It’s amazing how little attention gets paid to the war in Afghanistan, considering we have 100,000 troops there, it’s the longest war in our history and it’s costing billions of dollars at the same time states are announcing serious cutbacks.
So the beauty of having two great universities right next to each other was exemplified when I got the chance to hear two great speakers talk about Afghanistan — Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh gave a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy at UNC, and director Tim Hetherington had a Q-and-A at Duke after a showing of his Academy Award-nominated movie Restrepo, a documentary that follows a platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
Hersh is famous for uncovering the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Instead of reading from a prepared speech, he delivered some extemporaneous remarks on the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East, while pointing out the absurdity of spending $100 billion/year on a country with no direct national security implications to us. “I don’t have a laugh line to go out on,” he concluded. “This is a pretty serious foreign policy talk.”
But there were some lighter moments. He talked about the time he met a Pakistani higher-up who railed about the U.S. for three hours, but then finished by asking if Hersh knew anyone at Northwestern because his daughter wants to go there.
While Hersh gave an overview of the situation, peppered with plenty of opinion, Hetherington gave you the view from the ground, without editorial comment. As the press release put it, “the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment.”
The film puts you in the bunkers, on patrols, in the villages. It’s a remarkable picture of what life is like for these soldiers. Hetherington had total access, and he even broke a fibula filming one mission. You see soldiers trying to win the “hearts and minds” of village elders, grieving when a fellow soldier is killed, and bonding during down time.
This particular platoon spends pretty much its entire 15-month deployment around 2007 building and defending an outpost named “Restrepo.” And in the final scene, the movie informs you that the U.S. withdrew from the outpost last year.
As bad as you feel for the soldiers risking their lives, only to have us pull out, Hetherington points out that all the soldiers volunteered to serve, they wanted to be on the front lines (because there are plenty of ways to get out of it), and most even chose to go back into combat when their initial deployment was over.
It was interesting to hear a discussion on our foreign policy decisions regarding Afghanistan, followed by the intricate details of what those decisions really meant for the individuals involved.