It never occurred to me that Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s terrific documentary Restrepo could ever be construed as being pro-war. To the contrary, by offering an immediate, harrowing, ground-level dose of the fighting, it should cause any reasonable person to wonder what it is we’re really asking of the young men and women who are there doing our dirty work. About Afghanistan specifically, it’s an unsettlingly bleak account of how the fighting is going and how little we’ve accomplished despite the bravery and apparent best intentions of the soldiers on the ground tasked with making the best of a bad situation.
That’s practically treason itself in some conservative quarters, but that’s not enough for those who demand a movie that spoon feeds its audience a specific political point of view. Not surprisingly, blogotainer Jeff Wells is one of those people. Restrepo avoids (in my view admirably) taking an overtly political stand on the whys and wherefores of the war in Afghanistan in favor of a close-up look at what the fighting is really like. Wells? He’s “sick of that shit.”
There’s no question whatsover (sic) that this movie lies through omission about what’s really going on in Afghanistan in the broader, bigger-picture sense…For realism’s sake Restrepo chooses to isolate its audience inside the insular operational mentality of the grunts — “get it done,” “fill up more sandbags,” “ours not to reason why” and so on. In so doing it misleads and distorts in a way that any fair-minded person would and should find infuriating. Is there any other way to describe a decision to keep viewers ignorant about any broader considerations — anything factual or looming in a political/tactical/situational sense — that might impact the fate of the subjects, or their mission?
(The bold emphasis belongs to Wells. It’s his favored method of poking his finger into your chest in case you’re too stupid to grasp his simplistic views.)
To answer Wells’ last question directly: Yes, it’s called objectivity. Restrepo is not about whether we should be in Afghanistan or whether we should stay in Afghanistan now that we’re there. Restrepo takes the fact of us being in Afghanistan as read and it seeks a closer look at what that really means for the people involved. Though you can argue whether that makes for a weaker documentary or not, it’s a perspective anyone who claims to have an opinion about the war, one way or the other, should be armed with. But Wells wants more. He seems to want a polemic that agrees with his view that “the Afghan War is pure quicksand.” What’s more, if you’re not arguing loudly for the United States picking up its marbles and going home, you’re apparently arguing in favor continuing and expanding the war itself.
To bolster his stand, Wells yesterday turned to Bill Cody’s poorly focused and limply argued piece at Rope of Silicon that labels Sebastian Junger as “very pro-war” and suggests that the programmers at Sundance were either for the war themselves or had somehow been fooled into thinking Restrepo was something it wasn’t. Disliking a documentary because it does nothing to further your own point of view is one thing, but to accuse Restrepo of having “a pro-war current” as Wells does at the conclusion of his Rope of Silicon Anti-Afghan War Band of Brothers admiration piece is just silly.
One of the sources Cody points to for his opinion that Junger is pro-war is a May 2010 interview the journalist/author/filmmaker did with Charlie Rose. For most of the interview, Junger takes the microscopic view of the soldiers’ experiences as he does in Restrepo, but here’s the relevant bit at the end where he opines on the wider situation:
I’ve been going there since 1996. I was there in 2001 when Kabul fell and I was walking around on the streets of Kabul and Afghans were hugging me because I was American. The amount of goodwill in that country for what we had done – toppling the Taliban, liberating the Afghan people – was unbelievable and it’s a very sad thing for me to see that [the support among the Afghans] has been eroded over the years. And it was eroded because we did not – in my opinion – we did not follow through on the war. There weren’t enough men there wasn’t enough financial support. We kind of walked away from it. So now we’re in a real fight. It wasn’t a real fight in 2002. It was easy. It was on a platter and something like 90 percent of the Afghan population was glad that we’d done what we’d done. Now we’re in a real fight. I mean look. The Allies pushed the German army out of Europe. If the West wants to defeat the Taliban, they can defeat the Taliban. It’s a matter of political will. There is some number of men and resources that would get the job done.
When pressed by Rose to say whether we should reinforce or withdraw completely from Afghanistan, Junger reluctantly answers:
If it’s important to the West and I think it should be, they need to put more resources and more men into that country. All the troubles are coming from the fact that it was done on the cheap in my opinion. If we walked out of there I could understand the logic to that and it may never come back to bite us. I don’t know. I know it’ll be a bloodbath in Afghanistan. It’ll go right back to the 90s. If it’s the western countries that we’re concerned about it may be ok, but maybe not.
Junger is clearly in favor of continuing the war in Afghanistan which many reasonable people strenuously disagree with, but does that make him “pro-war”? By Wells’ eerily George Bushian binary “you’re either for us or against us” logic, it apparently does. If you’re not for a full and immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, then you are for war in general and anything you say about any war is automatically suspect.
Of course the opinion of one entertainment blogger doesn’t amount to any kind of prevailing attitude and ordinarily I’d just ignore it and move on, but Afghanistan is one of the key issues of our time and I’m wondering what other people think. If you’ve seen Restrepo, do you think it is pro-war or anti-war or neither? Regardless of whether you’ve seen it (but you should), do you think documentaries in general need to have a strong point of view to be worthwhile, or do you favor a more objective, fly-on-the-wall, observe and report approach? Knowing Sebastian Junger’s views on the conflict, do you think he’s even capable of being objective?