Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friends.
I was fortunate to see a preview of “Restrepo” last weekend in Chicago, on the crest of the documentary’s rolling-thunder nationwide release. It’s an intense window on the Afghan War – expertly developed by two fearless, skilled storytellers – Sebastian Junger (New York Times best-selling author & journalist) and Tim Hetherington (prize-winning Vanity Fair photographer).
The film focuses on a single platoon of 15 Soldiers (Battle Company 2/503) during their 15-month tour at a remote observation post in Afghanistan’s notorious Korengal Valley. Junger and Hetherington embedded on three rotations from 2007-2008 – capturing up-close and personal the harsh, relentless realities of combat life on what was arguably one of the most dangerous assignments in the world.
Both the outpost and the documentary are named for PFC Juan Restrepo – a combat medic who was killed shortly after his unit arrived. The story is pure, raw and real, by design. No amped-up sound effects. No commentary from outside the ranks. No soundtrack. This isn’t a dramatization. None is required.
The film aims not to judge the war. Instead, as Junger says, it focuses on “honoring Soldiers doing their job” – by showing us first-hand how they fought the Taliban, by revealing the difficulty of this task, and by letting us consider its toll on those who serve.
I appreciate what this movie accomplishes on behalf of common soldiers. Having been deployed at a remote Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan during much of the same timeframe in which “Restrepo” was filmed, I get it. Of course, my experience was much different – much less perilous, day-to-day. And yet, we share a common, unspoken bond.
In my opinion, that common bond merits closer inspection…
A Question of Commitment
Clearly, “Restrepo” doesn’t offer easy answers. But what does it teach us about a Soldier’s convictions? Why do warriors choose to fight and die for a cause? And why do they willingly return to battle, again and again?
The movie doesn’t ask these questions directly. But it’s impossible to walk away without wondering about a Soldier’s psyche.
Speaking from my own experience, I think it’s about three kinds of commitment:
- To ideology
- To other Soldiers
- To personal purpose
Commitment to Ideology
Some values transcend life itself. As the New Hampshire motto says, “Live free or die!” For me, protecting our nation’s core principles is more important than remaining on the planet another day. Other volunteers in today’s U.S. military are equally committed. We live to defend liberty – even to the death. It’s an American tradition that began in 1776.
Of course, it’s not unusual to frame life and death in terms of causes that reach beyond our shores – and Afghanistan is no exception. Values we cherish – like free speech, religious tolerance and civil justice – don’t exist among Afghans. The Taliban are diametrically opposed to these basic human rights, and proof is starkly visible wherever the Taliban have exerted their power. Even devout Muslims are at risk.
So, protecting innocent lives and preserving core democratic values are powerful motivators that keep Soldiers in the fray. But it’s not the whole story. What else is at work?
Commitment to Other Soldiers
Fortunately, after the “Restrepo” preview in Chicago , Sebastian Junger joined the audience for a live question-and-answer session. That’s when I learned an interesting fact – all but one of the platoon members still serve in the Army today.
Why would they want to continue?
Junger suggests that it’s rooted in the bonds of brotherhood and interdependence that develop when lives are at stake. I’m sure that’s true. But I think there’s another dimension beyond camaraderie. Some call it survivor guilt. I simply say this – we cannot forget those who’ve died. Therefore, we want to serve in their honor.
Everyone who’s returned from Afghanistan leaves behind a “Restrepo.” We all have unfinished business – it’s unavoidable. Each of us knew someone who was killed – someone who didn’t come home. We may not have known them well – but we’ve all felt the impact of seeing a flag-draped coffin or a memorial to a fallen Soldier.
Here’s the point: It could have happened to any one of us. And therefore, it affects us all.
It changes us in fundamental ways. And it motivates us to act. It compels us to fulfill a mission that the fallen are unable to complete. No Soldier should die in vain. We want their mission to succeed – to demonstrate what those lost lives are worth. And so we continue working together toward a common goal.
Commitment to Personal Purpose
Because Sebastian Junger is foremost a writer, it’s no surprise that his primary channel for the “Restrepo” story is his recently released book, “War.” The beauty of a book format is that it provides the luxury of introspection that video footage can’t touch. And Junger uses this narrative canvas to full advantage.
In carefully examining the psychology, physiology and sociology of combat, “War” concludes that Soldiers are compelled by battle because it provides a clear sense of purpose that’s unmatched in civilian careers. That may be true. But I think the drive starts at a more fundamental level. I think it comes from the universal human desire to find meaning and truth in our existence.
In the rarified air of a war zone, every day holds the possibility of death. Any moment may be a Soldier’s last. Under these conditions, people naturally dig deeper to reconcile their personal convictions and beliefs. They let go of what’s not important. They embrace what matters most. And they strengthen their commitment to advancing core values.
One of those values is the importance of human relationships – what we might call non-romantic “love.” This love is a commitment to the good in others – to putting those interests ahead of our own. It includes a sacrificial element, like the love of a parent for a child. It’s about protecting and nurturing someone dear to us, at any cost.
Soldiers develop this love for one another. And it’s visible in “Restrepo.” In fact, one Soldier observes that it’s even possible for members of a unit to hate combat comrades, yet still defend one another to the death. To those outside a war zone, this is nonsense. But in combat, when Soldiers fight for something larger than themselves, it’s natural and expected. It’s the ultimate form of love in action.
So, what does this mean when one of us is killed? It’s not just another tragic death. It becomes highly personal. It’s the brutal murder of a family member. It’s as if our own child has been lost to an evil force we failed to control.
It leaves each of us with unfinished business.
And it reminds us that there is no rest until we complete the task our lost brothers and sisters will never be able to complete, themselves. That’s why the men of “Restrepo” renamed their outpost to honor their fallen comrade. It reminded them daily of what remained to be accomplished, for the sake of their brother in arms.
Rest in peace, PFC Restrepo.
Those who remain in this world will not forget you. We will finish the job you started.
P.S. Want to learn more about Restrepo? Don’t miss these resources:
Restrepo on Facebook – Find a theater and follow all the latest news
Restrepo movie site – Get official information, clips & more
Sebastian Junger’s online forum – Interact with Sebastian and others interested in his books & films
P.P.S. Interested in my thoughts and experiences in Afghanistan? Check out my book at Amazon.com, “Afghan Journal: A Soldier’s Year in Afghanistan”