Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Update at bottom

After hearing about Tim Hetherington’s death in Libya yesterday, I decided to push his documentary “Restrepo” to the top of my long to-do list, to experience the power of this Oscar-nominated documentary for myself.

And powerful it is. “Restrepo” chronicles the experience of a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a site of continual battle with the Taliban. Many articles have focused on the film’s intensely visceral perspective (see David Carr at The New York Times), and I have to agree. But it’s also more.

The film is a character study, in which Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (who wrote of his experience in the book “War”), are fully present with the soldiers yet allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.

While undeniably sympathetic to the troops, “Restrepo” also challenges us to reflect on the full range of the troops life in war. We see clowning around in down time. We see intense grief over the death of one of their own. We see the terrible consequences when U.S. fire injures civilians, including children. And we are left to wrestle with what this all means.

By the end of the film it’s difficult to offer a definitive answer, and even in post-deployment interviews the soldiers wrestle their experience and what they accomplished. However, it is tough to read in the closing credits that in April 2010 (just before the release of “Restrepo”) the United States withdrew all troops from the valley.

What’s important about Hetherington (and photographer Chris Hondros, who also died yesterday) was not just that he sought to bear witness, but how he pursued this task.  As Jon Lee Anderson noted in The New Yorker:

I think it’s safe for me to say that what Tim was trying to do by going to war was to look into the souls of men, whose truths are perhaps more exposed in that environment than in any other—and to show the rest of us what he saw. He gave us a legacy in the important work he left behind, and, for those of us who had the honor to know Tim as a friend, a cherished memory of a man whose own soul was very intact.

This is true regardless of the medium: with film, as was the case in “Restrepo,” or with still photography, as shown in his book “Infidel,” which Hetherington discusses in the clip at the top of this post — displaying a bit of his own soul along the way.

Amid the extreme inhumanity of war, Hetherington extended grace to his subjects by never losing sight of their humanity. Just as important, he also refused to apply the false gloss of manufactured glory. In doing so, he honored all his subjects.

The New York Times’ Lens blog has a very nice overview of Hetherington’s work. They offer the same with Hondros’ astounding photography, which you’ve likely seen even if you don’t recognize his name. And below, you can watch the trailer for “Restrepo.”

Update: Junger has posted a tribute at Vanity Fair. He concludes:

Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.

That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.

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Sometimes you read a story that is so moving it defies words.

British Lance Cpl. Liam Tasker and his dog Theo became famous for their work in uncovering explosive devices in Afghanistan — some 14 in about six months. But earlier this month Tasker was killed by a sniper.

Hours after Tasker’s death, Theo died of what officials called a “seizure,” but as Tasker’s mother said:

 I’m not nurse or a vet, (but) I would like to believe (Theo) died of a broken heart to be with Liam.

Read the entire story and pray for Tasker’s family — and all the others who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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That’s what I felt after watching “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” the new documentary on post-traumatic stress in military personnel, which is now showing on HBO.

It’s part history lesson and part contemporary reflection, cutting back-and-forth between wars past and present to remind us that the harm done to the minds and souls of soldiers has been a constant throughout warfare. As one soldier says in the video clip: “It will tear you apart.”

What changes is our language for it and the degree to which we pay attention, if at all.

This documentary is tough viewing; the images of warfare and the stories of broken lives are heartbreaking to see and hear. But considering all that is asked of our military, at the very least we owe it to the soldiers to watch and listen.

We just finished celebrating Veterans Day, filled with warm words and encouraging stories to honor those who have served. “Wartorn” does us a service by pulling into the light the consequences of war that our public remembrances push into the periphery.

Veterans Day is nice, but it’s here one day and gone the next. Post-traumatic stress disorder stays. If we really are serious about “honoring” those who serve in the military, that honor is incomplete until we insist that our troops receive the care and support they need.

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For a glimpse of grace on this grim anniversary of 9/11, one place to look is Nicholas Kristof’s column in Thursday’s New York Times.

Kristof revisits one of the many remarkable stories that emerged from terrorist attack, one that supplies us with hope to counter the toxic discourse of the past month. It is the story of how Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, two widows of 9/11, responded to their terrible loss by deciding to reach out to an even larger group of widows — thousands of women of Afghanistan.

Their efforts have born fruit in an organization called Beyond the 11th, which has supplied aid to more than 1,000 war widows in Afghanistan. A small start when you consider the scale of bloodshed through the years of war, but it’s an effort with a voice so much larger than indicated by numbers. As Retik told Kristof:

More jobs mean less violence It would be naïve to think that we can change the country, but change has to start somewhere. If we can provide a skill for a woman so that she can provide for her family going forward, then that’s one person or five people who will have a roof over their head, food in their bellies and a chance for education.

There’s a 2006 documentary on Retik and Quigley’s journey called “Beyond Belief.” I missed it when it came out, but just watching the trailer was enough to leave me near tears. To the conclusion of Kristof’s column, I can only add an amen:

I admire Ms. Retik’s work partly because she offers an antidote to the pusillanimous anti-Islamic hysteria that clouds this anniversary of 9/11. Ms. Retik offers an alternative vision by reaching out to a mosque and working with Muslims so that in the future there will be fewer widows either here or there.

Her work is an invigorating struggle to unite all faiths against those common enemies of humanity, ignorance and poverty — reflecting the moral and mental toughness that truly can chip away at terrorism.

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When you finish watching “The Tillman Story,” you leave the theater feeling both inspired and sick to your stomach. Inspired by a family’s determination to find out the truth about their son. Sick from the lies that they have had to endure.

The documentary is about the death of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals defensive back who gave up his football career after 9/11 and joined the U.S. Army along with his brother Kevin, only to die at the hands of “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.

At its core, however, the movie is more about how Tillman’s family discovered that Pat was no longer their own, but an object for use by others. Therefore, in their search to discover the truth about Pat’s death, the Tillman family had to deconstruct a mythology that the United States attempted to build around him. This mythology, and the lies upon which it was built, is the focal point of the film.

The film does offer some glimpses at Pat Tillman the person, an independent thinker, rugged risk-taker and gentle-spirited man with rough edges. But as director Amir Bar-Lev recently told The Seattle Times, the film does not attempt to construct an alternative mythology:

When you turn someone into a symbol, you appropriate him. We were hoping to give Pat back to his family, whose grief was trounced with platitudes. That direction was more interesting than mythologizing him further. There is something about not dissecting Pat that, in a counterintuitive way, gives you a sense of who he was.

In the end, the family’s search for truth remains incomplete. Though you leave the film with the sense that Pat Tillman was truly a heroic figure, it was for reasons entirely different from that of the propaganda machine. He was an independent thinker from a family of independent thinkers, who were receptive to the original accounts of Pat’s death at the hands of the Taliban but felt compelled to question authority when it became evident that this story was a fable. They were not willing to shrink back into their grief.

Instead, as several sources noted during the film, the U.S. military found that it had messed with the wrong family.

The most sickening moment of the film was to hear a radio interview with a U.S. officer, who asserted that the Tillmans would not relent in their challenges to the accounts of Pat’s death because they were atheists. It was a smear of the most vile sort, taking a fact about the family and twisting it into a grim set of motives designed to cast anything they did in the darkest of lights.

Yes,  the Tillmans are atheists who drop a truckload of f-bombs, which actually provides the film with some comic relief. But as a Christian I could not help but admire their integrity — they understand the importance of truth and honor in ways that those in power often do not. They did not fear the inconvenient truth, and they displayed a depth in their critical thinking that many journalists would do well to emulate. (Instead, journalists were all too often just cogs in the military propaganda machine).

I could not shake the sense that if more Christians really embodied the kind of integrity displayed by the Tillmans, and their devotion to truthfulness, that others would see Christianity in a very different light.

Make time to see “The Tillman Story” if you can while it is in theaters. Or look for the chance to view it when it comes out on DVD in the months ahead. Perhaps that’s the best way to honor Pat Tillman, to look squarely in the eyes of that uncomfortable, disquieting truth and not blink.

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A Scandinavian journalist recently embedded with the Taliban, and this 21-minute report (recently broadcast in Australia) is the result. It is both a fascinating and chilling document, especially when we watch gunmen fire on U.S. convoys and see them rejoice in their hits. Spencer Ackerman correctly notes that the journalist “acts a lot like embedded journalists everywhere — painting a sympathetic portrait of the soldiers that are feeding him, protecting him, and giving him shelter.”

Several points stand out: the way in which the Taliban take as obvious the justness of their cause; the moments in which the Taliban commander snuggles with two of his small children — amid brother-sister interaction that any parent would recognize; and the moment in which the commander tells of showing mercy to a would-be assassin.

Watching this does not change my view of the Taliban, though I am sure there are those who object to any reporting that might appear to humanize the enemy. However, part of reporting any story in its entirety is finding a way, however limited, to see the world through the eyes of “the other” — even one who commits horrific acts. To see is not to excuse.

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A couple of days ago, I walked to the grocery store near my home to purchase a copy of this week’s Time magazine, with its horrifying cover photo of 18-year-old Aisha, whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban when she tried to flee her abusive husband in Afghanistan.

As I looked over the large magazine rack, I couldn’t see a copy of Time anywhere. Then I saw a magazine with its back cover facing out, showing an ad for PNC Bank. I turned it over to find it was a copy of Time atop a stack of unpurchased Time magazines. Someone, either a customer or a store employee, had turned the magazine over so that passers-by would not see the cover. Good way to avoid upsetting customers, but a bad way to sell magazines. 

To me, that moment represented how much of the United States citizenry seems to respond to our quandary in Afghanistan: The situation is just too difficult, so we avert our gaze and tend to other business (unless you have a loved one in the U.S. military). The choices we face range from bad to worse, with our military caught in an increasingly difficult position in a war our debt-ridden nation can’t afford to fight, amid the knowledge of what would happen, especially to women, if we leave.

Hence the very emotional approach to the story from Time, in which Aisha becomes a poster child for the potential future of all Afghan women. But while Time reminds us of what’s at stake, it offers little in terms of solutions. It does, however, convey Aisha’s response to the prospects of negotiations with the Taliban: “How can we reconcile with them?”

The cover stirred accusations of emotional blackmail against Time, but as Aisha’s face arrived on newsstands it was but one part of the larger story. There’s the new U.N. report on increasing civilian casualties. There are voices such as Andrew Sullivan calling for withdrawal, even as he recognizes the moral cost. And there is air base construction in Afghanistan that suggests the U.S. commitment is deepening, rather than wavering. 

Add to all that the murders this past weekend of 10 civilian aid workers, many of them Christians, by Taliban soldiers. Tuesday’s New York Times ran a story examining the slain workers’ commitment to serve the needy in Afghanistan. As the father of one of the victims said: “They try to be the hands and feet of Jesus.” 

I am neither smart nor wise enough to offer any profound solution to the war in Afghanistan. But if we are to find any sort of solution, however imperfect, it will require more than force. It also will require the grace, courage and commitment that matches, if not surpasses, that of those slain aid workers — not just in Afghanistan, but here in the United States as well.

As U.S. soldiers fight and die daily, and as other aid workers continue to risk their lives, what are we arguing about at home? The construction of a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero for the 9/11 attacks — along with resistance to the construction of mosques across the nation. Never mind that Muslims were among those who perished in the World Trade Center; all Muslims are treated as potential Islamist terrorists.

Newsweek, in fact, focuses on the mosque question this week with a cover that for many is just as emotionally charged as Time’s. The New York Times summarizes the debate well:

These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.

While interfaith groups have come to the defense of Muslim groups in many cases, we’ve also seen Christians take visible roles in the opposition to new mosques. When Christians do this, they allow fear to trump grace — even as both faiths share in the anguish over events in Afghanistan.

Think about it for a moment: Followers of the Christian faith often draw great strength in a history of perseverance amid persecution, which served to strengthen the church rather than weaken it. In fact, many believers today see themselves as a belittled group in a secular United States; they draw energy from this belief, not weakness.

Do these believers think for a moment about the irony of persecuting — yes persecuting — Muslims who share with them citizenship and share in the losses of 9/11, whose sons and daughters risk their lives to protect our nation? Do they think that Muslims’ faith will be diminished, weakened by this resistance? Or, like Christians, will they deepen in their convictions — or be left to harden against the followers of Jesus?

If you are a Muslim, what example of faith would mean more to you? The courageous, sacrificial service of those aid workers in Afghanistan? Or the church groups that cry out, “Not in our back yard”?

In the end, Aisha’s question born of terrible pain is one Christians need to ask of themselves — and then transform it into an act of grace:

How can we reconcile with them?

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