If you’ve ever thought to yourself, "I wish I understood better what people mean when they use the words ‘irony’ and ‘ironic,’" in describing books, movies or just the ordinary conversational pronouncements of others, you could do a lot worse than take a look at the object lesson provided by Restrepo, Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian "Perfect Storm" Junger’s little documentary about some American airborne troops in Afghanistan in 2007-8. If you "get" its excursus into two different kinds of irony, one intended and the other not, you will also get as an extra added bonus a perfect illustration of why the now seemingly inevitable repeal of Bill Clinton’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy for dealing with the problem of homosexuality in our armed forces is a terrible idea.
(Reviewed July 14, 2010)
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Irony is by its very nature ambiguous and hard to pin down, but it can be defined as the tendency of meaning in language or images to vary with their context. The first kind of irony in Restrepo is self-conscious and deliberate and the kind most common to movies, especially war movies — the kind we call dramatic irony. Up until the end of the movie, the chief example of it is the shot, obviously taken on a shaky amateur video camera, in the movie’s opening scenes of a young soldier on a train in civilian clothes and with a beer in his hand while presumably on his way to join his unit. Smiling, convivial and clowning around boisterously with his companions, presumably bound for the same place, he says to the camera that he and his pals are "loving life and getting ready to go to war."
Oh-oh! By movie convention we instantly realize that this personable young man, who turns out to be Pfc Juan "Doc" Restrepo, is as good as dead. And, sure enough, the next thing we know, one of his comrades in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, is describing to us how he "bled out" from his wounds while being helicoptered out of the valley shortly after they arrived in it. His bosom pals name their new forward operating base after him — which in turn gives its name to the picture. The meaning of images of a tipsy youth’s bravado about "going to war" is one thing when you know nothing more about them than the images themselves and quite another thing when you know that the youth was killed soon afterwards in the war he was so looking forward to. But this bit of dramatic irony only sets us up for the really big example of same at the very end of the film when — spoiler alert! — a screen card tells us that U.S. troops "withdrew from the Korengal valley in April, 2010."
Suddenly, the meaning of everything we have seen in the film up to this point, which is everything in the film, is transformed. Triumph turns to futility in an instant and, though it is understated, the anti-war "message" common to just about every war movie made since the 1960s pops up once again with the news that war is futile, pointless and best not entered into at all. Of course, the movie could hardly have been made without this anti-war message, but it is remarkable how few of those who have praised it as an authentic record of American soldiers in combat have been able to recognize this as an ironic cliché. A.O. Scott of The New York Times, for example, is usually a pretty smart guy, but he writes a very stupid thing, a very New York Times-y thing, when he praises the authors because "they reveal one of 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." As if there could ever be any war without such a disjunction.
Likewise, Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times writes glowingly of how the movie is "told solely from the soldiers’ point of view. No politicians. No generals. No military pundits. No activists on either side with their pros and cons at the ready." And that’s supposed to be a good thing? That’s supposed to make it more "real"? Yet what is this but to say that the soldiers’ strivings and sufferings have been taken out of their political, military and diplomatic context — which is, not coincidentally, the only context that could give these things any meaning, in order to imply that there is no meaning to their sacrifices. Didn’t we already see that point made in Apocalypse Now?
But the authors seem not quite to have intended the other kind of irony which is present in their film. Another instance in which meaning is radically altered by context occurs in a shot of some horseplay among the airborne combat troops at their dangerous outpost in which one of the men pipes up about another, it’s not quite clear whom, that "He’s a beautiful man. I’d f*** him back in the States." Without its context, this would be a pretty unambiguous statement of homosexual lust, and one, too, carrying the implication that they’re all "f***ing" each other in Afghanistan but that this is only a makeshift and that a higher standard of masculine pulchritude would be required back in the states for them to engage in such behavior. In its context, however, which is one of uproarious mirth, the soldier’s remark is merely a form of male-bonding humor, a kind of dare to the others even to think about taking him seriously — which their laughter shows they don’t.
Why does what Ms Sharkey calls this "sort of locker room mentality" so often center on sex and, in particular, a flirtation with the idea of homosexuality? Because the bond which it creates among men in a dangerous situation whose lives, as they all know, may well depend on that bond is a form of love. The joking is all by way of demonstrating that that love between them is of a very particular kind and that it is not homosexual love. Obviously, the presence of people who were known by the other men to be homosexuals would destroy any possibility of such humor and, with it, this well-established ritual without which those emotional bonds on which combat effectiveness depends would be weakened. Much of the men’s time in the movie seems to be spent in physical contact with each other, wrestling or otherwise touching as part of an exercise routine. But when they hilariously dance together to Samantha Fox singing:
This is the night, yeah
This is the night
This is the time we've got to get it right
(This is the night)
Touch me, touch me
I want to feel your body
Your heart beat next to mine —
it is an ironic demonstration of their powerful but non-sexual attachment. Clearly, they know that. I wonder if the film-makers do?
Literal demonstrations of the same attachment are given in the film’s talking head interviews with the survivors about "Doc" Restrepo and an on-screen account of Operation Rock Avalanche, in which a popular sergeant is killed and another badly wounded. One thing you can say for this movie is that, unlike some other recent war films such as Gunner Palace the guys with the camera really are in there among the men they are filming and therefore getting shot at themselves. There are also comic moments, as when the men eat a cow which has become entangled in their concertina wire and had to be shot. When the cow’s owner, one of the semi-hostile local Afghanis complains, they find they are unable to compensate him except by giving him the cow’s weight in rice and beans — which must seem like a fair exchange to the men, who presumably don’t get a lot of fresh meat.
On at least two occasions, the company commander, Captain Dan Kearney mentions by name his predecessor at this outpost, Captain Jim McKnight, who appears to have antagonized the local population in a number of ways and in particular by sending Taliban suspects to Bagram air base from where they have never returned. Captain Kearney tells the gathering of local elders that he has said that he is not Capt. McKnight and that they were going to wipe the slate clean or get a new slate after the latter’s departure. "I’m not like McKnight," he tells them reassuringly. But there is no follow-up, no investigation, no spelling out of the deficiencies of the man, just innuendo. If I were Captain McKnight, or his and Captain Kearney’s commanding officer, I would be seriously unhappy about this. But as we have recently learned even our top generals are not immune to speaking indiscreetly to journalists and causing scandal about their colleagues.
And that, too, tells us something about the current state of repair of those bonds between warriors of which Restrepo gives us its ironic demonstration. The Washington Post’s report of the Americans’ withdrawal from Korengal last April called it "a hard lesson in the limits of American power and goodwill in Afghanistan" and averred that General McChrystal and his advisers had "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" — even though the article also tells us that there had only been one American combat death in the valley in the ten months before the retreat. As the article’s author, Greg Jaffe, writes, the risk is that "the withdrawal could offer proof to other Afghans that U.S. troops can be forced out" — which is another way of saying that they know the higher-ups in Kabul and Washington do not feel, as the soldiers in this film do, any particular reason to keep faith with the dead. Probably the film will have done its own little bit to make its portrayal of meaningless sacrifice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ironic, isn’t it?