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Restrepo: The Afghan People as Extras in Hollywood’s Films, America’s Conscience

By libbyliberal

Tom Engelhardt wrote in an introduction to Nick Turse’s blunt and moving commentary of Sebastian Junger’s new film Restrepo:
 
“Left screen center was usually the American platoon, a kind of “lost patrol” in an alien land, part of what, even during the war, was regularly referred to as an American -- but not a Vietnamese -- “tragedy.” From Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket to Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Vietnamese suffering became, at best, a distant backdrop for American suffering, and the war’s conflicts essentially took place among Americans within that platoon.
 
(A rare exception was Good Morning, Vietnam, but you would never again, in all those post-war years, see a scene like the first one in Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds, which opens on a Vietnamese village, quiet and peaceful, before you notice the silhouettes of soldiers entering -- intruding on an emerald green land, really -- from the edge of the screen.)
 
Turse points out that what we call the Vietnam War, to the Vietnamese is the “American War.” Think about it. Turse summarizes the proverbial “collateral damage” of that war.
 
About two million of those dead were Vietnamese civilians. They were blown to pieces by artillery, blasted by bombs, and massacred in hamlets and villages like My Lai, Son Thang, Thanh Phong, and Le Bac, in huge swaths of the Mekong Delta, and in little unnamed enclaves like one in Quang Nam Province.
 
Turse writes of the movie, “Only during wide shots in Restrepo do we catch fleeting glimpses of that real war.” Turse points out a persistent and pervasive, pathological narcissism among most Americans. This narcissism includes the very writers and directors (Junger and Hetherington, in this case) who congratulate themselves and are celebrated by rapturous American critics for capturing the essence of war. They profoundly do not, declares Turse. The omission of empathy for the reality of the foreign citizenries is profound and systemic in our culture.
 
It is not that our U.S. soldiers do not deserve empathy for their struggles, but as Turse asks, what about the foreign lives U.S. violence wreaks continuous and merciless devastation upon? The American conscience does not seem to stretch to that extent.
Turse: “Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war. Real war. War that seeks you out. War that arrives on your doorstep -- not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day. The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.”
 
“Those Americans who have gone to war since the 1870s -- soldiers or civilians -- have been mostly combat tourists, even those who spent many tours under arms or with pen (or computer) in hand reporting from war zones. The troops among them, even the draftees or not-so-volunteers of past wars, always had a choice -- be it fleeing the country or going to prison. They never had to contemplate living out a significant part of their life in a basement bomb shelter or worry about scrambling out of it before a foreign soldier tossed in a grenade. They never had to go through the daily dance with doom, the sense of fear and powerlessness that comes when foreign troops and foreign technology hold the power of life and death over your village, your home, each and every day.
 
The ordinary people whom U.S. troops have exposed to decades of war and occupation, death and destruction, uncertainty, fear, and suffering -- in places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- have had no such choice. They had no place else to go and no way to get there, unless as exiles and refugees in their own land or neighboring ones. They have instead been forced to live with the ever-present uncertainty that comes from having culturally strange, oddly attired, heavily armed American teenagers roaming their country, killing their countrymen, invading their homes, arresting their sons, and shouting incomprehensible commands laced with the word “fuck” or derivations thereof.”
 
Since World War I, it’s been civilians who have most often born the disproportionate brunt of modern warfare. It’s been ordinary people who have lived with war day after day. In Restrepo such people -- Afghan elders seeking information on someone the Americans detained, villagers seeking compensation for an injured cow the Americans butchered into fresh steaks, and a man who angrily asks the Americans and their translator to point out the Taliban among civilians killed by a U.S. air strike -- are just supporting characters or extras.
 
“The daily dance of doom” we bring to more and more hapless countries. Sustained psychological and physical terrorism. The specter of imminent death for themselves, their loved ones, their fellow countrypersons ongoing for years and years and years. The story of the U.S. soldier is a compelling one, but Nick Turse’s counterpoint remarks about this film make a legitimate and strong challenge to the myopic sensibility of all Americans.
 
“Perhaps it’s only natural that Junger is focused (or perhaps the more appropriate word would be fixated) not on Afghans wounded or killed in their own homes, or even guerillas seeking to expel the foreign occupiers from the valley, but on the young volunteers fighting the U.S. war there. They are a tiny, self-selected minority of Americans whom the government has called upon again and again to serve in its long-festering post-9/11 occupations. And presumably for reasons ranging from patriotism to a lack of other prospects, these mostly baby-faced young men -- there are no female troops in the unit -- volunteered to kill on someone else’s orders for yet others’ reasons. Such people are not uninteresting.”
 
For an American audience, they, and their suffering, provide the easiest entree into the Afghan war zone. They also offer the easiest access for Junger and Hetherington. The young troops naturally elicit sympathy because they are besieged in the Korengal Valley and suffer hardships. (Albeit normally not hardships approaching the severity of those Afghans experience.) In addition, of course, Junger speaks their language, hails from their country, and understands their cultural references. He gets them.
 
Body armor, drone warfare, ultra-rapid medevacs, and a host of other technological innovations, not to mention battling tiny numbers of relatively weak, ill-armed, and generally unpopular guerillas, has meant that Junger’s new model military can fight its wars with minimal American casualties and, so far, less upset at home (or even perhaps in the field). Today, the numbers of dead Americans like Juan S. Restrepo, the medic for whom the outpost in Junger’s film was named, remain relatively few compared, at least, to Vietnam. Just over 1,100 U.S. troops have died in and around Afghanistan since 2001.
 
On the other hand, who knows how many Afghan civilians have died over that span, thanks to everything from insurgent IEDs, suicide attacks, and beheadings to U.S. air strikes, special operations forces’ night raids, and road checkpoint shootings, not to speak of every other hardship the American war in Afghanistan has unleashed, exacerbated, or intensified? Who knows their stories? Who has documented their unending suffering? Few have bothered. Few, if any, have risked their own lives to chronicle day-to-day life for months on end in embattled Afghan villages.
 
Yet it's there, not in some isolated American outpost, that you would find the real story of war to film. In the place of such a work, we have Restrepo.
 
I think when it comes to empathy gravely deserved and too often unexpressed for civilian victims of our foreign wars, Mr. Turse makes its case passionately and eloquently. Turse’s commentary is worth a serious read, and I have only dealt with one dimension of it in this blog. (His revelations concerning the differences between the Vietnam draft U.S. army and the present day all volunteer one are also fascinating.)
This article originally appeared on the blog Corrente.

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