How I Filmed the Afghan War
Tim Hetherington, who spent a year embedded in Afghanistan with writer Sebastian Junger, died in Libya on Wednesday. In June 2010 in The Daily Beast, he recalled his time on the ground in Afghanistan amid fire fights, and how they made the documentary Restrepo. Read his original story below. Plus, David Graham reports on Hetherington’s final hours.
A few months ago, I received a phone call from Santana ‘Rudy’ Rueda, one of the soldiers from Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne. I was supposed to join him at a film festival in Missouri for a screening of the film Restrepo, but had not been able to make it there because of a snowstorm in New York. He sounded a little out of breath and stunned.
“Tim, man, you’re not going to believe this.”
“Why? What’s going on Rudy?”
“I – I’m standing across the street from the movie theater, and they’ve got the name Restrepo in massive letters above it on the sign board. I can’t believe it.”
“That’s good huh?” I asked.
“Yeah. But I just never thought that I’d see my dead friend’s name written so large.”
Nearly three years earlier, in 2007, I had gone on assignment for Vanity Fair with the writer Sebastian Junger to Afghanistan. Sebastian had an idea that he wanted to follow a platoon of U.S. soldiers over the course of a deployment, and had first come across Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne while in Zabol province in Southern Afghanistan in 2005. He was impressed by the soldiers, and decided that if they redeployed, he’d follow them. This time they returned to the Korengal Valley, a mountainous valley in the north east of the country. It was infamous as the site of one of the deadliest single attacks on the U.S. military since the war began in 2001—three Navy SEALs were killed in an ambush there in 2005, while a helicopter carrying Special Forces sent to rescue them was shot down, killing all 16 American troops on board.
• Sebastian Junger’s WarWe arrived in the Korengal while the world’s gaze was still firmly centered on Iraq, and were shocked by the amount of combat actually taking place there. By the end of October 2007, 16 percent of all combat in the entire country was taking place in that six-mile long valley, 70 percent of U.S. ordinance being used in Afghanistan were being used in the Korengal’s area of operation (AO), and Battle Company was running a casualty rate of 25 percent killed or wounded. It was clear to us that the war in Afghanistan had spiralled out of control.
Outpost Restrepo lay at the furthest point of American control in the valley. It was a small platoon-sized outpost that clung to the rugged mountainside, protected on one side by steep rock walls and commanding views. The army has a habit of putting their best units in the worst positions—so when we arrived in the valley we asked the commanding officer there, Dan Kearney, who was taking the brunt of the fighting. He pointed up to the position, and said “Second platoon, they’re based up at Restrepo. They’re the tip of the spear.”
Restrepo was built by hand after a group of soldiers walked up the mountainside in the middle of the night and started digging. The next day they continued and took breaks as the enemy launched numerous attacks on their position. For a long time the outpost was simply a small area protected by sandbags and larger cloth-filled rock bags. It had no running water or electricity, and the soldiers slept out in the open amid the thick dust. In the morning, they would clear their kit ready for the constant fighting. I remember there being three or four fire fights in a single day, though the record was 14. The outpost was named after the platoon medic Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, a popular soldier who was killed early on in the deployment. At first, many of the soldiers didn’t like the fact that the outpost was named after him—they thought it a dishonor to name such a dirty and ramshackle place after their friend. However, as time went on and the strategic importance of Restrepo became recognized, they felt the name started to fit the place and it developed into a point of pride.
Sebastian and I decided early on that we wanted to focus on Second Platoon to make the most experiential and visceral movie we could. There were a lot of very competent reporters making commentary on the war, and there were three-minute network news pieces that placed the reporter at the center of the action, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of visual material that really conveyed how the war was being fought. Ultimately we wanted to build a bridge from what the soldiers experience out there to people back here. We wanted to make a keyhole through which one can look into the lives of these men—at both the good things and the bad things that happen in war—and by doing so, write their names large in our minds at this crucial moment.
As the movie opens at theaters, we would urge you to go and see. Leave your politics in the lobby of the theater, and immerse yourselves in a 90-minute deployment, because whatever your beliefs—whether you are for or against the war, or you simply are not sure—we hope this viewing experience will be a useful starting point for a deeper analysis and political discussion about the war in Afghanistan.
Tim Hetherington was a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and based in New York. He was a cameraman on Liberia: an Uncivil War
(2004) and The Devil Came on Horseback
(2007), and his directorial debut film Restrepo was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. His book Infidel was published by Chris Boot in 2010. Hetherington was killed in Libya April 20, 2011.