A few months ago, I heard about a book that was to be released soon, titled War. Written by Sebastian Junger, I was interested at first because I had always admired his work in Vanity Fair, but what really intrigued me was the backstory behind the book. Junger embarked on several trips to Afghanistan over the course of 14 months, where he was embedded with troops in the Korengal Valley. At the time, it was known as the most remote outpost in existence. The area was also notorious for enduring the most brutal combat missions in the country.
I found War at a local DC bookstore and read it in about 3 days. As I was trying to sneak in the last 20 pages at work, my friend notified me that Sebastian Junger would be speaking about his book at another local bookstore the following day. The store was packed with media, other authors, doctors, psychiatrists, government officials and members of the military wearing full-on fatigue. It was a new sort of environment for me, to say the least, and I stayed until almost 11pm to pester Mr. Junger with questions after he had signed others' books.
Weeks later, I was back at the bookstore and War was unsurprisingly still on the bestsellers shelf. A man standing next to me picked it up and proceeded to start reading the inside flap. I suddenly blurted out, "That's the best book I've read all year." He laughed, perhaps at my bluntness. Then he turned and looked at me straight on -- he had one eye. We struck up a conversation and I discovered he was a soldier who knew some of the men in the 173rd Airborne brigade, the platoon Junger follows in his book.
What began as a chance encounter with the soldier developed into a passionate friendship. I was utterly fascinated by his stories -- he had been severely injured in Iraq in 2004 when he was hit in the chest with a rocket. It failed to detonate -- which would have been fatal -- but instead shattered, sending shards flying out through all different parts of his body, one being his eye.
A few days later, there was an advance screening of Restrepo at the National Geographic Society here in DC. Restrepo was filmed by Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington during their time in the Korengal. It is a supplement to War, filmed exclusively from the perspectives of soldiers. I convinced the soldier to attend the screening of Restrepo with me. He was skeptical, saying he didn't need to watch movies about war; he'd already experienced it firsthand. But he came. He had to leave for the last half hour of the documentary. The intensity of some of the scenes wasn't something he was ready to revisit yet. Despite his earlier reluctance, the soldier thanked me for inviting him and admitted the documentary wasn't anything he expected. It was far better.
For me, mostly it was just raw. It left me trembling, dizzy and speechless. It was painfully honest with enough comic relief to remind the viewer that these young people are ordinary men risking their lives for extraordinary reasons. By ignoring politics, Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington allow the audience to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions; most significant, they get people talking again. Restrepo invites previously absent conversation about our "forgotten war" that is Afghanistan.
Restrepo is literally documented history that our children will never watch in school or read about in textbooks. It depicts a side of humanity that can only attempt to be understood by listening to the brave men of Battle Company. For those who have never been deployed, or known anyone who has been deployed, this is as real as it gets. It is completely mesmerizing, utterly exhausting and emotionally draining. There is no preparing for the experience that is Restrepo.
I strongly encourage people everywhere to read this book and see this documentary. In the meantime, check out this post by Richard Allen Smith of VoteVets.org