Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded for 10 months, with the US Army; but I feel like I have been embedded with the RAF for the last 10 years. An anthropological observer, trying to understand, and navigate the plethora of unwritten codes of conduct and expectation. Up until last year, when Hagar was deployed, I would bury my head in the sand, crack open the wine, count up to the middle and down again until he came home, whilst avoiding the news as much as possible. I didn’t even want to look at the war. In the 12 years we have been together he has been to Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Iraq (approx 4 times) and Afghanistan (approx 4 times) – to be honest I lose count. I would say that probably over 50% of our relationship has been apart. At one point, he was doing 8 weeks on and 8 weeks off, so ‘going to war’ just became part of our every day life.
The tempo of ops for all the Chinook guys and gals is high. In fact, Hagar was awarded a Mention-In-Despatches after one deployment for some daring do. It was difficult to know what to say, how to support him because his ‘away journey’ was one I could never understand. There wasn’t a break for either of us. It’s hard to explain it, but this bouncing apart and coming together, with profound life changing experiences happening in an unknown country, with ramifications, and meaning, that aren’t everyday dinner conversations, are hard to put into words, and so, often, he didn’t. He just brooded, and found his own way back to us, whilst I watched, and waited in the eaves of his darkness, for the unraveling to occur.
In September 2008, I began researching, and writing, a battlefield memoir about the role of the Chinooks, in Afghanistan, and in the British Armed Forces. Suddenly, I was forced to confront face-on a subject matter that I had been purposefully ignoring. I was very lucky to be surrounded by experts that helped, and supported me, on my journey, starting at The Great Game; to the fall of the Northern Alliance; to September 11th; to the Bonn Agreement. I had always buffered my fears, with the certain comfort that the Chinook is the best defended aircraft, and the aviation best bet, for my own warrior-class serviceman. The whole tempo of the memoir was centred around the notion that the Taliban had identified the CH47 (Chinook) as a glory target. They called it the cow. It was the ultimate prize to down one, and dance around it, showcasing their majesty to the world. Never in the history of the British Chinook force had an aircraft been shot down in combat.
I laid down the 100,000 word manuscript in 10 weeks in an intensive, marathon writing session, where I became unnaturally immersed in a conflict I had never visited, flying an aircraft I had never flown, as a person I would never be. One month after the book, hit the bookshelves, the worst happened. Hagar got a call at midnight, summoning him to work. I knew before the story broke in the media. A British Chinook had been shot down in Afghanistan. The first ever in it’s history. I knew the pilot. I knew the pilot that picked them up. It felt very up, close and very personal, and I had a huge disproportionate reaction to it and freaked out. This cushion of safety, of vigilance, of aircraft redundancy, of training and being the best they could be shattered around me and all over of a sudden I was hit with the under-deniable reality of the true danger of Afghanistan. A danger, that I had been blissfully, and ignorantly, ignoring as a coping mechanism for the endless churn of ops that I was enduring from the domestic frontline.
Since the book was published, I now bravely look the ‘war machine’ in the eye, and try to make sense of the conflict. All the research and understanding hasn’t made me any wiser. I am just frustrated by the complexity of the problem. I am a problem solver. I am a fixer and Afghanistan is an intricate, layered, very tricky puzzle indeed.
So as a wife of a service man do I watch war films? The answer is yes, I do. I have done since before I met Hagar. The first war film I loved was ‘Sink the Bizmarck’. Hagar and I watched Band of Brothers and Pacific religiously. They are brilliant depictions of combat. In fact, I think Restrepo is the documentary that Band of Brothers would have been if it had been recorded in real time; in the same way Tim and Sebastian recorded Restrepo. The notion of brotherhood at the heart of the war machine, that Tim discusses in our interview, is not new but it has never been so acutely and accurately captured as in the making of Restrepo.
The wives and families of Restrepo troops watched the film, and gleaned an understanding of what their loved ones had experienced at the outpost. One wife said, “I wish I had seen RESTREPO before my divorce, it’d given me an understanding of my ex-husband’s experience that I wish I had had while I was with him. He never shared.”
When I spoke with Dan Kearney he told me he had stopped feeling. He had buried his emotions, deep inside his soul and thrown away the key. Men are not sharers. Sharing is a sign of weakness. The men of Restrepo are warriors; they are Spartans. They write tattoos shouting “Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself”. The military men want you to understand by osmosis what they have experienced, and then instinctively know how to empathise, love and support them as they internalise their pain and emotions. At the sharp end of combat, tattoed in war paint, armed and braced for battle the young Spartan is an adrenaline charged, fighting, macho machine. But in the aftermath, in the comedown of combat, in the bosum of home, when the adrenaline surges out of his body; he is a boy again, with skin, bones, and feelings that he would rather not have.
As a wife of a military pliot, and the mother of a young son, there is a lot to be gained from watching Restrepo. It’s a brave watch, with a window into battle. It shows that “war is not the glorious adventure depicted on films; it’s cruel, destructive and worst of all, indiscriminate in the slaughter and maiming of women and children and non-combatants who play no part in the conflict.”
But it is a film of great energy and spirit. It will show you into the soul of the soldier and help you understand the highs and lows, the strength and the vulnerabilities, and the intensity of war. Sometimes, you need to look at things you don’t want to see to understand the things you can’t see.
What’s interesting for me is that two, very serious, aging social observers and recorders, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, went into the edge of Armageddon and got so much more then they had ever bargained for. They became esconced; enchanted by the brotherhood and joined them. I suspect that was not what they forsaw at all.
At the launch of Infidel, Tim Hetherington’s latest book, he stood before the room and he looked exposed and vulnerable like a Ninja Turtle without his shell. But, I can imagine embedded in battle, with his flack jacket and camera, he is shooting his own weapon, and is in a warrior-class of his own.
The creation of his book, the film, Restrepo, and Sebastian Junger’s book, War have a created an incredible insight to the psyche of the soldier. Infidel, the leather bound, black, stunning, book of creativity is an homage to the Spartan Warrior, from the outpost Restrepo. A collection of moving, beautiful, tragic and uplifting images, recording and illustrating, the feral, adrenaline charged pack of brothers that fought on the edge of a mountain, trying to build a road, fighting an enemy they couldn’t see and didn’t really understand but knew hated them; the Infidel.
Restrepo open’s today to see it: click here
To buy Tim’s book click here
To buy Sebastian’s book click here
You know if you want to get your man the ultimate box set for Christmas – there is the Restrepo trilogy, if you add in the DVD, which is out at the end of November. Then, if you are a wife like me you can watch it behind a pillow. It’s worth look see.
The Tim Hetherington Exhibition is being hosted by Host Gallery, click here
I just wondered ladies is this a film for you? If not, why not? Please share.