By Helen Benedict
With their Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have made a war movie about love.
Not romantic love, but brotherly love: the kind of love that grows between soldiers sweating and suffering together through war, and the kind of love that male journalists feel for soldiers when they live with them for fifteen months in the middle of war, depending on them to survive—that is, when they embed.
Every lingering shot on the baby faces of the soldiers in this film, on their well-toned bodies and sweet troubled words is designed to make us, the viewers, both witness that love and feel it ourselves. And to this extent, the film succeeds. Watching Restrepo is to partake in a kind of love fest in the middle of the Afghanistan War.
I am not unsympathetic to these journalists’ urge to make us love their soldiers. I, too, have spent years watching and listening to soldiers (only, in my case the soldiers were women who had served in Iraq, and I was seeing them at home, not at war). I, too, was moved by their youth, idealism, and courage, and devastated by the traumas they experienced at war. I, too, grew to love them.
But love is not the story of war: it is a byproduct. And love is blind. Love leads one to ignore the flaws of the loved ones, to cover up for them, and to want to make everyone else love them, too. Journalism 101: Do not fall in love with your sources.
But that’s exactly what Junger and Hetherington have done. That is exactly why embedding is dangerous. And that is exactly why their movie fails. They try so hard to make their viewers love the soldiers as much as they do that they have censored their own film to the point of dishonesty.
They cut the soldiers’ routinely obscene and misogynist language—by their own admission at the evening’s discussion at the Columbia Journalism School. They decided to show no wounded soldiers and none of the Afghans whom the soldiers killed. They barely show any blood.
We see a wounded Afghan baby and a child, the single most shocking moment of the film. We see a soldier’s boot streaked with a tiny bit of what looks like blood but could just as easily be mud. We see a distant and faceless lump of a soldier’s body. We see the soldiers dancing, mourning, and shooting again and again into trees and bushes. But we see nothing of pain and nothing of brutality.
But war is a dirty business, and soldiers are not little boys. Soldiers kill, and kill more innocents than enemies. And the machismo culture of the military encourages ruthless competition, cliquism, and astonishing levels of everyday cruelty—what Vietnam War veteran and writer Tim O’Brien recently called “the daily nastiness of war.”
“Even our own soldiers, whom our culture tends to glorify and who tend to glorify themselves, commit nasty and reprehensible and outright evil deeds in the midst of war,” O’Brien said at a conference only a few months ago. “I exempt no one, myself included. You send people off to kill other people, you do not come home barefoot; you do not come home innocent of sin.”
O’Brien was not talking about killing the enemy, he was talking about the unnecessary, petty acts of sadism committed by angry, exhausted, war-brutalized soldiers—against each other and against innocent civilians. He was talking about the acts that haunt soldiers for the rest of their lives.
Junger and Hetherington said at the panel that their film isn’t about war but about what it’s like to be a soldier in combat. But instead of showing combat soldiers as they really are—complex and compelling, brutal and loving, war-hurt and hardened, cruel and kind, foul-mouthed and loyal, sympathetic and horrifying all at once—they show the soldiers as popular imagination would like them to be: Brave, noble and sensitive.
This will go over well at the Oscars, I’m sure, but it leads to the film’s saddest failure of all. It makes the war so bloodless and bland that the viewer cannot understand why the soldiers are so distraught once they come home.
As a student wrote to me after watching the film: “On the surface, Restrepo gave me a glimpse into a bunch of guys shooting guns and getting emotionally fucked up for no apparent reason.”
A film about soldiers should give us that reason. It should show us what soldiers do at war, and what war does to them. It should show us, unflinchingly and honestly, why war messes up soldiers—for the sake of public understanding and, most of all, for the sake of the soldiers themselves.