Sunday, December 12, 2010

Restrepo and the Futility of Afghanistan

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

I have just spent an afternoon watching a documentary film by National Geographic entitled Restrepo.  To be exact, I have dedicated the afternoon to watching this film twice, wanting to make certain that I accurately understood all that the production company from National Geographic was trying to tell me.

Restrepo documents the 15-month deployment of an Army unit into an Afghanistan hellhole called the Korengal Valley.  Shortly after arriving in the Korengal in the summer of 2007, the unit medic, "Doc" Restrepo, was killed by enemy fire.  The unit went on to set up an outpost in the Korengal which they named in honor of their dead friend.  It was an outpost from which they could "take it to the enemy," though ultimately they appeared to function as little more than sitting ducks in a one of the war zone's hottest spots.

When our military started talking about winning the hearts and minds of the enemy (the Petraeus model), a saying came down from some of the dubious old-timers, to wit:  "Get them by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow!"  It was basically that conflict in military philosophy that was at the core of this film.

The brave young men who manned Outpost Restrepo and carried out patrols from that base were charged with rooting out and destroying the enemy.   A second component of the plan, the more long-term portion, was to convince the locals that cooperation with the American military was in their best interest.   The valley elders were marched into Restrepo for weekly meetings, called Shura,  where the American Captain tried to win their support.  He told them at one point that there would be a paved road through the Korengal Valley in a few years, and that road would give them, the elders, money and power.  As the cameras scanned the bearded old men who were sitting on the ground listening to the spiel, the expressions on their faces showed that the Captain's words were having no impact.

The invaders come and go, as they have for centuries in Afghanistan.  This too shall pass - just ask the Russians.

At one point some of the elders came to the outpost voluntarily.  Their arrival excited the military leaders because they thought that the elders might have finally decided to start playing ball with them - providing information on the Taliban.  But the trip to the outpost by the old men was to protest the death of one of their cows at the hands of the Americans.  The American negotiator told them that the cow had become entangled in the wire barriers surrounding the outpost and it had to be killed due to its injuries.  The cow's owner wanted to be compensated, in cash, but was told that couldn't happen.  The Americans volunteered to compensate in groceries and supplies  The locals left unsatisfied,  one more sign that the "hearts and minds" approach wasn't working.

The invaders come and they go, but the old man has lost his cow permanently.  That was his reality of the war.

The Captain stated toward the end of the deployment that the thing he was proudest of was the creation of Outpost Restrepo itself.  "Building Restrepo," he noted, "was the single most important event for the Korengal."   A note at the end of the film stated that the Korengal Valley was abandoned by our military in April of 2010, three short years after this platoon took its first casualties there.  Over fifty Americans lost their lives in the Korengal.

They come and they go.  So much for the paved road.

This is a hard film to watch.  It has lots of up-close combat, and glimpses of these brave young men (or "boys," as the Captain referred to them) coping, crying, and coming apart.  One young man talked about being on "four or five types of sleeping pills" so that he could get some respite from his horrible dreams that were inspired by what he has gone through and seen in the Korengal Valley.   There were also scenes of the troops playing and joking around as they tried to maintain an emotional footing in a mental landscape that was as rough and treacherous as the physical one in which they had to survive.

One of the troops who came across as the most memorable was a young Army specialist who talked about growing up in a household where he could not eat sugar until he was thirteen, and he was never allowed to play with toy guns.  He describes his mother as being a "fucking hippie."  His entry into the service and into the war itself seemed to be some sort of generational payback for his anger at the way he was raised.

War is a strange business.  It is brutal, bloody, and, all too often, futile.

1 comment:

Xobekim said...

Alfred Lord Tennyson said it well in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:"

"When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
  All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
  Noble six hundred!"

That of course was written about soldiers in the Crimean War at the Battle of Balacava. That was published in 1854,

We are no closer to finding a path to peace today than we were then. And to the sacrifices of Restrepro and his generations of soldiers we need to make certain to echo the sentiments of Tennyson.

When can their glory fade?