Digesting Half-Truths: Dietary Restrictions during War

Oscar-nominated director Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer finalist photojournalist Chris Hondros, both killed in Libya last week (4/20/11), were eulogized on the Democracy Now by show host Amy Goodman. Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch, who worked closely with Hetherington commissioning and disseminating his photos, joined Amy in lamenting the death of the film maker. They report that Hetherington’s last “Twitter” update before he died, contained the oft-repeated complaint of the anti-Qaddafi “rebels” that NATO has let them down.

It is tragic that the bright, young and talented British film maker Tim Hetherington died (from what kind of weapon, from which side, no one knows) during his time embedded with the “rag-tag” bunch of ex-CIA ops and ex-pats (at least one of which had been hanging out in Washington D.C. for the past twenty years with no known means of income), and well known Al-Qaeda affiliated “terrorists” trained for years in Afghanistan, along with ex-Qaddafi defectors, former monarchist royals, and goddess-only-knows-who-else (ask Senator John McCain, he can vouch for all of them) who make up the often ineffective fighters and mercenaries opposing Qaddafi government forces.

At the same time, Hetherington’s fame as a photojournalist who recorded the brutal battles between Afghanistan villagers and US occupation forces with whom he was embedded, merits as much critical inquiry as others who have benefited personally from their work in Afghanistan. For a moment, consider the example of Greg Mortenson whose work is acclaimed as, One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace. His NYT best-seller book, Three Cups Of Tea was investigated for both, “fabrications and finances.”

CBS investigation has raised serious questions about how best-selling author Greg Mortenson’s foundation has spent millions of dollars given in donations for building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whether Mortenson is personally benefiting, and whether some of the most dramatic stories in his books such as Three Cups of Tea are fabrications, CBS reports. The president of the American Institute of Philanthropy says the Central Asia Institute’s financial statements show a troublesome intermingling of Mortenson’s personal business interests with the charity’s public purpose, and that contributors are being misled.”

Hetherington’s film, Restrepo, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. During a recent NPR Diane Rehm Show, an interesting comment on that acclaimed film was slipped in between the lines of conversation:

Friday News Roundup – Hour 2 – (Where DR show guests note that Tim Hetherington, the photographer killed last week in Libya, had produced a “very powerful documentary on Afghanistan,” which would be “rebroadcast on National Geographic.”

One NPR listener called into the Diane Rehm show with the following questions/comments:

NICK (11:55:07) called in to the program from San Antonio, Texas:

My question is about the Restrepo documentary. It’s being showed to sort of highlight the career of this guy. Really it focuses on, you know, the soldiers and their plight and their situation that they’re doing in Afghanistan. And it’s kind of an interesting dichotomy, you know, the outside looking in, giving those kind of views to the general population that haven’t been to these countries and how it’s viewed by the media especially.

David Ignatius(11:55:53) of the Washington Post, a guest on the show, responded to Nick:

I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ve been to the place that the documentary describes, which is the Korangal Valley in the far northeast of Afghanistan. And I’d just say that’s about the toughest fight that our soldiers have had. And you could argue the most senseless. We were fighting local people who were really insular and this conflict turned out to be largely about their rage at the government in Kabul over taxes on their logging industry, which they didn’t like. And, you know, our kids bled and died in this fight which was captured in this apparently magnificent documentary.

Well that was the end of that conversation. Rehm never got back to the caller, Nick, and no one had anything more to say about Hetherington’s sympathetic relationship to the US soldiers involved in that “senseless” slaughter for which so many “bled and died.”

There are other disparaging accounts of that five year long bloody battle in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan:

It was as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding — a tragic, bloody misunderstanding… More than 40 U.S. troops have been killed, and scores more wounded, in helicopter crashes, machine-gun attacks and grenade blasts in the Korengal Valley, a jagged sliver just six miles long and a half-mile wide. The Afghan death toll has been far higher, making the Korengal some of the bloodiest ground in all of Afghanistan, according to American and Afghan officials. (( “U.S. retreat from Afghan valley marks recognition of blunder” – Washington Post.))

Two years before his aforementioned appearance on the DR show, and in response to a New York Times report describing the “bloody standoff in the Korengal Valley between American troops and die-hard tribal warriors, David Ignatius had found himself asking:

Why is the United States fighting insurgents in the remote Korengal Valley in the first place? The [NYT] story described the enemy as ‘Taliban,’ but it said the locals are angry ‘in part because they are loggers and the Afghan government banned almost all timber cutting, putting local men out of work.’ There’s apparently no sign of Al-Qaeda in the valley, where people are fiercely independent and speak their own exotic language. (( “Using force to suppress Afghan tribesmen is bound to fail.”))

Sebastian Junger, Hetherington’s Co-Director of the film describes the battles recorded in the Korengal Valley and immortalized in their film, Restrepo, as violent and dangerous encounters with Taliban fighters, involving “really intense, old-fashioned war.” However, for the film directors’ purposes, it really does not matter whether the target of the young US soldiers were towns people or Taliban. Junger insists viewers must leave politics out of it if they are to take in the full impact and the deeper lesson of this film. We are not to let intellect interfere with experiencing the raw emotions of being a soldier who knows nothing of politics and could care less. This mindless, mentally captivating commitment to “kill or be killed” survivalist bonding is apparently what Junger and Hetherington became a part of during the 5 months they lived with and filmed the young, oh so young, US combatants. Maj. Daniel Kearney, the platoon leader told CBS that he and the soldiers felt Hetherington and Junger were battle hard brothers that any of them would have laid down their lives for. ((Restrepo: In ‘The Valley of Death’.))

As you watch the film or video clips thereof, you can see just how very young these battle-ready boys were. Many appear to be teenagers. Keep in mind, that at 18 years of age, the brain has not yet matured. Literally, the frontal lobe (that part of the brain that integrates and facilitates judgment, impulse control, memory, decision-making, self-reflection, problem solving, social behavior, and many other crucial functions) will not reach full maturity until those young guys are at least  twenty-five years old. (The debated range of maturation is between ages 25-27.)

After suffering fatalities in battle, the platoon leader tells these young soldiers to “mourn, and get over it. And do your job.” Apparently, in order to virtually share the combat experience, the audience should also turn feelings on and off quickly. Or, like these teenage fighters, respond with stony-faced silence. You can breakdown or blow up when you get back home. If you get back home. That’s “real old-fashioned war.” That’s war as it has always been.

Hetherington and his media colleague, Sebastian Junger, said they had set out to create a “very visceral war film from a [US] soldier’s perspective.” ((Restrepo – Doctalk. )) They wanted to confront the audience with “how [U.S. soldiers] cope with combat psychologically and emotionally, and how society deals with war morally.” They intended to keep it simple, and emotional.

Clearly, to treat with similar intimacy and sensitivity the suffering of the villagers the American military men were killing–to understand the horror and desperation those Afghan families experienced under attack from US soldiers with whom they had no dispute (according to David Ignatius, et al.); or to question who and why that “young group of [American] men” had been ordered to kill those particular Afghan men, women, and children in that remote corner of their country–would be to go beyond the “simple, emotional” lesson the movie makers felt needed to be “digested by the American public,” and probably beyond the dietary restrictions of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival judges also.

Mary Lynn Cramer, MA, MSW, LICSW, low-income senior enrolled in an MA HMO, has a background in History of Economic Thought, and Clinical Social Work. She can be reached at: mllynn2@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Mary Lynn.