For a clear look at the impact of war on the modern American soldier, all you have to do is see the smiling face of Miguel Cortez in Sebastian Junger’s new documentary Restrepo, which follows a platoon of troops through a year of battle and loss in Afghanistan.
Cortez is a young soldier. He seems almost embarrassed to hear what he’s saying out loud, or hoping to shrug it off—hence the smile—but his words reveal the truth.
“I can’t even sleep, honestly,” he says. “I’ve been on about four or five different types of sleeping pills, and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep and not to dream about it. … To sleep and just see the picture in my head is pretty bad.”
Cortez's lament reveals the lingering effect of the ferocity and intensity of warfare chronicled in the new documentary, which premieres June 25. Aftereffects are in no short supply among the members of the returning platoon.
Another soldier, remembering a desperate firefight seen in the film in which he lost a friend, says outright that he's been unable to deal with the things he’s seen and been through.
And most people don't understand what he's been through—which is the central reason Junger and fellow filmmaker Tim Hetherington give for making their documentary.
A lot of war is very tough to picture. Combat, downtime, death, survival. Restrepo isn’t a film like The Hurt Locker, Junger and Hetherington said in a recent interview. They wanted to show the soldiers' dilemma as unfettered as possible, from the perspective of the troops.
“Our goal was to become part of that platoon,” Junger said. “We wanted to do a film and I wanted to do a book that explained, that showed, what it’s like, what it feels like to be a soldier in combat.”
They two lived with the troops for months, chronicling the unit's existence, including the fights and the patrols, the loneliness and the boredom.
The result is a bare, harrowing look at the life of a combat soldier living and fighting in one of the most violent and dangerous areas of Afghanistan, a place called the Korengal Valley. There, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team dug in what was then the American Army's most forward outpost facing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The base was named Restrepo after one of the first men from the unit killed in the deployment. The encampment is a pure “outpost”: a small circle of concrete and sandbags surrounding 20 or so heavily armed men eating packaged rations and using burn toilets, showering weekly—if lucky—and taking fire daily.
The film succeeds simply and brilliantly in bringing the experience of modern American war to everyday people. Restrepo does little to sensationalize the combat; with no real narrative, it drops viewers into the outpost and leaves them there.
Tying the movie together, a series of interviews reveals the long-term effect the year in Restrepo had on the men. People who undergo a dozen or more firefights for every shower they take may have a little trouble readjusting to everyday life.
In quiet, intimate sessions taped after they got back, the soldiers often return to one refrain: an inability to deal with the things that they have seen and done and heard. Hetherington hadn’t quite planned on capturing such open admissions on camera.
“We hadn’t really calculated that it takes three months or so that the PTSD, the post-traumatic stress disorder, would come on,” he said. “By the time the onset comes on, its three months [later], and so we turned up and these guys just opened up to us in a really incredible way.”
Along with understanding how war is fought, the filmmakers said, they’re also invested in how the men fare upon return.
To help with that adjustment, Junger said his personal site, www.sebastianjunger.com, will be teaming up with an organization for returning soldiers to coordinate support for troops. He also urged people to seek out more ways to aid troops fighting in the faraway battles like the ones Restrepo reveals to the American public.
“One way is to contribute money to the many organizations that are helping the troops directly. There’s dozens and dozens,” Junger said. “Do your research and contribute to an organization that is stepping in in ways that the government won’t or can’t.”