The Last Patrol
I read Sebastian Junger’s War a few years ago, and followed that with the documentary Restrepo. They are fascinating insights into the minds and lives of frontline American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and Junger is to be commended for the manner in which he went about getting his accounts, living with the soldiers and getting as close to them and the danger that they faced, as he could. Journalists covering war have it tough, and people in Junger’s position have often become casualties themselves. This documentary, which first aired on American television last year but has only just become available here via streaming options, is Junger reacting to the things that he has seen and done. Was it a worthwhile addition to his canon of works, or was it, as I feared it might turn out to be, a self-indulgent pity party without purpose or direction?
Following the death of college Tim Hetherington in Libya, war journalist/author Sebastian Junger vows to never travel to another war zone again. Seeking closure over Hetherington’s death and other things, he proposes a series of hikes throughout the north-eastern United States, taking with him cameraman Guillermo Cervera, who was present at Hetherington’s death, and two Afghanistan veterans, Brendan O’Byrne and Dave Roels. The group traverse Amtrak train lines, having a running discussion on war, masculinity and the state of modern day America.
The Last Patrol opens with Junger recounting a famous George Washington quote, on his first experience of combat: “I have heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” The words are a quaint way of quantifying something that soldiers in many different days and ages have affirmed: that it is when the bullets start flying and the danger to life becomes real, that the greatest thrill is to be found. The Last Patrol, at times, becomes an effort to understand why this is the case, but does rapidly branch off into other areas as well.
Indeed, the entire premise of Junger’s hikes, beyond even the grandiose title that he gives them, seems like an attempt to capture the feeling of combat in peaceful America, as much as it is possible. Junger and his group walk along the Amtrak tracks – an illegal act, with the rail lines patrolled by “Amtrak police” who have apparent legions of armed men, jeeps and even a helicopter to scope out intruders – and in the process must hide from the bad guys trying to spot them, sleep out in the wild and generally act as if they are behind enemy lines. No bullets are being fired and no one is getting hurt, but there is something distinctly war like about the sense that the participants in this “last patrol” are trying to create for themselves. Indeed, the way that the group and the camera seek to slightly demonise the Amtrak security – whose presence is, somewhat ironically considering the make-up of this group, supposed to be an effort to combat potential security risks and terrorist attacks on American transport – is more than a little off-putting. But then again, so is the veritable arsenal of gear that Amtrak has at its disposal, with the moment that the group are buzzed by the aforementioned helicopter one of the most jarring.
The direction of the documentary, with multiple posited questions it is seeking to offer answers on, could be viewed as both a strength and a weakness depending. There is something disjointed and aimless about much of what unfolds, but there is also something undoubtedly charming about the comradery on display, between soldiers and journalist veterans of combat zones.
Everyone involved in The Last Patrol has lost someone or something, and all of them have a storey to tell: but they also have a very easy and relatable bond, not quite a “band of brothers” vibe, a sentiment as trite as it is overused, but more modern and accessible: anyone familiar with Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and its subsequent adaptation will note the similarities immediately. These men can argue and these men can be lowbrow humorous as the need arises, and The Last Patrol is to be commended for the reality that it manages to depict: nobody here is putting on a character for the camera, and the easy going sense created by Junger allows for some decent whole hearted discussion to come about.
There is the predictable kind of thing, like an early talk on the moment when the individuals present were most scared, tales of ambush and IED’s. But The Last Patrol is not, at these moments, just a bland war remembrance: that talk rapidly turns into a debate about orders and when it is OK not to follow them. You have Brendan, the slightly more scarred veteran who refuses to contemplate a situation where he would follow an order to take his men into an area where some of them would die unnecessarily, and you have Dave, the somewhat more relaxed individual, who presses the case for the sacrosanct status of command structure.
The two disagree, and the exchange becomes a bit heated, but what is more fascinating is what this tells us about the two men: namely, that Brendan has been burned a bit more by war, a reality that becomes clear with his panic attack-esque reaction to the sight of a dog being run over on the road next to them, an alarmingly affecting moment.
Why they all joined up, or choose a profession that would involve them being shot at, is a natural discussion topic also. The answers will be nothing too special to anyone even tentatively connected or interested in the military lifestyle, or in its past. Some, like Dave, joined the army in the early nineties for the opportunities it gave for a better life or an education, not quite comprehending the difference between a peacetime and a wartime force. Some, like Brendan, join as an escape from a life they dislike, because of various personal problems or parental disputes. Some, like Junger, head to warzones because they see it as the ultimate proving ground for their own capacity to succeed or endure, as a test of their masculinity without quite understanding just what that means.
In nearly every instance, things come back to fathers, whether it is Brendan’s abusive one, Junger’s recently deceased one, or Guillermo’s arms-dealing one. The group are talking about a very masculine-associated activity of humanity, while doing another very masculine associated activity: inevitably talk turns to what that means, and there is something fascinating in how, so many times, this last patrol see themselves and their actions as a consequence of their fathers, or as a reflection back on them.
Out in the forests and train tracks of America, they are almost like boys playing soldier, still living in the shadows of their progenitors. What makes a man a man? All of these men, having heard the “charming” sound of bullets being fired in their direction, are too experienced to fall back on idealistic talk of protecting a nation and shooting the bad guys. Instead, there is a general consensus that being a man is simply about being a good, righteous person: it has more in common with being a good woman than it does with the action hero stereotype that many find comfort in.
The other side of the coin is the places that the group travel through. Predominantly Africa-American neighbourhoods of run-down Baltimore suburbs turn to predominantly WASP-ish neighbourhoods in more affluent areas, and everywhere Junger and his band find hurt: poor communities seeing the local infrastructure falling apart, pastors whose flocks are diminishing, economies that struggle. No one seems satisfied with America or with the direction it is going in. The group are reduced to “playing the vet card” to find passage over a river, and more than one stranger they get on camera expresses a belief that America is divided and getting more divided as time goes on.
Whether it is liberal or conservative, black or white, the sense of disconnect between all of these areas – in particular, a visit to two churches, one mostly black in congregation, one mostly white, was noteworthy in the differences it presented – is palpable. What Junger’s point was in including these things is left to the viewer’s interpretation. I think he wants us to ponder on the societies that we ask men and women to protect with the force of arms, and why they seem so rent in places.
But in the end this is all just temporary turns away from the problems of the central group. One abandons the walk to go back to Afghanistan for another tour, with some rather chilling words – “We’ll all go back someday” – in his wake. Another’s problems with substance abuse and an inability to settle back into civilian life threaten to overwhelm him whenever he isn’t playing soldier out on the railroad tracks. Another seeks a less group sized catharsis with an open dialogue with his father. In the end, the patrol is a temporary release from the pressures of “normal” life, for a group of men who have become so used to the abnormal. Even Junger struggles to find the motivation to go on as time goes on, and the intense weather, snowfall cold and dehydration causing hot depending on the season, doesn’t help matters too much.
That Junger’s final point, in relation to the first question and the euphoria experienced by soldiers in the heat of battle, is a cliché “It’s good to be alive”, will be disappointing to some, but it is a bare naked truth that should be acknowledged more often. Every war memoir of any worth talks about this, of being in “the suck” and having that rush of adrenaline that only comes when your life has a very real chance of ending at any moment. That’s an addiction as well as a consequence: it’s what keeps some coming back for more time and again, and it’s what keeps some up at night long after the experience had ended. The old maxim remains as true as ever: “They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm”.
So, was The Last Patrol directionless, without a clear purpose or raison d’etre? I suppose the answer is yes. But, where another documentary would flounder under the same conditions, The Last Patrol manages to thrive. The discussions that take place within are interesting, and the insight into the minds of combat veterans, be they soldiers or journalists, are well worth having a look at. Those with more extensive experience of these kind of documentaries may find the end product a little predictable, but others will surely find a method of understanding the difficulties that those returning from combat are bound to have in civilian society, and if The Last Patrol does nothing else, it at least makes this point well. The feared pity party never truly materialises, and instead Junger’s work is an emotionally satisfying one. As a 90 minute Netflix offering, it fits right in with his other documentaries and books on the same topic. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of HBO).