Saturday, November 14, 2015

Babes in the Woods

Review of the film Restrepo, about US soldiers lost in Afghanistan.

Restrepo is perhaps the foremost cultural document of US involvement in Afghanistan, an documentary of platoon assigned to one of the hottest zones in the war. As film-making, it is very good, mixing post-action interviews and perspective with close footage embedded at the front. Restrepo is the name of an outpost in the Korengal valley of Kunar province some ways west of the Pakistani border, which this platoon founded and held against constant attack by the local population, Taliban, et al. The outpost and valley were later given up to the Taliban after further years of futility. (The film's sequel, named Korengal, is a sentimental pastiche of outtakes from the first effort.)

The men are exemplars of our armed forces; extremely young, immature, good-natured, and given enormous fire-power. They are shattered when a fellow soldier is killed, but kill their enemies with light-hearted glee. Their leader comes across as exemplary as well; disciplined, profane, and effective. Yet something seems sorely missing- knowledge about the social and political setting they have helicoptered into.

Much of the film is taken up with firefights, each side taking potshots at the other. The Taliban set occasional ambushes, but the US soldiers seem only to act as fire bait. They never seem to control the terrain. They set up key forts and mini-forts, and patrol on occasion. But the wider landscape is not theirs to control. Physically, the country is mountainous and thus favorable to guerrilla warfare rather than a mechanized army. And for all our space-based intel, it appears that knowing where the enemy is continues to be extremely challenging.

But the social landscape is even worse, completely incomprehensible to youngsters from the US. Sure, they have GPS, maps and doubtless all the intel our government can provide. But not knowing the local language is an enormous block. The soldiers are tongue-tied trying to relate to villagers through interpreters, hardly getting to first base, as it were, in the campaign for hearts and minds while they are busily tramping through the villager's homes and shooting up the countryside. Their lip service about projects and benefits for the villagers in return for cooperation could just as well have been spoken in Klingon.

Each village is manned by a skeleton crew of boys and ancient codgers. The women are sequestered, and all able-bodied men are off shooting at the Americans. Language barrier or not, the degree of possible cooperation could hardly be more clear. The film-makers don't investigate the local terrain either. They are fully embedded in that sense, not stepping beyond the wire of US control. Could they have clarified the degree to which, and reasons why, the local populace acceed to the terror of the devil they know over the foreign devil they had seen once before, in Soviet uniforms? Doubtful, I am sure, but the question virtually answers itself.

If the US were a traditional conquerer, this wouldn't make much difference. The Afghan men would be killed, the women sold off into slavery, and, as Rome did before us, we would call it peace. But we have renounced such wholesale terror and aim to behave by a higher moral code, as well as hoping to gain friends by practicing temperate and targeted warfare.

Were we even a traditional 20th century conquerer, we would have sent in far more more soldiers. The platoon of Restrepo is hopelessly out-gunned, despite their technical resources. If they had been welcomed as friends, a light footprint might have been sufficient. But at it was, near the border to Pakistan where the Taliban was comfortably ensconced as valued allies of the Pakistani government pursuing its bigoted war against all neighbors, in a rural region were the people are even more attached to their guns and religion (and control of their women) than they are in West Virginia, well, the welcome was not friendly at all. It was like being set down as a lonely platoon on the Ho Chi Minh trail and told to stop the traffic. In that case, as we now know, all the bombing in the world wasn't enough.

Our occupation of Europe after World War 2 succeeded largely because of cultural knowledge and affinity. We knew how to be friendly to a population utterly burned out by war, and even in Japan, we made friends in the wake of the nuclear bomb, due to Japan's strong Westernizing project that had been in motion for the preceeding near-century. In the Middle East, we seem to have very little cultural affinity. Islam is at the core of this, I think, as it combines a bigoted attitude towards infidels (and many forms of social and technical progress) with a lack of governing discipline that leads to endless free-lancing, militia formation, and romantic heroism. Why is government by a polygamous royal family in Saudi Arabia acceptable in the modern world, and accepted as the center and heart of the Islamic world? Yes, it resembles the feudal or even tribal orders of the past. But what kind of justification is that? When is the revolution in political theory and social justice going to happen in the Islamic world?

In Afghanistan, we started well ahead, as the population was not, on the whole, pro-Taliban. But social power is not always democratic, and in Afghanistan, it is a traditional and brutal competition between armed gangs, run by natural predators. Some youngsters from the US might have understood this, but not those in this man's army. Gang warfare is particlarly a matter of social knowledge, knowing were invisible lines are drawn, who is big, who is small, how far to push each person, and what each tag and sign signify. The soldiers of Restrepo are almost completely blind in this respect, which in combination with their other shortcomings made them rather unsuccessful.

But this was just a part of the larger policy. Where are we generally in Afghanistan? The country is slowly losing ground to the Taliban. The government is disorganized and corrupt. Without the US to prop it up and feed the maw of corruption, it is not really clear whether the central government is a going proposition. Which is somewhat odd for a culture so obsessed with morality and honor. Unfortunately honor is a very ambiguous sort of virtue, given to competitiveness and winning over all other considerations, causing suicide bombers to wear burkhas and the like. One may even take it as a cautionary tale for our own slow path towards hyper-competition and feudalism in the West.

After almost fifteen years of occupation / assistance, most Afghan's first allegiance still seems to be tribal rather than national. The cultural elite treat the national government as a part-time affair, good while someone else is paying the bills, but not essential to their power centers, which remain local, in the form of tribal structure, militias, local extortion rings, smuggling, and other pursuits that one might call organized crime. The police operate similarly, by bribery and abuse of citizens. We allied ourselves with the existing powers to get things done locally, while at the same time attempting to change the game nationally by setting up a veneer of democracy and modern bureaucracy in association with ostensibly friendly Afghans. It has been a confusing mess, as much to our own soldiers as to the Afghans whose hearts and minds we intended to change.

  • Now that the Taliban has it so good, it can have fights among rival gangs.
  • Evidently we have to get out of the Middle East because they really are nuts after all, and deserve their caliphate.
  • Why the US needs to police the world, and needs more than kids to do it. Some good, some not so good arguments.
  • On the other hand...
  • A Mormon insurgent politely asks for change.
  • What is going on in Asia and Japan, from a left perspective?
  • More about the robots and unemployment, using the horse analogy.
  • Decoding Republican love of small government.
  • Neural oscillations track both speech and music.
  • Image of the week- life expectancy across the US. The Red South needs better health care and lifestyle ... why are they so dead-set against it? Another aspect of feudalism.


  1. A correspondent offers this link about conditions in Afghanistan.. increasingly promising, as long as peace lasts and a new generation grows up.

  2. Another related film is "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year", about one platoon of the Afghan National army in ~2014, after ISAF had mostly drawn down. These soldiers are fighting in one of the hottest zones, Helmand, trying to keep the Taliban from retaking what the US marines had secured. As we know from later reports, the ANA have not been very successful at this, and the film makes it clear why. They are good men, with a very cool commander. But they are critically incompetent in at least one respect- they never aim their weapons. When they get into a firefight, all their training goes out the window, and they revert to standard Middle East spray-and-pray gunfire. Granted, they are underpaid and undermotivated, but all the same it is disappointing to see such precious resources, such hopeful and abused people being treated, and treating themselves, as cannon-fodder.