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.

reestrepoMy conversation with Tim Hetherington was really enjoyable. Our Skype connection was crystal clear and we got along like old friends. Tim and I had such a great time chatting with each other I never got around to doing any interviewing. I know that sounds strange, but we were having such a great give and take about all kinds of things that I asked very few direct questions about the film.
Both this film and the related book War by Sebastian Junger are valuable additions to the special niche in military history dealing with the effects of battle. This type of historical writing was made popular in 1976 by the historian John Keegan when he published his classic The Face of Battle. I loved that book and remember being enthralled by the descriptions of battle – especially his telling of the famous Agincourt fight where English bowmen took out the leading Knights of France. The Knights were encumbered with over 60 pounds of body armor and, when they dismounted their horses, essentially immobile and helpless. I remember talking about this book with my peers, laughing and laughing at the stupidity of going into battle wearing over 60 pounds of body armor. I guess the joke was on us, since my peers now routinely go into battle with more than 60 pounds on their backs. Thanks to ergonomic advances, they can move a little better and react slightly faster than the doomed French nobles at Agincourt….but that’s not the point is it?
Which brings me to the only real question I had for Tim, and it was an unfair one: why does it seem that the Army never tried to preempt the routine attacks on Restrepo and the other FOB’s? Apparently, they generally knew when attacks were forming and the attack positions used by the Taliban never changed, because they couldn’t change…mountains limit your options for good fields-of-fire.

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.

18 Replies to “Restrepo”

  1. Your position is historical; it is not new. As a former officer, you should know how political realities can “color” an operation, a war, perhaps every effort for those who took the Oath.

    Ask yourself this: If Gov. Palin were President, would our troops have a different perspective?

    If you think Obama cares about troops in Afghanistan or anywhere else on this planet, you are the fool!

    What makes you think our troops don’t already understand what I think is one reality with Obama-Mao? I went to school with these clowns way back when after having done two tours ending in mid ’67. They and their true believers (of which Obama-Mao is most certainly one of) haven’t changed one iota these past 40 plus years!

    Malignant narcissists are what these people are, nothing more, nothing less. The fact that they can send our kids, spouses, etc. into combat and die for them is the real horror! Victory over our enemies is secondary to these evil people: They will always come first; meaning we are supposed to die for them!

    Vote the bums out, sooner rather than later if you seek “victory” over terrorism and those who support it!

  2. I think we all agree that more civilians –the part of American who is at the mall both on the right and the left, need to see movies like this. Whether or not they will is another issue, as most people pay more attention to misbehaving startlets, and have a stronger opinion on Michael Jackson than they do the war in Afghanistan. Military community supporters –made up of many civilians who have no direct military service, and also veterans who do, have worked the hardest to bring a small film like this to towns like Orinda, Albuquerque, and Little Rock. Now, many of them are working hard to fill the theaters. The groups we chose were ones who provide direct services –box packers, knitters, sewers, quilters, mental health associates, veterans groups, cake bakers, yoga-doers. While some assumption has been made that they are right wing –nothing could be further from the truth.

    This bedrock audience is the group who will work hardest for it. Not because of a lovefest for Hollywood, but because they respect and love those who serve. They want everyone who doesn’t care or know to wake up, pay attention by seeing this film.

    Glad to hear it went well! Can’t wait to get you stateside so you can see the film!

  3. The story of “average” grunts doing their best to do accomplish their assigned mission in dangerous territory is sure to be uplifting. So few in America have a clue about what they are asked to do, and the price they pay. The grunts may be volunteers, but the pay and benefits sure as hell are not the motivating reason for them to volunteer. God bless the guys on the ground in dangerous locales who just want to do their job as well as they can while watching over their buddies. As usual, the REAL story is not about the generals or their peccadilloes, but the guy on the ground in harms way who gets to try to make it happen against iffy odds. I hope this movie tells just this one story in a way that can bridge the nearly overwhelming perspective gap between a soldier’s day and Mary/Joe six pack.

    As usual, thanks for your commentary and keen perspective. Stay safe.

  4. 1. Don’t see much difference between now and then.
    2. Had flak jackets instead of IBA’s or whatever.
    3. The BDA would stretch a ruck out to 75-90# what with MG assault packs, mortar rounds, radio batteries, smokes and ilum, plasmalyte, demo, etc.
    4. The skinny 120# Mexican carried the same load as everybody else (women in the infantry??).
    5. Humped a click and had stop to regroup.
    6. On normal trips outside the wire, all anybody was doing was working their way through it.
    7. Oplans to seriously interfere with the bad guys would have required real leadership with vision, not an upper level version of #6.
    8. Which is all we had, tho did not know it at the time.
    9. Suspect with the July 11 twilight, that may be pretty much the same, too.
    10. Will see the film when I can, though am not much looking forward to it. Reliving someone else’s hard times is not my style -like “G” rated stuff these days.
    11. Expect I’ll learn something -which is why I’ll watch the thing.
    12. Today’s troops are better quality, better trained, smarter, fitter than we were. Am always awed by the young troops, NCO’s and officers I meet now.
    13. Know the film will reinforce that.
    14. Suspect few of the BN CO’s that take noticeable losses will be top candidates for promotion -at least Army ones.
    15. The force protection metric will trump operational necessities as you pose ’em.
    16. With the bad guys working hard to inflict casualties, the previously mentioned twilight, do not think we will see many dismounted Army troops. Will be pleased to be wrong.
    17. Am cheering for GEN Petraeus to pull a rabbit out of his beret.
    18. Said way too much.
    V/R JWest

  5. There I was, walking toward the theater to watch this film when I realized I had just stepped onto something very sticky…I first thought it to be “dog poo” however, when looking downward I noticed it was a great pile of documents labeled secret, etc. Seems these items were from the US Government and were about this war in that country we call Afghanistan.

    As I was cleaning my shoe and removing these sticky papers, my ears picked up a song coming from far away: “Off to the shores of Iran!” seemed to be the title.

    I went home, hoping all this negative energy I was receiving was really just a bad dream. Yea, sure it is!

  6. I was invited to a pre-release showing of Restrepo last tuesday at the University of Miami. “Doc” Restrepo was from the area and his family sat about 6 rows in front of me. I can only imagine their pain and pride. It was intense. Hetherington and Junger were ballsy. Had to be to get THAT story.

    See it.

  7. I read the book, initially with some misgivings. However, I recommend it. There is some negativity there, as I expected, but for the most part it’s an outstanding work. If the movie is done well, it will not be one for the faint of heart, so perhaps will not sell well.

    Basic load for an infantryman has not really changed over the years. Roman soldiers, Greek Hoplites, and perhaps even “Ardi” the iceman, have historically carried a load of up to 120 pounds when on the march. Most, like the Romans, left the bulk of their kit in fighting camps when the lined up to meet the enemy. Armor only came off in camp, until the introduction of gunpowder made it a useless burden after the 1400’s, but folks kept trying to improve the product up to the present. Armor has its place, and probably won’t leave service until we stop fighting….after the Second Coming. In the meantime, we’ll just have to put up with it.

    Don’t read this as a positive comment about body armor. I bitched as much as any, and more than some when I had to climb a mountain or, God forbid, run. I’m pretty slow anyway, and the armor was a real drag. All I am saying is that you get used to it. I does harden you. The knights at Agincourt were massacred not because of their armor, to which they were accustomed, but because the English longbowmen’s massed fire killed their mounts and put them into direct contact with the soldier’s second worst enemy….really deep, viscous mud. Unable to maneuver, the knights were then picked off quickly by the bowmen, and the wounded finished off by light infantry.

  8. Only made it to the KOP, not Restrepo, but kudos to the guys gutting out a year at that hilltop base in the Korengal. Looking forward to seeing this film in Cali.

  9. Enjoyed your comments on your interview with Tim Heatherington. I absolutely agree with your take on Restreppo and War. I read the book and saw the movie twice (once alone and once with my wife).

    All Americans of all political sides need to consider what our young soldiers face and overcome. Hopefully they will think long and hard before making serious decisions about this war or any other war.

    As a Air Force veteran who now works for VA, I have a special honor of working with those who come home. I am proud and humbled in their presence. They deserve to tell their stories and be heard. They are the wise ones. They are our future. They, will become our future leaders. Let their sacrifices mean something.

    To our Washington hierarchy who view the war as a political tool (sounds familiar – Vietnam?): Wake up and support our generals, soldiers and veterans!

  10. the book war,is a rare piece of writing. i have read it and i will be honest i cried at times. i laughed and i felt genuine sorrow. its unique when a piece of writing can make you feel so many emotions and a deep connection to people youve never meant. the men in this story..and defending our country are nothing short of real heroes. i will be honest i do not believe in the politics of this war but what i do believe in with every bone in my body is the men and women over there

  11. I haven’t seen the movie yet but was in the Korengal valley when Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were there and met both of them. My expectation, however, is that they drank Battle Company’s Kool-Aid as much as possible and both the book and film will glorify Battle Company rather than give an accurate portrayal of the company (which definitely wasn’t doing a good job).

    Perhaps the oddest thing about Battle Company was their obsession with the media. The Korengal valley was quickly turned into a media circus during their time there and the obsession with media exposure drove a lot of what took place in the valley.

    Another problem was that their 2-503 battalion CO, Col Ostlund, thought that he could simply bomb villages into submission and ended up digging a deeper hole in every place they tried to secure. They really made a mess out of Korengal, Waygal, and the Pech valley.

  12. Taswir – I’m really surprised that you make a judgement without seeing the film. Do you always make comments based on assumptions rather than experience? Are you the TV journalist I met for 30 minutes one day on the KOP landing zone? What was it that led you to believe we had drunk the kool aid?

  13. Restrepo was placed where it was because there was a road giving access. Even though it was rarely used, that road took on the aura of some ‘voie sacree’ leading into the heart of injun territory. Retrepo also provided the advantage of an overwatch of, or, if necessary, shoot down upon the local residents. As such, then, it was more an irritation in need of removal than a necessary or effective military position.

    That it, in turn, was overlooked by high ground led to the constant harassment that demoralised the garrison and led to its eventual abandonment.

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