I don’t quite remember a documentary opening like this: a squad of Humvees are out on patrol, with the journalist, Sebastian Junger, filming inside the lead vehicle. Unexpectedly, or expected, given the country they’re in, and IED goes off, disabling the vehicle, throwing dirt and debris over the windshield, and covering the inside of the Humvee in thick smoke. The machine gunner overhead awaits instruction from inside. The response isn’t heard, but I imagine it went something along the lines of “Start firing already!” The men inside decide to escape, they go as one, pulling out and back to a support Humvee, or at least the journalist does. The images are captured, but the microphone is dead: we see soldiers firing off into the trees surrounding the road, the crackle of gunfire not heard, Junger being pointed down behind a vehicle.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

The documentary follows Second Platoon, Battle Company, of the 173rd Airborne, in their 15-month deployment during 2007-2008 in the Korengal Valley. Located in the southern portion of the country, near Pakistan, the valley sees the most action. Soldiers are fired upon almost everyday.

The company builds a small outpost on a hill, named after Doc Restrepo, a fallen comrade. It’s a strategic position, overlooking much of the valley from a high position. The climb the hill and dig it out in one night, and fight the next day while still digging. The soldiers are proud of their accomplishment. They have an upper hand.

This isn’t completely about war though. Being this close to the soldiers, Junger and his fellow journalist, Tim Hetherington, capture much of the soldiers daily lives. They fight, both the enemy and themselves, primarily when they’re bored; they joke with each other and at each other; they curse, smoke cigarettes, drink when they can. They’re soldiers, stuck in a small outpost, and all they have is each other. And that’s probably the most important thing to see in all of this: these 15 men are all brothers, fighting alongside each other and being there for each other. They don’t care about the politics or the reasons for the war. They’re there to fight and kill the enemy, and hopefully they’re able to make lives a little better for the locals in the valley.

About a quarter of the documentary is spent in Rock Avalanche, an operation that many soldiers recount as saying was the most physically and emotionally draining on them. The soldiers knew they were going to get fired on; it was only a matter of when. And it came as a surprise too, as Taliban soldiers had come within a few short meters of the troops. One soldier was killed and two others severely wounded; it was the dead soldier that had the greatest impact on some of the troops. Shock had set in, something that looked to he unheard of in the military, but these soldiers experienced it. One completely broke down, overtaken by grief and anguish. They fought on though, carrying their dead and wounded as best as they could.

That’s all it really comes down to, is fighting and surviving and winning and brotherhood. These soldiers spent 15 months in the worst place on earth; most came back, and some didn’t. They were glad with what they accomplished and hoped that the next platoon that came in and continued the work. They built Restrepo and it survived.



Note: if there was one political point that was made, it was at the very end, but it’s also a very open ended political point too. The credit scrawl showed that the US pulled out of the Korengal Valley in April of this year. No specific reason was listed, but I’m sure one exists (a refocus of allied efforts into other parts of the country, perhaps?). It takes nothing away from the movie though.

Also, this documentary is actually a companion piece to Junger’s non-fiction work War. The book fleshes out a lot more of what occurred in the Korengal Valley, as well as give an in depth look into the soldier’s psyche. The two offer different experiences, but complement each other well. It goes without saying that both are highly recommended.