war in general. While I'm sure that there is a strategy, the documentary does a fairly effective job of giving the impression that not even the soldiers know it; upon arrival in the valley they spend time wondering why they are even there. The valley itself is composed of extremely rugged terrain with loads of hills and mountains, making travel and movement very difficult. Despite this, through the documentary we see a year of the company's time in the area and their efforts to make the valley increasingly secure.
Restrepo focuses primarily on three events in the company's time in the valley, with entertaining interludes of watching the soldiers pass the time. These events are: arrival in the valley, creating a forward outpost named Restrepo after one of their fallen comrades, and the dangerous mission dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche. Of these, I found their time at Restrepo to be the most thought provoking with regard to how America is waging the war in Afghanistan.
Restrepo was an outpost built by the platoon on the top of a hill whose only purpose, according to the documentary, was to bring the enemy to the army to be taken down and also as a psychological hit to the Taliban, basically saying, "Hey, I took this rock from you and you can't take it back. Neener neener." This reminded me of the movie Lions for Lambs, within which this precise strategy is criticized for its inherent pointlessness. What is the point of building an arbitrary outpost just so you can get shot at within it? Aside from the psychological impact on the enemy, Restrepo did not convince me of the strategic wisdom of this move. To that point, this documentary was successful in making me curious as to how America is waging the war in Afghanistan and if our approach has changed for the better now.
The Human Factor
Another thing that makes Restrepo intense to watch is witnessing the lives of the soldiers within the company as they fight within the Korengal Valley, what was once regarded as "the deadliest place on earth". You see the leader of the platoon and his approach to keeping the company focused and together. You see the men and their reactions to what they are commanded to do. And, perhaps most potently of all, you see how this company of soldiers copes with the nasty situation they are in, how they entertain themselves and how they overcome the inevitable deaths of some of their closest friends.
You also get to see the company and the leader of the platoon deal with a number of the Afghans themselves. At a number of points throughout the documentary, the company goes door-to-door trying to gather information so that they can better defend the people within the valley as well as to try to winnow out those who might be secretly working for the Taliban. Of particular interest was the weekly meetings that the company holds with the village elders. My conclusion of this was that the army definitely needs some more diplomatic people inserted into the army units; the leader of the company is very blunt and often wince-inducing in how he treats and talks to the elders. It became very clear very fast that, if winning hearts and minds is the goal in Afghanistan, America needs to be sure that they are being polite to Afghanistan's local leaders while they are overcoming the understandable difficulties of working with them.
Restrepo may be one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. I did not feel that I was being force-fed an argument or point of view; instead I viewed objective events and was able to draw my own conclusion from them. One might argue that objective footage of anything isn't nearly as energizing as someone passionately defending one side of an issue, but I felt that this documentary was incredibly engrossing to watch while simultaneously not coming down for or against the war in Afghanistan. If I were forced to try and gauge what side the documentarists are on, I would wager they are against the war. But, coming out of it, I think that us being there and trying to help out is the right thing to do, we just need to make sure our strategies are workable and that we are kind to those who we want to work with. One thing is definitely clear, though, in that winning the war in Afghanistan will be a long haul. But I personally think that it is worth it.
Thus I highly recommend this documentary. One needn't worry about seeing people killed or anything like that; I thought that it was pretty tame with regard to injuries shown and all that. The big reason why is because the cameraman was trying not to get killed, and thank goodness for it. Consequently, this is a superb war documentary well worth watching that shows us a very close look at what exactly our troops have been up to in Afghanistan.
P.S. – On an unrelated note, happy 100th weblog post to me! Given that my posts tend to be around 1,000 words (usually more), I have now written over 100,000 words to this blog. For the record, that's the size of an average-length novel. Pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. :)