Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2010


Filed under: Afghanistan,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

On April 22, 2006 I reviewed a documentary titled “The War Tapes” that was made up of footage filmed by members of a New Hampshire National Guard Unit who had been given videocameras by director Deborah Scranton.

This is from that review:

For students of popular culture, the film will evoke two other works almost immediately. When the GI’s speak about their “job” in Iraq, they will remind you of the principals in “Cops,” Fox TV’s long-running “reality show”. Speaking into the camera, the cops talk about how much their career means to them, even if it involves being immersed in their city’s underbelly and being forced to confront “bad guys” on a daily basis at the risk to life and limb. This basically is the attitude that the New Hampshire National Guardsmen exhibit throughout the film, except that the “bad guys” are insurgents rather than crack dealers.

You will also be reminded of “The Perfect Storm,” another film about working class New Englanders filled with bravado and stoicism on another doomed mission. In close quarters either in a tent or in a HUMV, the New Hampshire National Guardsmen trade jibes with each other in dialogue that is strikingly evocative of the characters in “The Perfect Storm.” Although all of the major characters in “The War Tapes” eventually arrive home safely, there is no question that their lives will never be the same.

As fate would have it, within a year Sebastian Junger, the author of “The Perfect Storm”, would find himself in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley making a movie called “Restrepo” very much in the vein of “The War Tapes”. “Restrepo” was the last name of a Latino member of the unit featured in the film killed in action.  They named their small godforsaken outpost after him, a dubious honor no matter the noble intentions.

The movie was filmed and directed by Junger and Tim Hetherington, both of whom were regular contributors to Vanity Fair magazine, a glitzy publication devoted mostly to gossiping about Eurotrash and hedge fund managers. It is also a place where you can read some first-rate journalism, including a column by James Wolcott who has mentioned the unrepentant Marxist from time to time. In the press notes for “Restrepo”, the directors set down their “non-political” ambitions, by now familiar to anybody who has seen the press releases for “The Hurt Locker”:

The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.

But In January 2008 Vanity Fair you can read an article by Junger titled “Into the Valley of Death” that basically covers the same ground as the movie. Despite the above disclaimer about not making a political statement, he clearly is pessimistic about the goals of the war:

By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart. The Afghan opium crop has flourished in the past two years and now represents 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an estimated street value of $38 billion in 2006. That money helps bankroll an insurgency that is now operating virtually within sight of the capital, Kabul. Suicide bombings have risen eightfold in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in Kabul, and as of October, coalition casualties had surpassed those of any previous year. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that ethnic and political factions in the northern part of the country have started stockpiling arms in preparation for when the international community decides to pull out. Afghans—who have seen two foreign powers on their soil in 20 years—are well aware of the limits of empire. They are well aware that everything has an end point, and that in their country end points are bloodier than most.

The film consists mostly of cinéma vérité footage of the soldiers dodging insurgent bullets, roughhousing with each other, or meeting with village elders to hear their complaints. This alternates with members of the unit back in civilian life reminiscing about Restrepo, which can best be described as a season in hell.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the alienation from their environment that these soldiers experience. Totally isolated from both the Afghans they supposedly are defending and indifferent apparently to the “rooting out the terrorists” ideology that justifies their presence, they seem more like contestants in a mortal version of the television show “Fear Factor”. Instead of eating worms, they eat bullets.

In one of the more powerful scenes in the film, we see the aftermath of a firefight that left one of their comrades dead. One soldier cannot help but sob. Since the dead man was considered a crack soldier, what chance did the others have? They press on, however, mostly out of loyalty to each other than any over-arching imperialist agenda, a growing tendency in American interventions over the past 30 years or so when the clash between naked reality and textbook ideals becomes impossible to bridge.

The characters in the film are largely forgettable with the exception of a handful. A perpetually smiling and baby-faced Miguel Cortez admits in an interview after he has returned to a “normal” life in the U.S.: “I can’t even sleep, honestly. I’ve been on about four or five different types of sleeping pills, and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep and not to dream about it. … To sleep and just see the picture in my head is pretty bad.”

Another character has the unlikely name of Misha Pemble-Belkin, the Jewish son of parents he describes as “hippies” who were so antiwar that they would not permit him to play with toy guns. Now he is a tried and true killer just like the rest. The Vanity Fair article fills in some details:

A 22-year-old private named Misha Pemble-Belkin is sitting on the edge of a cot, cutting the pocket off his uniform. On his left forearm Pemble-Belkin has a tattoo of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship that became entrapped by sea ice in Antarctica in 1915. “It’s the greatest adventure story ever,” Pemble-Belkin says by way of explanation. He takes the pocket he has just liberated and sews it over a rip in the crotch of his pants, which he is still wearing. The men spend their days clambering around shale hillsides dotted with holly trees, and most of their uniforms are in shreds. Pemble-Belkin uses his free time back at the kop painting and playing guitar, and says that his father was a labor organizer who supports the troops absolutely, but has protested every war the United States has ever been in. His mother sends him letters written on paper she makes by hand.

But the most revealing scenes involve their commanding officer, a Captain Dan Kearney who is obviously more into the imperialist mindset than the men beneath him. In one meeting with the village elders, he admits that his men had killed some innocent villagers in the past but now it was time to put all that past them. As Dan DiMaggio put it in a review of the movie that was posted here, this was singularly arrogant:

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.

Some day an enterprising director will seek out those village elders as well as the insurgents who we know nothing about from “Restrepo” in order to tell their story. Despite their backwardness, they are fighting to expel oppressive foreigners from their native soil—an elementary democratic right that Hollywood is not ready to respect. It will take someone like Gillo Pontecorvo to make that kind of film. God knows we need someone like that right now.

Until that time comes along, “Restrepo” is not a bad introduction to the horrors of imperialism no matter the stated claim of Sebastian Junger to make a movie that was not about politics. It can now be rented from Netflix.


  1. My only dissent in your well written essay. “The characters in the film are largely forgettable with the exception of a handful.”…Whatever I think of them, I would say they are not film characters in a film there to entertain, but human beings.

    Comment by Erik — November 15, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  2. Fantastic review Louis – maybe one of your best.

    Comment by Dan DiMaggio — November 15, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  3. Is it a coincidence that these “apolitical” films about the war(s) are full of stoic macho bullshit?

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — November 15, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

  4. It’s no “coincidence” Brian. Wars have always relied on “stoic macho bullshit”. Patrirachy and Militarism are brothers in arms.

    Carlin called it “Dick Fear.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 20, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  5. […] CULTURAL DISSENT Books: Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy – Written after A Coup for the Rich, which landed him with lèse majesté charges and forced him to flee Thailand in February 2009, Giles Ungpakorn’s latest book presents an objective and engaging account of Thai politics since the September 2006 military coup. http://tinyurl.com/237yuoq Books: Obama: The man who couldn’t – Tariq Ali The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad Verso, 2010 • 160 pages • $17 Review by Scott McLemee http://www.isreview.org/issues/74/rev-obama.shtml Film: Prince of Broadway https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/prince-of-broadway/ Documentary: Restrepo https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/restrepo-2/ […]

    Pingback by #356: Sat Nov 27: “STAND UP FIGHT BACK! ANOTHER AOTEAROA IS POSSIBLE!” – Unite sponsored day of dialogue with activists against injustice and inequality: « GPJA's Blog — November 21, 2010 @ 2:26 am

  6. RESTREPO airs for the 1st time on TV on the National Geographic Channel tonight.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 29, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  7. […] Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm Joining the previously reviewed Restrepo and Last Train Home, three documentaries were sent to me by various studios to be considered for a […]

    Pingback by Three 2010 documentaries « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 6, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  8. You know nothing abot Afganstan one tribe sell out another tribe, one clan at the throat of another clan, no trust no faith in fellow human being so just as
    Amerika want to establish some kind of sanity and normal thing you kall them imperilist and want out. No my man–any konflict wheir soldier and civilian mix up will be injustice and collateral damage but this give Afgan a chance. America goes and Afgan will go to the dogs back as after soviet withdrawed–people celebrated first, then cried and cried up to 2001.

    Comment by Derwish — December 8, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

  9. Sorry Derwish but you’re severely misguided in your understanding of The Afghan War, that is, who started it and why, nevermind the Pashtun & other tribes-people that are fighting it.

    Yea they “cried & cried up to 2001” and then wiped their tears and hunkered down for yet another protracted fight against another salvo of marauding white invaders who kill from the ground & sky indiscriminantly, but this time from their most powerful and often most cowardly adversary, one that vaporizes with laser guided missiles from the sky with un-manned drones, the latest testament to the evil genius of humankind under capitalist rule.

    Because of films like “Restrepo” and the increasinglt documnted & often heroic self-sacrifice of unwitting “paid volunteer soldiers” (I’m pretty sure the definition of “mercenary” is still a “paid volunteer soldier) and their exploits documented therein, the ruling class will resort increasingly to the more cowardly & efficient killing methods of un-manned drones, which of course is an excersize in mindless perfidy without corresponding ground troops to clean up the mess — troops that will never arrive.

    When it comes to Afghanistan, Derwish, you need to get your head and your ass wired together with the Black wire on Negative and Red wire on Positive before you wind up looking like a bigger fool, sellout, hack, imbecile, dupe, than President Obama.

    The fact is this country that was bankrupted on the backs of the working class by neocon goon squads tied to big oil can’t even afford to win Afghanistan on it’s own terms, that is, the cost of a gallon of gas, which even the Pentagon admits costs the US Taxpayer an average of $400 per gallon to keep evey jet, helicopter, humvee, ambulance, water tanker, fuel tanker, supply semi & mail truck running.

    Just read & weep about the unsustainable hubris and squalor and then please come back with what you think you know:: http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/63407-400gallon-gas-another-cost-of-war-in-afghanistan-

    Just imagine the diameter of the fuel lines that supply the enormous engines of planes like A-10 WartHogs, Apache helicopters, not to mention the long list of other ginormous killing machines then tell us more stories about the morality of the US Commitment in Afghanistan.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 9, 2010 @ 1:37 am

  10. r.ipx to one of the filmakers that was killed in syria recently.you taught me alot.
    § Is an important article on a jawdropping film.
    I cant believe they screened this to troops at Fort Bragg etc.Would they really show it to first timers?
    Id be running out the door.
    Can u imagine the pep talks b/f & after?
    I sadly admit im a lazy hippie frm oz.
    I dont know much abt politics or war,only generally.
    However watching this movie woke me up.
    It was like a slap in the face for me emotionally in understanding imperial ego,soldiers,afghans.
    What the hell are we teaching our boys.?
    I felt much for the Afghans firstly..
    How do they stand a chance at societal health after generations of invasion?
    The elders looked almost ethereal,like a thousand years old.they have inherited & seen lifetimes of deceit,wars..
    The elders,what they have seen,done, betrays there feminine kohl eyeliner & beautiful henna beards.
    And then i felt for alot of the soldiers.. pawns in the Usas cruel psychosis for war.
    Maiming its own- some fragile, innocent boys- troops emotionally for life…

    Comment by catherine.d — August 19, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

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