Restrepo: A Critical Discourse Analysis



Restrepo is a film documentary made by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington of the fifteen months they spent embedded with a U.S. Army platoon (Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team) in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. I have chosen to critically analyse the discourse of the text, by which I mean analysing both the language and images used in the documentary drawing on Fairclough’s (1995) categories of representation, identities and relations as described by Gillespie and Toynbee (2006:122). I will briefly outline what I understand of these three categories.

  • In any media text, representations of the world are constructed from social and cultural perspectives. Media texts construct a ‘reality’ of, for example, events, people and places from a specific socio-cultural perspective such as male, white, middle-class or Western. Dominant power structures in a culture exert their power over other social and cultural groups; they use the media to project their representation of world through what Gramsci (Burke, 1999, 2005) termed hegemony. Their representations of the world or ideologies become normalised and accepted as ‘common sense’ or ‘natural’ and are rarely questioned. In Restrepo one ‘common sense’ representation of the world is that theU.S. military is fighting a war against ‘fanatical Islamic terrorists’ who, if theU.S. was not there, would over-runAfghanistan.
  • A text will also set up identities for those who interact within it, such as the Afghani villagers’ relationship with theU.S.military. These identities, sometimes called ‘subjectivities’ (Graddol and Boyd-Barrett, 1994:19), are constructed through the various discourses available in the text, such as army discourse, which is highly exaggerated and not at all subtle (compare it with the discourse of advertising). In any text there may be a number of discourses at work, for example,U.S.military, a Western view of Islam or that of a wealthy developed country. However, the construction of identity is controlled through these; the Afghani villagers have a limited number of positions that they can take up and because of the power dynamics illuminated by the film they are reduced to either poor ignorant peasants or terrorists. There are no other identities available for the audience to assign to them within the discourses.
  • Within a text sets of relations are created which work at two levels. Firstly, there are the relationships created between a text and the audience. In Restrepo different relationships are being set up, for example, film-maker to audience, U.S. military to audience and Afghani villagers to audience. Secondly, there are those relationships which are set up within the text itself. In Restrepo relationships are set up between theU.S. military and Afghani villagers; the film-makers and the soldiers of Second Platoon, the soldiers and the local villagers, the soldiers and the Taliban.

These categories do not occur in isolation; they operate simultaneously. Any part of the text will be representing the world, setting up identities and setting up relations all at the same time (Fairclough, 1995:5).

The most obvious and prominent discourse in the film is the discourse of the professionalUSarmy orU.S.military discourse. In this analysis I have decided to focus on the discourse between theU.S.military and the local villagers as this is where the struggle for power takes place. There is a lack of subtlety in the language used in military discourse; it is abrupt, has its own jargon and acronyms; it is often in the form of orders and uses the imperative and, as a result, there is less dialogue other than acknowledging an order. Military discourse can be hierarchical, patriarchical, masculine, aggressive, violent, gendered, colonial, racist and dehumanising.

Military discourse is about one social group, in this case the U.S.military, demonstrating and exerting its power over another, the Afghani villagers, and the way it goes about it is direct and explicit. In the scene starting at 0:15, Captain Kearney is at the weekly Shura (meeting) with the village elders and is telling them what he wants from them “I need you to join with the government […] and I’ll flood this whole place with money, with projects, with healthcare, with everything”. He is clearly demonstrating his power as he says he can make their lives materially better if they cooperate. His identity and relationship to the elders, at first sight, appears to be one of ‘provider’. His behaviour is paternalistic. He is talking to a group of men who are at least twice his age, who are respected members of their community as if they were his subordinates as if they were children who he is trying to reward if they behave as he wants them to. The elders do not appear to be interested in his offer and their main concern is that with the arrival of a new company of the soldiers members of their community will not be killed while working in the fields. On the surface, one understanding of the relationship betweenKearney and the elders is that theU.S. military are there to help the villagers to develop; to improve the quality of their lives. This representation of the Afghanis is from a capitalist view of the world where it is ‘common sense’ to assume that the villagers would want materialistic improvements to their lives as this would result in their society becoming more ‘developed’.  Another understanding of the relationship is that theU.S. military is an invading army and the villagers are a subjugated people. The villagers primary concern is not the building of a road or material wealth, they just want to ensure that no more of their family and clan members are going to get killed. Can theU.S. military really fulfil such promises of material improvements? Surely, that is not its role. They are more concerned about making the area secure so that they can build a road and fight the Taliban and to do that they need to have the cooperation of the village elders. In the interview with Kearney at 09:48 reveals his true motive behind helping the villagers “… so I want to extend the security bubble because wherever I can place troops and wherever I can provide security is where I am going to have any influence on the populous …”. In short, he can control them more easily.

When theU.S.military are out on patrol and they encounter Afghani male villagers in their villages, the relationship and identity we see is that of suspect to interrogator. Male villagers, especially younger males, are seen as being connected to the Taliban in some way. Like suspicious police officers theU.S.military do not believe the villagers and treat them disrespectfully. In the scene that starts at 28:15 a young male villager is made to come out of his home at dawn for questioning. At 29:52 while interrogating the villager, Lieutenant Gillespie says “… you have pretty clean hands for a goatherd […] where did you get that watch man, you guys have got a lot of goats”. The villager’s subject position is one of suspected Taliban and therefore the enemy, which, from the soldiers’ perspective, means he has probably been shooting at them. The language that Gillespie uses, and the fact the interrogation is taking place in front of the man’s own home in his own village, is to demonstrate that he has the power in the relationship. When asked for information on the Taliban the villager replies “if we let you know about the Taliban we will get killed”. The villagers realise that they can be killed by either the Taliban or theU.S.military and in both cases the subject position is that of victim.

Older male villagers are also treated as suspects and the language and body language used by the soldiers sets up a suspect – interrogator relationship. At 31:59 a soldier orders the village elder to “sit down! Sit down!” while jabbing his finger at him. The elder is then taken away because they find what appears to be an Afghan army jacket while searching his house. The way the soldiers behave towards the villagers is to demonstrate that they hold the power in the relationship and the soldiers believe they have the authority to wake villagers at dawn, interrogate and take them away. But where does that authority come from? One understanding of these events is theU.S.military is justified in questioning and arresting suspects as they are fighting a war, a war which is part of the greater theU.S.“War on Terror”. However, theU.S.military is an invading army; they are an army of occupation. They do not have any legal basis for their actions, yet they act as if they do. A relationship of invader – occupied has been set up and theU.S.military asserts its power in this relationship through its arsenal.

The next Shura with the village elders starts at 38:00 with them arriving and being greeted by the soldiers. Kearney wants to discuss the building of the road, but some of the elders want to know why one of their villagers has been detained. You can sense his irritation with the elders at not wanting to discuss his agenda and at 40:18 he tells an elder “you are not understanding that I don’t fucking care”. From his perspective, he does not understand that what is most important to the villagers is the safety of their own family and clan. His ‘common sense’ assumption is that arresting the “bad guys” and improving the material well-being of villagers is the ‘natural’ course of action. The villagers are concerned about the safety of their families and clan. From their perspective the presence of the U.S. military will not make their lives more secure, quite the opposite; their presence endangers them. In the scene at the outpost which starts at 40:48 the soldiers are encouraged by the fact that for the first time three village elders have come to provide them, they assume, with information on the Taliban. However, they have come to discuss compensation for a cow that the soldiers in the outpost had killed because, from the villagers’ perspective, the event is represented as illegal. The soldiers do not share this representation of the event; in fact, they find it amusing that the villagers have come to be compensated. This goes against the soldiers’ reading of the situation. The soldiers’ relationship with the villagers could be likened to a feudal landlord to serf relationship and they are almost shocked by the villagers’ boldness. By killing and then eating the cow the soldiers show a complete lack of respect for the villagers. They do not comprehend how their killing of the cow could be considered illegal and have no intention of paying them compensation. At 43:30 a sergeant tells the interpreter “we are not going to be able to give them the money, if money … if that’s all he came for he’s not going to get any”.

The film shows the lethal aftermath of aU.S.military air strike at 54:43 on a village killing five villagers and wounding ten others. There are powerful images of a father holding the wounded baby and injured children being given first aid by the soldiers. There is a dead body covered by a blanket next to the village elder who, at 56:20, asks the soldiers “there is five guys already dead, ten of kids and females are injured so show which of them is the Taliban, there is no Taliban”. For the audience the villagers are seen as innocent victims. However, this is not how they are seen by theU.S.military.Kearneyat 56:57 “… I’m killing five locals that may not have been pulling the trigger, but in one way, shape or form were connected [to the Taliban]”. The identity, through the discourse, for those killed is that they are at the same time both Taliban and victims and the setting up these identities allows the U.S. military to justify the killing and wounding of the villagers. TheU.S.military brings in Lieutenant Colonel Ostlund supposedly to apologise to the villagers. The audience does not know if Ostlund does apologise, or not, as it is not shown. What is shown is rather than apologising Ostlund warns the villagers of the consequences of helping the Taliban “… [the Taliban] pay your sons a small amount of money to go ahead and shoot at my soldiers and my soldiers end up killing your sons”. TheU.S.military is seeing the villagers as enemies and this allows them to justify the killing of the villagers. TheU.S.military do not show any remorse or accept any responsibility for the deaths.

The killing of the villagers does have consequences. At 60:35 Kearneyexplains that they have just heard over the radio “… the elders are in charge of what is going on and that the elders basically want Jihad down here in the Korengal”. As a result of deaths the elders have decided or perhaps have been given no other option other than to side with the Taliban and fight the invasion. The power struggle in the valley intensifies as the villagers join the Taliban in resisting theU.S. military’s attempt to assert their power over the populous.

The aspect I have focused on in this analysis is the relationship between theU.S.military and the local population. The film makers have shown how this relationship evolves over Second Platoon’s fifteen-month deployment and how theU.S.military see the villagers and how the villagers view theU.S.military. TheU.S.military see themselves as providers of help to the villagers; they want to provide work and develop the infrastructure. They need to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people in order to be able to pursue their war against the Taliban. They do not see themselves as an invading army of occupation. The villagers want to be able to go about their daily lives safely; to work in the fields without being killed. TheU.S.military’s relationship with the villagers worsens over time as a result of their behaviour and actions. TheU.S.military do not view the villagers as equals but rather as less materially developed and inferior to them because the villagers are poorer and they are from a culture that is alien to American’s. They do not win the villagers’ hearts and minds. In fact they achieve the opposite. Through searches, detentions, lack of respect for local laws and customs and indiscriminate killing the villagers join the Taliban in resisting theU.S.military invasion.

The film makers have also contributed to film genre of war documentary by showing the futility of war. In the end theU.S.military pulls out of the Korengal valley leaving it in a worst condition than when they arrived. Over fiftyU.S.soldiers and unknown number of the local population lost their lives. The road does not get built, the villagers’ standard of living does not improve and theU.S.military does not make the valley a safer place.


Burke, B. (1999, 2005) “Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education”, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Fairclough, N. (1995) Media Discourse, London:Arnold

Gillespie, M. and Toynbee, J., eds. (2006): Analysing Media Texts, Maidenhead:  Open University Press

Graddol, D. and Boyd-Barrett, O. (1994): Media Texts: Authors and Readers, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters in association with the Open University