There’s no truth in non-fiction. The world is not revived by parsing facts. To show the truth of things, I believe, you have to make things new, and strange – in the way of great fiction. Objectivity is not enlightening if you’re looking for truth; neither, oddly, is experience. Just because you’ve been to war, it doesn’t mean you can tell a true war story. As Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” As much as I respect and admire the bravery it took for Tim Hetherington to make Restrepo, I didn’t feel the atoms of war any more keenly after watching it. This is war as we know it, not as it is. For truth, I believe, we need fiction.
Restrepo was the name of a solider: Private First Class Juan “Doc” Restrepo, who was killed in action in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Restrepo was a member of Second Platoon, Battle Company, which was assigned to the Korengal to fight the Taliban as part of the “War on Terror”. Between June 2007 and June 2008, the photographer and film-maker Tim Hetherington and the journalist Sebastian Junger went to the Korengal Valley to make a documentary about the war. They were embedded with Second Platoon during some of the heaviest fighting in the region, during which “nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan was fought by 150 soldiers from Battle Company.”
The trouble is: real gun-fights are fought at a distance. “Combat footage” is mostly shots of men shooting. We can’t see what they’re shooting at. As I watched battle erupt in Restrepo, I couldn’t help but contrast it with Heart of Darkness and Marlowe’s description of a French gun-boat “…firing into a continent.” (“Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.”) Seeing one side of a fight is surreal, like watching a tiger mauling empty space. You fear for the men, you may even feel a sense of adrenaline. But it doesn’t tell you anything. You’re not inside the experience.
Similarly, it’s hard to convey the heart-sucking vacuum of sudden death, when we don’t know the soldiers who die. When Second Platoon lose “Doc” Restrepo, the heart is torn out of their unit. But Tim Hetherington only shot a tiny amount of footage of Restrepo (scarcely more than a few frames), so it’s hard to know who he was, aside from his smile and his way with a guitar. In documentary making, you’re at the mercy of fate: you can’t know the hero of your story is, or what your story means, ’til after you’re finished. Like filming someone else’s movie as the actors walk about; the shape of things is thrust upon you. The strength of fiction is the ability to control fate, and thereby shape things, so not to miss the truth.
This isn’t to say Restrepo doesn’t know what it’s about. Hetherington intended his film as a tribute to fighting men, in all their brash, unreconstructed glory. Men, like Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, who describes his hippie upbringing and how he was never allowed to play with guns as a child… before gleefully firing mortars into a canyon. Or men, like lantern-jawed Captain Dan Kearney, who tells Afghan elders at a tribal council: “You’re not understanding that I don’t fucking care.” In Sebastian Junger’s accompanying book, he writes about soldiers who “go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips” …and it’s clear that Junger has a hard-on for these guys. Tim Hetherington’s documentary is only objective in that it doesn’t take a position on the war. As far as soldiers go: it’s a one-and-a-half-hour fist pump.
“War is hell,” wrote Tim O’Brien, “but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.” Francis Ford Coppola never went to war, and yet he directed Apocalypse Now, which is about all those things. I’m being unfair to Restrepo by asking a documentary to live up to those standards. But why look at war if you’re not going to look at life? Non-fiction is too narrow too often. It’s not mysterious enough. Life is not just things happening. That’s why it isn’t just anyone who can tell us about life. To be true to life you have to marry the impossible. For the truth about the war in Afghanistan: you need to send a poet.