December 09, 2010

And it's one, two, three...

what are we fightin' for?

I watched the movie "Restrepo" on Netflix recently; it had a short theatrical run a while back, too short for me to get there in time. It was good to save the money, I would say, on actually seeing the movie. I think the producer/cinematographer Sebastian Junger (author of Perfect Storm, that phrase which has forever entered our cliched lexicon as the only allowed description of a confluence of bad coincidences) did a good job with what he had. The movie is essentially static, as the lives of the men of the Airborne platoon posted at the Restrepo base in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan must have really been during the year they spent there in 2007. Restrepo was the name of one of their fallen comrades, killed early in the deployment.

The movie has three main recurring sequences. Life atop the outpost; patrols; and interaction with native Afghans. The first is boring; the second intermittently gripping or a little theatrical in a self-conscious way, depending on what was filmed; and the third pathetic and very sad. Occasionally the U.S. military kills innocent natives. Then a meeting is held where the young American noncoms sit and explain why these things happen, sometimes in the presence of a dead and bloodied child who got in the way of a firefight or was hit by a rocket fired by a helicopter. These are strange encounters. The GIs are all decked out in their camo and state of the art weaponry, Kevlar helmets with built in spot lights, the works. The tribal elders have long straggly beards, a few teeth, weathered bronze skin, wear robes and turbans. The elders nod inscrutably, betraying no expression at all. The sergeant, through his interpreter, talks a mile a minute, patiently, condescendingly explaining why we're trying to kill the right people but it doesn't always work out that way, and anyway, don't go helping the Taliban or this stuff will happen more often.

There is no real attempt to place the war in context. You do not get the impression that anything the soldiers are doing is helping anything, but on the other hand, you're unable to tell whether it's counterproductive. It isn't made clear what other things those local Afghans would have to put up with in the absence of U.S. soldiers patrolling their valley and barging into their ancient dwellings. Out on patrol, as they take fire (and as two soldiers are hit, one fatally), you get the feeling that context doesn't matter. It's this group of soldiers versus the bad guys, and there's no room for philosophy. The Taliban, the mujahideen, are trying to kill the U.S. soldiers; the GIs want to kill them first and to protect each other. That's essentially the story.

Do the mujahideen want to kill the Airborne soldiers because the insurgents are in league with the attackers of September of 2001? Because they feel just the way an Egyptian ringleader, with an accomplice from the UAE, and a couple of other pilots, and 15 Saudis felt that day in New York and Washington? When they hatched their plan in Germany and perfected it in South Florida? Is that why these American soldiers are humping through the high mountains around the Korengal Valley, because we have to root out....what, exactly? You'll never figure it out from this movie. All you can say is that whatever is going on there seems far removed from one terrorist plot carried out in another part of the world.

The soldiers just seem like average guys. They horse around a lot, the F word is used constantly, they smoke, they're heavily covered in tattoos. Their quarters are messy and dirty and they have virtually no amenities. You get the impression they're well trained with their weapons. One slightly bizarre feature of modern...everything, really, which I hesitate to bring up, given the hardship, privation and mortal danger these guys were in - but even in combat, I noted, this strange modern phenomenon of Americans speaking as if they were characters in a movie was constantly present. Well, I suppose these guys were in a movie, but I couldn't help noticing the huge difference, for example, between the interviews of these soldiers (many of them conducted back home in the States after the deployment was over) and those conducted of the World War II GIs in the HBO series on the European and Pacific theaters. That's probably a brain belch for another day, but it is as if, in our media-saturated times, our very consciousnesses have become so permeated by media images and snatches of dialogue and action movie cliches that any kind of "authentic" behavior and reaction has sort of gone by the boards. You see this all the time in TV interviews after disasters, for example; everyone sounds exactly like the characters in a disaster film sound reciting scripted lines. We all know how it's supposed to sound - it's supposed to sound the way Bruce Willis would say it. The soldiers at Restrepo even spent some of their down time playing "World at War" on their GameBoys. Well, you know: why not? Their lives were imitating the art of our culture anyway.

Whatever the reason, we're still in Aghanistan, more than nine years after the putative cause for our involvement occurred. The soldiers of the Airborne platoon seem competent at killing people, but the "hearts and minds" project is probably in the wrong hands. Why, indeed, should they be expected to carry out such a mission anyway? They've got other things to worry about, like surviving. As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Barack Obama is not very clear on why he does anything, it's hard, after watching a movie like "Restrepo," to escape the conclusion that we're in Afghanistan because we were there when Obama was elected, and he doesn't like to change things, campaign slogans be damned. The military brass told him we should stay, and that was good enough for him. And thus the war drags on and on and on.

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