He That Outlives This Day, And Comes Safe Home, Will Stand a Tip-Toe When This Day Is Nam’d, And Rouse Him at the Name of Crispian
War is hell. It's so easy to politicize and name call, to use the sacrifices of a brave few to pass an agenda, to ignore the trees to point out the forest. What's so affecting about Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's documentary following one platoon for one year in Afghanistan is that it merely turns a bare bulb on the reality of military conflict. You will walk out feeling justified in your beliefs, no matter what they are. It shows the seeming pointlessness of war, sending men to die so we can get just one more foothold. It shows brave soldiers dying for a cause they may not support and may not love, but because they want to keep their brothers in arms safe. Every day, they may go home missing a limb, with a new scar, or in a bag, and they will never be the same. It's easy to forget when discussing war in the abstract that in reality it is men, some almost boys, dying every day. For me, it made me angry and sad. But it also made me appreciate the sacrifices that are being made. It doesn't ask the questions "Why are we here?" "Why are we fighting this war?" "What is the point?" It doesn't need to. You can see the reason in the eyes of every military man interviewed.
Restrepo is many things. It's the name of Juan "Doc" Restrepo, a soldier we meet in the opening camcorder footage of the film. He's a wise ass who kind of does cholo fronting while he films his drunk buddies. It could be a bunch of frat boys backpacking through Europe fresh out of Amsterdam's tea houses. They talk about all the ass they are gonna kick once they get in the shit and how bad ass they are. It's only later when we realize this is essentially a ghost story -- that this kid's dead. He bled out from a shot that hit him in an artery. Restrepo is also what his battalion christened the outpost they fought tooth and nail to occupy. The Korengal Valley in Afghanistan has been called the deadliest place on earth; the soldiers get fired on every single fucking day of deployment. To get a more defensible position, to have a better chance of not being flanked by mountain goat guerillas, they battled long and hard to develop an outpost on a mountaintop. They dug out a semi-circle, shot it out in the middle of the night with enemies attuned to their home turf, and then dug some more until they had a base of operations. That blood-soaked turf, that mound of land bought with lives and lead, they named after their fallen comrade.
Heatherington and Junger follow the platoon from deployment. So we get to see the boys in the shit, fooling around, and getting fired on. It's horrible and hilarious, touching on so many levels. These guys are soldiers. These are boys, these are men with families who risk getting killed every day, these are swinging-dick meatheads who make gay jokes and hoot and holler as they blast away with artillery. These guys wrestle and throw dance parties. They blow a guy apart with heavy machine guns and high-five each other when they destroy him. These guys cry hysterically when they find the body of a fallen friend. They fight on, because as he lays there bleeding, Taliban rebels are still gunning down on them. They don't win, they don't save the world. Those that survived go home. And leave OP Restrepo to the next batch of grunts.
There's no judgment. The filmmakers don't interject themselves into the film. The shaky-cam isn't there for effect, it's because they're dodging incoming fire. They simply report. And it's such a harrowing story, it doesn't need to be embellished. It was amazing to see the troops trying to work with the Afghani people, the elders of the tribe. How these people weren't just collateral; the Taliban has them just as terrified. It's almost impossible to distinguish between who's civilian and who's a terrorist -- not out of any sort of racist "they all look the same to me" bullshit, but because that's how the Taliban operate. They hide among the people and attack from the shadows. Which makes it all the more frightening.
There's a great moment, right before the men are due to return to Italy to go home, where their captain gives them a speech explaining another company getting decimated by enemy fire. And it's what prompted me to title this article with a line from the St. Crispin's Day speech. Because it was all hoo-rah and bravado, filled with swagger and profanity. But beneath it all, it was saying "we're here because we fought better, we fought harder, and we have the scars to show for it." It wasn't played for the cameras; it wasn't staged. It was authentic. It was what these guys needed to refill their tanks and keep on fighting.
I watched Restrepo and thought, "these soldiers are just stupid kids -- Xbox-playing assholes who look through a viewfinder and double-tap 'ragheads' because they couldn't pass a college entrance exam and this was better than working at Pep Boys." But I will never forget that they are the only ones willing to stand on the front lines and take bullets to protect what this country means to them, and that will always earn my respect. More now than ever, I wish the war was over. Because I have seen what it does to the people who fight it. It's easy to talk about war as an abstract concept, but when you see bullets flying, when you hear the explosions, when you watch these boys try to put words to the warfare, it's an unbelievable experience.