The South Asia Channel

Reviewing “Restrepo” and the wars we fight

Restrepo, a documentary that tracks an Army platoon serving in a dangerous part of northeast Afghanistan near the Pakistani border a little more than two years ago, arrives as a summer of discontent and uncertainty over the Afghanistan war unfolds in America. As I watched the opening scenes of the movie, a wave of déjà ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Restrepo, a documentary that tracks an Army platoon serving in a dangerous part of northeast Afghanistan near the Pakistani border a little more than two years ago, arrives as a summer of discontent and uncertainty over the Afghanistan war unfolds in America. As I watched the opening scenes of the movie, a wave of déjà vu washed over me — I have seen this movie several times before, and it doesn’t end nice.

Restrepo is the movie of the year that Americans should see but most won’t. The film won’t likely compete with the choices of an American public seeking distraction from economic malaise, an oil spill, and not least but usually last as an afterthought in our national consciousness: a war in Afghanistan not going so well. Restrepo has one similarity with many of the box office hits of the summer — the latest installments of the Twilight saga, Toy Story, and Shrek or revamped versions of the Karate Kid and an updated movie version of the 1980s television show the A-Team — they are all retreads containing figments of the past and similarities to previous movies.

Restrepo calls to mind some of the documentaries released while our national debate over the Iraq war waged five years ago. First, with its intense and up-close focus on the daily lives of grunt-level U.S. troops serving in a faraway land, the movie is similar to Gunner Palace and The War Tapes, two documentaries filmed in 2004 and 2005 — the latter filmed by troops with a New Hampshire National Guard unit themselves. The viewer gets to see the soldiers combating insurgents, trying to win over the local population with good deeds, and goofing off in their free time just as any ordinary men of a similar age do back home. But these are no ordinary men. In showing what daily life of the troops in a warzone looks like, the movie reminds us how much we demand of our brave young Americans —we ask them to be warriors one moment, and cultural anthropologists and development workers the next.

Like these two Iraq documentaries, Restrepo for the most part lets  viewers draw their own conclusions about the overall war themselves. How one feels at the end of the movie about the war may not be all that different from how they felt entering  the movie theater, but Restrepo gives the reader more data points to try to sort what it is that the U.S. is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan — how difficult it is, whether it is vital to the U.S.’s security, and what it might mean for us to say the mission is accomplished some day.

Restrepo arrives on the scene in a phase that seems similar to when Gunner Palace and The War Tapes appeared in limited release in theaters as America’s national debate over the Iraq war in 2005 and 2006 — when Americans had begun to lose a sense of what the fight was all about, why we were sending troops into harm’s way, and why we were spending billions in a country where our local partners didn’t seem to be sacrificing as much as we were. One key difference between the Iraq war in 2005 and 2006 and the Afghanistan war now is that problems at home today trump the concerns about the war — continued domestic economic troubles by far trump concerns about all national security issues today, including Afghanistan; by contrast, the Iraq war was the number one issue heading into the 2006 midterm elections.

Americans should watch Restrepo for two main reasons — first to get to know a little better the faces and personalities behind the troop numbers, surges, and timelines for withdrawal tossed around in political debates and surface level policy discussions at home. The documentary gets its title from Juan Restrepo, a young Army private serving as a medic who was killed early in the 173rd Airborne’s tour of duty in the Korengal Valley — his fellow soldiers honored him by naming their outpost in this rugged, mountainous terrain.

We only catch glimpses of Private Restrepo, but through the footage filmed during the deployment and in post-tour interviews conducted with individual soldiers, we get to see what impact this new type of warfare has on individual soldiers.Most Americans are not personally connected to the war because of the all-volunteer military  bears most of the burden along with their families. Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt calculated five years ago that perhaps 10 million Americans at most have any real emotional connection to the wars in Afghanistan, and that the "strategic shielding" of most voters from the emotional and financial costs has fostered moral hazard and public indifference to war. Restrepo serves a reminder to the Beltway analysts and cable television news pundits who often blithely advocate for the latest policy fad or use war as a political talking point that the Afghanistan war has real costs and consequences.

The second reason why Americans should see Restrepo this summer is to catch a glimpse about how the United States wages war today. America has the most powerful and advanced military force in the history of the world — no other country can match its firepower and technological superiority. Yet for all of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year, these advantages in weapons don’t matter as much for the soldiers trying to stabilize this dangerous area. So the unit turns to counterinsurgency tactics, which — like most of the blockbuster movies of this summer mentioned above — are essentially revived and rehashed set of operating principles from years ago that have become the latest fad achieving semi-cult status in the Washington debate as the answer to the U.S.’s security challenges.

In today’s Afghanistan policy discussions, there is a lot of talk about the "whole of government" approach and the civilian surge — the teams of diplomats and development and agricultural specialists that are accompanying the current surge of military forces. One interesting aspect about Restrepo is that the civilian counterparts to the troops are non-existent in the movie — yet there was a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) working in the area at that same time. This blog post from Alison Blosser, a State Department political officer working at that time in the Korengal Valley, offered some details on the projects the PRT was doing, but the U.S. civilian presence doesn’t get much attention in the documentary. This may be because the military has had to undertake many of the tasks that should be assigned to civilian agencies, which suffer from personnel and resource shortages (particularly in comparison to the military).

So Restrepo shows the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne serving as diplomats and development workers. The most interesting scenes are watching the soldiers meet with local elders to try and win their trust by settling disputes over livestock and offering promises of jobs and improved infrastructure. In Restrepo, we witness the considerable difficulties with translating counterinsurgency principles into practice. One broader question not directly asked in the movie — or raised all that much in today’s policy debate for that matter — is whether all of these counterinsurgency efforts are directly making Americans safer.

One reason why more Americans are asking whether the juice is worth the squeeze in Afghanistan is that many increasingly don’t see the rationale behind the war today. Why are we fighting? It is not just the personal and financial disconnection. In this sense, Restrepo very much represents broader events in the war quite well today, even though the action is focused on one corner of Afghanistan two years ago.

Like the Afghanistan war today, the movie lacks a compelling narrative arc — one that explains the stakes and why it is taking place. But unlike the movie, the Afghanistan war has not ended. For the war, one can still construct a new narrative arc, which may be in fact what we’re seeing this summer as General David Petraeus assumes his command and tells us that "we are in this to win." People are hoping that General Petraeus can pull another rabbit out of his hat in Afghanistan, just as he is widely viewed to have done in Iraq in 2007 to 2008.

But one should look at what really happened in Iraq — a key part of the story of the surge was the story of the surge — the construction of a narrative that made the policy elites paying attention to events in Iraq feel better about putting Iraq in the rear view mirror. Violence declined in Iraq for a number of reasons — included a more targeted campaign against terrorists and insurgent leaders, a set of tactics to pay off former insurgents, and sectarian cleansing campaigns in mixed neighborhoods of Iraq that contributed to the displacement of millions. Iraq remains a conflict-ridden country today – less violent then before, but still a dangerous place. Ask Iraqis protesting today because of lack of basic services like electricity and continued violence in parts of the country whether they thought the surge and counterinsurgency tactics worked, and one is likely to get more mixed and negative reactions than they do in Washington.

But to a certain extent, that’s not the point — the point is making us feel like the whole venture was worth it, that the loss of life and spending of hundreds of billions of dollars over several years mattered, and that the United States could say that they completed the mission with honor. Perhaps the toughest part of today’s conflicts for Americans to accept is that there is only so much America can do on its own to fundamentally change the way other societies operate, and much of the heavy lifting must be done by local actors — this cuts against the grain of our notions of American exceptionalism.  

Two key imperatives shaping today’s generation of leaders in the United States are to avoid another Vietnam and to make the considerable sunk costs in our current conflicts matter. Real global security threats exist in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but similar threats reside in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — we just seek to manage those threats differently in those places than we do in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a less costly footprint and more indirect role.

The United States arrived towards some light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq not simply because the surge "worked" in producing some sort of victory or counterinsurgency tactics considerably improved the quality of life of Iraqis. Americans arrived at some sense of closure in Iraq because we felt like we could move on and the mission was accomplished, even when millions of Iraqis still do not see it that way in their personal lives.  

A similar storyline may be in development for the Afghanistan war today. Restrepo comes at the perfect moment to remind us of the real costs and the challenges of the once forgotten front of Afghanistan — Americans should take the 90 minutes to see how our troops undertake the tasks assigned to them with courage, honor and dignity, just as we get prepared for another round in the debate over the next steps in the Afghanistan war.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Tune in for a discussion with Restrepo director Tim Hetherington at the New America Foundation tomorrow at approximately 6:30pm.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis

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