Maybe reality shows did it for me. Maybe it was Michael Moore (who makes films where I agree with everything he says without believing anything he says). Maybe it was this whole spate of documentaries made by crazy people from the last decade, Loose Change and Zeitgeist: The Movie for example.
Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore. Unfortunately, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo is a documentary. As Michael C wrote on Monday, a lot of people, knowing I write on a blog about war, have asked me about it. I tell them two things: first, that I liked the book, War, better than the movie. Second, that I think Restrepo, because it is a documentary, sacrifices meaningful context for the sake of their premise.
I could launch a whole “war memoirs”-esque series on “war documentaries”. (Like memoirs, documentaries seem to present unbiased truth. That belief usually doesn’t stand the test of reality, especially since most documentaries now have a “point of view”.) But I’ll spare you any more of my hateration. This post will have to suffice, with Restrepo serving as the sacrificial documentary. (Or you could watch Exit Through the Giftshop, a documentary by Banksy. Or is it a hoax?)
I don’t like Hetherington and Junger’s premise behind Restrepo. “We figured that our viewers were familiar with the discussion about the pros and cons of the war,” Junger told NPR two weeks ago. “And we didn’t want to rehash those. What we wanted to do was be with a platoon and experience what soldiers experience...But their reality--their emotional reality--is not often reported on.”
Except that it is.
Between three 24 hour cable news channels, 5 Pulitzer prizes given to war reporting and an Internet that puts information at our fingertips, the war is getting covered. Frontline, Nightline, 60 Minutes and others have done excellent coverage for years from the point of view of soldiers. The New York Times has two blogs on soldier’s experiences, “At War” and “Home Fires”. PBS had the “Regarding War” blog, Thomas Ricks and FP.com have “The Best Defense”, and Doonesbury started “The Sandbox”. If you need more blogs, milblogging has 2,948 listed. I’ve read fifteen war memoirs written about Iraq or Afghanistan by soldiers or reporters. There are easily 100 more, at least three on the battle for Fallujah, and another three on Operation Red Wings alone. There have been mini-series, TV series and at least 20 fiction films.
Maybe there aren’t enough documentaries. This list has 40 based in Iraq. Six (now seven) war-related documentaries have been nominated for Academy Awards since 9/11. One won.
Soldiers, as I think I just proved, have their story out there.
I think the story of everyday Afghans and Iraqis isn’t out there. There are a handful of (award-winning) documentaries and a few memoirs, but their authors aren’t interviewed on NPR or The Daily Show like war memoir authors. Their books don’t make the best seller lists with the same frequency. I only know of one blog by an Iraqi.
I wish Junger had split his time with soldiers and Afghans. That would be the true story of war.
My bigger issue is with what Restrepo leaves out, especially after reading War.
In Restrepo, there is no narrator, and a sparing amount of explanation. No narrator means no context; no explanation of how OP Restrepo fits into the history of the war and the valley.
There are no civilians, at least not interviewed. Read the passage on the Korengali people I quoted last Tuesday. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, and it’s needed in a documentary. “Since World War I, it’s been civilians who have most often born the disproportionate brunt of modern warfare...” Nick Turse notes in his Huffington Post piece on Restrepo. (Michael C disagrees with this claim, read his comment below.) “In Restrepo such people...are just supporting characters or extras. ‘[W]e did not interview Afghans,’ Junger and Hetherington write in their directors’ statement. These are, however, precisely the people who know the most about war.”
There is missing information. In the movie, a cow gets caught in concertina wire; in the book, the soldier’s chase it into the concertina wire. In the movie, the films opens with an IED explosion and a firefight; in the book, Junger explains that no one was firing back. In the movie, Airborne the puppy runs around in the background; in the book, the next unit kills him.
Could the difference be more stark? I like context. I like knowing the what, where, when and how. I like to know more. If your goal is to understand the plight of the American soldier, knowing the larger battalion mission matters. Knowing about the people matters. Knowing context matters. The soldier on the ground knows the context; so should you.
And it is in War. It isn’t in Restrepo.