Damaged Goods

August 29, 2010

The War in Afghanistan Hits Home: Michael Enright, Restrepo, and the Heart of Darkness

Filed under: Uncategorized — dandamage @ 6:53 pm

(Thanks to Louis Proyect for first publishing this article on his Unrepentant Marxist blog. For an alternate take on the film and its failure to present the war from the Afghan perspective, see Nick Turse’s important article on TomDispatch.)


On Tuesday, 21-year old Michael Enright stabbed a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim. Enright grew up in upstate Brewster, New York, the town next to mine, in an overwhelmingly white and conservative county that was the only one east of the Hudson River won by John McCain in 2008. He just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a group of soldiers who he was making a film about for his senior thesis.

There has been a concerted attempt to distance Enright’s crime from the Islamophobia being whipped up by the right wing. James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online editorial page, actually claimed it’s “a plausible theory” that Enright really stabbed the cab driver as part of his own personal left-wing conspiracy to “advance the narrative that America is filled with anti-Muslim bigots whose hatred is behind the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque.” Yet the Daily News reports a police source divulged they found a journal belonging to Enright calling Muslims “killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience.” Presumably this was all part of his master plan, according to Taranto.

It seems more likely, though, that whatever Enright saw in Afghanistan had a severe impact on him. He said he was making his film, titled “Home of the Brave”, because he “realized there’s never been an introspective look into what it’s like being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier … They grow up really fast, and also they’re still young and youthful. I thought that could be a really interesting story”.

It does make for an interesting story – but Enright was not alone in seeking to document it. Restrepo (http://restrepothemovie.com/), a 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does what Enright claims he hoped to do. Their film provides an insightful glimpse of the transformation of U.S. soldiers over the course of the war – a transformation that at times resembles scenes from the Heart of Darkness. Enright himself was clearly not immune to this process.

Junger and Hetherington say they aimed to make “a documentary that does not contain political commentary and is purely experiential … We wanted to give people the experience of what it’s really like [in Afghanistan].” Because Restrepo lacks the usual devices found in Hollywood glamorizations of war, Junger says, “We’ve been told our movie has no commercial value”. Yet it is of major value in helping to understand a war little understood by most Americans, despite the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops there and growing media attention, Afghanistan, and the war there, remain little understood by most Americans. WikiLeaks’ recent release of 92,000 pages of documents should help, but for those looking for a more concise accounting of the futility of this war (and its possible impact on people like Enright), Restrepo is highly recommended.

Junger and Hetherington “embedded” themselves with a single company during their tour in the Korengal Valley, one of the areas which has seen the most fighting, in 2007. While there is much that is unique about the Korengal, it also serves as a microcosm of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, in particular the experience of U.S. soldiers there.

Although this is now the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan is still a far-off locale of which almost all Americans are ignorant. One soldier recounts how he heard monkeys howling the first night, and could not sleep because he thought it was the Taliban, pressing close. While the troops eventually become more accustomed to this environment, the people of Afghanistan, in whose interests this war is supposedly being fought, remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. One of the film’s shortcomings is its limited portrayal of the experience of ordinary Afghans, but their sparse appearance serves to highlight the soldiers’ alienation from Afghan society.

Most of the Afghans we see are village elders who arrive for weekly “shuras” (councils) with U.S. military officers. These appear to routinely descend into farces, with U.S. officers treating the elders like children, a characteristic behavior of more “civilized” colonial occupiers. The officers promise the elders that “we will make you richer” by flooding the Korengal with roads, jobs, and health care if they cooperate in rooting out “the bad guys” (the Taliban). The Afghans respond, “You kill the enemy, that’s okay – but our concern is that you’re killing ordinary people on their land.”

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Afghans have seen more than enough over the past 9 years to know that no change in command will result in any meaningful differences in the war or their lives. Indeed, one of the first operations carried out under the new command in the Korengal results in 5 “enemy” dead, along with 10 women and children. More recently, at the national level, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has even appeared on national TV in Afghanistan to apologize for the deaths of civilians – yet all the while, the death toll continues to increase under his watch, with the official count of civilian casualties up 31 percent over the past year. Military officials profess shock when Afghans blame the occupying forces as much, if not more, than the Taliban for these casualties – as if the Afghans had asked U.S. and NATO forces to come occupy their country, or as if grief and outrage followed the simple laws of arithmetic. Somehow, by the twisted logic of the U.S. military, the Taliban – and now WikiLeaks – are to blame for the violence in Afghanistan, rather than the U.S. government.

These are necessary imperial fantasies, to go along with the idea that U.S. can somehow manage to win over Afghan hearts and minds, at the same time as bombing wedding parties and conducting nighttime raids on homes. The cynical wisdom of the soldiers in Restrepo at times bursts through this charade. Reminiscing about home, one soldier tells another about his family’s ranch, the charm of which he struggles to describe, ultimately settling on defining it as a place with a lot of land where you can go hunting. “Just like here [in the Korengal],” the other responds. “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people here,” sighs the soldier with the ranch. “Hearts and minds!” concludes the other.

It’s chilling to watch the process of dehumanization at work among the troops. As they see their friends killed or severely wounded, as they are continually shot at, as any hopes of winning over the support of the local population seem to disappear, the frustration and anger grows, along with a desire to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. In a Heart of Darkness moment, some of the soldiers report that they get excited when Taliban forces come close, because they yearn to see the faces of those they are killing.

This takes a toll psychologically, as the filmmakers chronicle through post-combat interviews at a military base in Italy. It hurts to see Cortez, a good, light-hearted soldier, always smiling, explain, through an awkward grin, how he is incapable of sleeping, preferring to stay awake rather than see his friends die again in his nightmares. The soldiers in Restrepo suffer an understandable pessimism about being able to re-integrate into society. The film helps provide a glimpse into why a record 245 Army members killed themselves in 2009 (and a monthly record of 32 committed suicide in June 2010). One wonders whether similar psychological processes occurred for Michael Enright, leading him to stab the Muslim New York City cabbie. No one emerges from these wars the same, and for all the talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, the war has done much to continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S.

What is all this for? Why does the U.S. have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Restrepo does not deal with this question. The single point it does drive home is the absolute futility of the war in Afghanistan. As the film ends, the screen reports that for all the efforts of these soldiers, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from the Korengal in April 2010. As the Washington Post reported, “A new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.” Eventually, no matter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan, no matter how many drones are flown, and no matter how many billions are spent, the U.S. will be forced to draw the same conclusion on a national scale.

Why, then, does this war continue, if it’s doomed to failure? Because the U.S. cannot just admit defeat without doing major damage to its military prestige and its ability to boss around the rest of the world. Because the U.S. political system is dominated by cowards who are more than willing to sacrifice lives for votes – the leaders of the Democratic Party must not allow themselves to be outhawked by the Republicans, must pose as vigorous and responsible defenders of the empire, in order to continue to reel in big money donations and the fawning praise of the corporate media. Because Afghanistan, for all its remoteness, is located in a strategic area of the globe – not only does it border Pakistan, it also borders China, Iran, and the resource-rich former Soviet republics. The Bush administration launched the war initially not just as a display of U.S. power, but also as a brazen attempt to establish a foothold in areas formerly securely locked in the Russian sphere of influence.

The mainstream media continues its claims that the war is really about helping the Afghan people, or about eliminating Al-Qaeda. Time Magazine recently featured a front-cover picture of a woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the title “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The NY Times, in its latest editorial on “The State of the War in Afghanistan,” repeats the fantasy that this war is going to stop Al-Qaeda, and says the U.S. would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.” Yet as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative writes, “In its nine long years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing to improve the conditions for people in Afghanistan, especially for women… There has been a general increase in violence and civilian deaths because of occupation. By 2009, the U.N. human development index ranked Afghanistan 181 out of 182 countries. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan reveals the highest ever documented.. .The United States has consistently chosen the side of fundamentalist allies at the expense of Afghan women, and has always sought its own gains in the region.” You can imagine the Taliban’s counter to the NY Times – “The Taliban would do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it simply abandoned the country to U.S. brutalities.”

What then, is to be done? Unfortunately, the anti-war movement has all but disappeared. Even the WikiLeaks revelations have generated almost no response, aside from some important but small demonstrations in defense of Private Bradley Manning. In response to the Obama administration’s recent attacks on the “professional left,” the most prominent anti-war politician, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, just pledged not to run against the president in the 2012 presidential primaries, because, he said, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As if pledging unconditional support to Obama, the man responsible for escalating the war in Afghanistan, instead of threatening to run against him for his pro-war policies, is a good strategy for ending the wars. It feels as if the anti-war left has never been in more of a state of demoralization and disarray. And yet opposition to the war is at an all-time high, at 43 percent in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (8/3/10).

There is really no shortcut to ending the wars other than rebuilding a powerful anti-war movement, from the bottom-up. This means starting or revitalizing anti-war organizations (such as Bradley Manning defense committees), organizing speaking tours of anti-war vets or prominent anti-war journalists, writing letters to the editor, passing out leaflets, developing websites, writing songs and poems and organizing fundraising concerts, collecting petition signatures to demand politicians stop funding the war, running independent, anti-war candidates for office (who will not get sucked into the quagmire of the two-party system), taking a stand against Islamophobia like the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, and linking up with other social movements, from immigrant rights to the movement to defend education.

But it can start with something as simple as going to see Restrepo, and telling your friends about it.

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