Why are we in Afghanistan? The question burst into the national consciousness again recently, prompted by a trio of events: the grim milestone observed in early June when the war against the Taliban surpassed the Vietnam war as America’s longest military conflict, the explosive Rolling Stone story that forced Stanley McChrystal to resign as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the political firestorm ignited by GOP chairman Michael Steele two weeks ago when he absurdly labeled the conflict “a war of Obama’s choosing.” The answer is so complicated and unpleasant that merely posing the question is enough to infuriate some politicians, as Steele learned when his Republican colleagues turned on him for challenging the war’s wisdom. But it deserves to be asked again and again, every time an American soldier comes home in a box.
Two new documentaries offer strikingly different perspectives on the war, and though neither yields a definitive answer, each recognizes and respects the enormity of the question. The Oath, which opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, tells the story of two friends who served Osama bin Laden in the late 90s and contrasts the price each paid for his proximity to the 9/11 hijackers. Restrepo, which continues this week at Pipers Alley, records the 15-month deployment of a U.S. platoon in the Korangal Valley, nicknamed the Valley of Death because so many soldiers have been lost there. Viewed separately, each movie is a lesson in humanity and a moving story of men swept up in the tide of a worldwide conflict; viewed together, as opposite sides of the same coin, they’re tragic beyond reckoning.
If you followed news coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks and their aftermath, you’ve probably heard of the two Yemeni men profiled by Laura Poitras in The Oath. Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, Abu Jandal was 19 when he left home in 1994 to wage jihad in Bosnia; by 1997, he and his friend Salim Hamdan had been recruited by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Jandal served as bin Laden’s bodyguard and emir of a guesthouse for Al Qaeda trainees, where he met several of the 9/11 hijackers. Hamdan, described as a quieter and more reflective sort, worked as bin Laden’s chauffeur. After the attacks, the FBI spent five days interrogating Jandal, who’d been arrested a year earlier in connection with the U.S.S. Cole bombing, and his testimony—bought with sweets and kind words—helped link Al Qaeda to 9/11. Hamdan was captured by U.S. forces during the Afghanistan invasion, and his imprisonment as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice became the basis for the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
The bitter irony of The Oath is that Jandal, an enthusiastic Al Qaeda member, got off easy compared to Hamdan, who was apparently little more than a hired hand. Jandal was already incarcerated in Yemen when the 9/11 attacks took place, and after participating in the Dialogue Committee, a rehabilitation program for jihadists, he was released in 2003. He settled down with his family in Sana’a, and the Yemeni government helped him buy a taxi. Hamdan, taken on the battlefield, was the first man personally associated with bin Laden to be captured and therefore a valuable symbol. He spent years in solitary confinement without being charged, and after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor—a dramatic rebuke to the Bush administration—Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which codified the crimes with which Hamdan was then charged: conspiracy and “material support” of terrorism. He was acquitted of the first charge and sentenced to time served, plus five months, for the second. Hamdan didn’t see his family again until January 2009.
“Days and years have gone by, and all I have left is God,” Hamdan writes in a 2008 letter to Jandal. “The One who creates merely by saying ‘Be,’ and so it is. I ask God to end our captivity, of which we have no choice or guilt. We have committed no crime.” Because Hamdan has refused to speak to the media since his release, Poitras can represent him only through his letters and an eerie black-and-white videotape of him being interrogated in Afghanistan in November 2001. By contrast, Jandal has become a media star in Yemen, appearing on TV interview programs and entertaining groups of awestruck young men with tales of his Al Qaeda exploits. His release agreement prohibits him from recruiting for jihad, but in one scene, cracking open a Coke, he defends the 9/11 hijackers to a young visitor who points out that they killed innocent people. “What’s the difference between the innocents of America and the innocents of Iraq and Palestine?” Jandal asks.
None of The Oath was filmed in Afghanistan, but this turns out to be a lesson in itself: while American soldiers fight and die to build a more functional nation under Hamid Karzai, Al Qaeda has long since moved on to Yemen and Somalia. Even Abu Jandal fears the new generation of violent jihadists, telling a New York Times reporter, “They believe they should attack any foreign target, no matter what. And it is difficult to lead this generation. When things get out of control, it’s hard to control this generation.” Yet he smiles indulgently when his young son announces he want to become a jihadist, and a snapshot displayed by the proud father shows the boy as an infant, lying on a blanket with an AK-47 at his side. Jandal discourages his visitors from pursuing political solutions: “The Islamic nation understands that as soon as you enter the political field, you’re out. But if you stay on the battlefield, then a soldier can kill a king.”
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the two journalists who made Restrepo, stayed on the battlefield for months, and they express their own disinterest in the politics of the war. “Soldiers rarely take part in that discussion,” they note in their directors’ statement. “Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. . . . 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.”
With its verite scenes of intense combat and candid interviews of U.S. soldiers (shot in Italy after the deployment), Restrepo comes closer to their experience than any documentary I’ve seen. But the most valuable lesson I took from it was that I’ll never completely understand.
The directors are wrong, though, when they suggest that Restrepo is divorced from politics: the soldiers may not spend their time spouting off like Michael Steele, but their mission is steeped in the practical politics of winning over a suspicious populace. The desolate Korangal Valley lies in southeastern Afghanistan, populated by poor farmers and goatherds, and it’s a major thoroughfare for Taliban fighters as they shuttle from Kabul to the Pakistan border. In 2006 U.S. forces established an outpost there, and the 15-man platoon in the movie, whose deployment lasted from May 2007 to August 2008, managed to build a second outpost—named Restrepo after one of their dead comrades—where they endured as many as five firefights a day. The army’s ultimate objective is to pave a road through the valley that will allow the locals to flourish economically, but the meetings the directors record between U.S. officers and leathery Afghan elders are clouded by mistrust. “Hearts and minds,” the soldiers remind each other in one scene, though it’s hard to tell whether the gunfire directed at them every day has turned the phrase into a grim joke.
The only hearts and minds explored in Restrepo are those of the soldiers, who’ve survived so many horrors that they can afford to drop the tight-jawed machismo of most fighting men confronted with a camera. Junger and Hetherington were on hand for Operation Rock Avalanche, a nightmarish assault on a Taliban safe haven that several men name as their most frightening experience. “I saw a lot of professional tough guys get weak in the knees,” says one. The movie records the chaos during a Taliban ambush on the third day, as Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle is killed and another soldier melts down, demanding to see the body. “Don’t look at him!” insists a third. “It was quick, all right?” But the death clearly struck a nerve. “He was one of the best, if not the best,” explains Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice. “That was what was tough for a lot of people, knowing that, in the back of my mind, ‘Well, if the best guy we have out here just got killed, what does that mean for me?'” Trying to recall the same event, Sergeant Aron Hijar drifts off in midsentence, as if seeing something far away, before he mutters, “Time out.”
A title card at the end of Restrepo reveals that in late 2009 U.S. forces began pulling out of the Korangal Valley, and three months after the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the last U.S. soldier vacated the original Korangal Outpost as the valley was abandoned to the Taliban, part of General McChrystal’s plan to redeploy forces in urban areas where they might have greater impact. “There were never enough soldiers to crush the insurgency,” wrote Alissa J. Rubin in the New York Times, “and after four years, it became clear that there was not much worth winning in this sparsely populated valley.” Leaving the Valley of Death, where 42 American soldiers were killed, was “a tacit admission that putting the base there in the first place was a costly mistake.” Whether the U.S. mission there will turn out to be a microcosm of the entire war remains to be seen, but that hardly reflects on the men who fought there. As Tennyson wrote, theirs was not to reason why.