Last week, Kanani Fong of the blog The Kitchen Dispatch, arranged an interview for me with Tim Hetherington, who along with Sebastian Junger produced the award-winning documentary called “Restrepo”. Kanani signed onto the Restrepo team to spearhead a public relations effort, in conjunction with National Geographic, to get the film released nationwide in theaters. This is no easy task for a documentary but, as many of you know, there is a huge groundswell building in the blogosphere over this movie and it is already scheduled for runs in major cities around the country. This is great news because the one thing Tim stressed in our interview was this is not a film just for the military, but for the general public. In the minds of the men who made it, this film is designed to show Americans who have no direct stake in this fight (which is the vast majority) what is being asked of the men and women who are bearing the brunt of battle.
I was taught that fire without maneuver was a waste of time, effort, and money. It still seems strange to me that the reaction to an attack on a FOB or the ambush of a convoy is to shoot back with long range fire, call in airstrikes and then go back to what you were doing before the Taliban started bugging you. I liked the way we used to do these things, which was to gain and maintain contact until you could maneuver on the villains and destroy them in detail. It is a poor idea to provide on-the-job training for your adversary.
Tim pointed out that the Army did run a preemptive operation which is a critical part of the film and book, called Operation Rock Avalanche, but the question really wasn’t a fair one. Both the film and book are focusing on the experience of a single platoon during an entire combat rotation. Platoons execute orders from on-high and have little to say about operational planning. I already knew the answer to the question I was asking and found this quote later which seems to best express why the men in Restrepo fight the way they do. This quote is from The Father of Us all by Victor Davis Hanson:
“Consequently, emphasis on defense – from body armor to antiballistic missile systems – will become an ever higher priority, as ever more affluent Americans, like Greek hoplights or medieval Lords of old, grow increasingly sensitive to the casualties of war. The current weight of fifty to eighty pounds of gear that so burdens individual soldiers is not so much to provide them with additional offensive power as to achieve better communications, body protection, and survivability.”
The men in Restrepo were executing with skill and determination the orders they had been given. It is still amazing to me that guys can move and fight as well as they did, given the loads they were carrying in a high altitude, mountainous environment. Their attempts at tribal engagement did not pay off in the long run. We no longer staff FOB’s in the Korengal Valley, but these guys gave it their best shot, which comes through clearly in the book as well as in the movie.
In my opinion, it is important that this film be shown in as many theaters as possible. Most of my regular readers know this tale intimately and will appreciate the artistry in this tale about infantrymen in war. Most Americans as well as most people in the countries with troops deployed here, do not have a clue about what they collectively have asked their fellow citizens to do. The amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of twenty-something year old (or sometimes younger) men who lead fire teams, squads, and platoons, exceeds by several orders of magnitude, the burden placed on their peers in the civilian world. Once they are home and out of the service, it may be decades before they are placed in positions of such responsibility again. Add to that the burden of survivors’ guilt, which is common to all veterans at all times and in all places, and one gets a sense of the overwhelming pressures being shouldered by these veterans at the pointed-end of the spear. Americans need to know this because when our elected leaders send these soldiers to fight for our country they do so in all our names. We owe it to all the men and women who serve in harms’ way to understand what we asked them to do.