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McChrystal Meets Restrepo: Can Modern War Withstand Modern Media?

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David Brooks' New York Times column on the McChrystal debacle decries the development, since WWII, of a military (and government) where behind-the-scenes revelation trumps ability on the job. Brooks reckons this "culture of exposure" has added "another scalp," chasing a general who was "excellent at his job."

Brooks' not particularly reassuring defense of McChrystal is that this kind of sniping, self-serving infighting has always been endemic in government. "Government is filled with superconfident, highly competitive people who are grouped into small bands ... Washington floats on a river of aspersion." Really? Even when dealing with war, with lives at stake?

Restrepo, a newly released movie by the author of The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger, and war photographer Tim Hetherington, endangers the war apparatus from the opposite direction. The film exposes at-home audiences, in agonizing detail, to "the peril and tedium that define a soldier's daily experience." But the film is challenging at a deeper level through its interviews with the soldiers after their tour is completed, in which the soldiers "tried to make sense of what they had done and seen."

Walking away from the Vietnam War Memorial once, I encountered an older couple who asked for directions to the stones with the names of every soldier who died in that hell hole. They were looking for their son. That was a very sobering experience -- not the least because I had to wonder what the couple was thinking about what was left of their son, and what he had died for.

But that was, small consolation, a fait accompli. If you have a child or mate in the military today, Restrepo allows you to feel their pain, terror and purposelessness -- face-to-face.

Can war survive the combination of daily behind-the-scenes exposures of the human flaws of decision makers, along with intimate portrayals of the travails of war? As Times reviewer A.O. Scott asks, and the film forces us to contemplate, "What are these guys doing there? It's hard to watch this movie without asking that basic, hard question."

Can modern Americans withstand being confronted with "the irreducible, grim absurdities of this war, which is the disjunction between its lofty strategic and ideological imperatives and the dusty, frustrating reality on the ground?" But, really, when is this disjunction any less?

In the same newspaper, soldiers recall their experiences in the Korean War. You remember that war, right? Less than a decade after WWII? According to the Times, "Although more than two million soldiers and civilians died over the next three years, including more than 54,000 Americans, the war is now an overlooked part of United States history."

It is overlooked for two reasons: first, because it was fought to a standstill and we still daily confront the result of the war in the form of Kim Jong Il and the bizarre, constricted, impoverished lives of his subjects. Is this what 50,000 Americans died to create? No wonder we put it out of mind. But -- and here is the second reason we have no place for that war -- it took place in a far corner of the globe where we couldn't see its terror and its meaninglessness.

Today, we wouldn't be spared that realization. And Americans won't be able to deal with having the venality of our decision makers, along with the horrors of war, thrust into their face in ways we can no longer ignore.