(In the Korengal Valley, in eastern Afghanistan, from Restrepo, by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Images courtesy of National Geographic Films.)
“What an unlucky country,” Hamid Karzai says of Afghanistan, the final words spoken in Steve Coll’s extraordinary book Ghost Wars, recounting the country’s nightmarish trajectory of civil war, foreign occupation and Islamic fundamentalism from the December 1979 Soviet invasion to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
Those words haunted me back in January right after I saw Restrepo on the opening weekend of this year’s Sundance Film festival. The film, one of the standouts in either fiction or nonfiction sections, won the grand jury prize for best documentary.
The film is the collaboration of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and American war correspondent Sebastian Junger. The movie is culled from some one hundred and fifty hours of footage the two shot, separately and together, during the fourteen months they were embedded with a group of fifteen soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Bridge in the Taliban stronghold of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.
The two journalists were originally commissioned by Vanity Fair to report about the war. They contributed two lengthy pieces combining Junger’s reportage with Hetherington’s photographs. They also contributed a couple of pieces to ABC News. The two have also written separate books based on their experiences: Junger’s War was recently published, and Hetherington’s Infidel is being issued in October.
I spoke with Hetherington last week, by chance on the day that President Obama relieved Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as military commander in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the general’s notorious Rolling Stone interview. (As I write this, the Senate confirmed Gen. David H. Petraeus 99-0 as McChrystal’s successor.)
Regardless of the skill, reportorial prowess and cumulative power contained in the books, Restrepo is unsurpassable, a steely and ferocious examination of the personal consequences of combat that observes with a disarming precision of the rupture, fear and dread of war. From the opening moments, captured from the interior of a vehicle immobilized by an improvised explosive device (IED), Restrepo has an immediacy and caught in the moment verisimilitude that is enthralling.