All words: Alan Pyke
Sebastian Junger’s new documentary can’t answer why America hurls itself into wars. His questions center on how those wars actually are for the people who get hurled into them. The critically-acclaimed Restrepo, which was released a year before co-director Tim Hetherington was killed while documenting the battlefields of the Libyan civil war, did more to familiarize civilian Americans with the visceral experience of war than anything else produced for the multiplex during the Global War on Terror. Now Junger is going back to the wealth of footage he and Hetherington produced during almost a year in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to cull a second documentary with a very different feel, focus, and purpose.
Korengal doesn’t try to sew together a narrative of these soldiers’ year in the titular valley in the same way Restrepo does, though some of its events will be familiar to those who saw the first film. Instead of sketching out the tactical experience of policing a key trafficking route for the Taliban, Junger focuses his attention in Korengal on the emotional lives of the soldiers through long and unpredictable cycles of boredom, terror, adrenaline, and more boredom.
The resulting film is hard to look away from, and at times devastating to watch. In its best moments, Korengal gets close to answering some existential questions about soldiers’ mentalities and what the experience of combat does to these young men’s brains and souls. It serves as a sort of emotional index to the more fact-oriented narrative of Restrepo.
I sat down with Sebastian Junger to talk about the two projects and what they reveal about American soldiers and about their country. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What made you want to revisit this material? This is pulled from the same archive of footage as Restrepo, right?
Two things. First of all, it came out of the awareness that I think a lot of filmmakers have that there’s a lot of good material and you can only use one percent of it in your film, and you think, “Oh I’d love to go back and do at least another percent of the best stuff.” I think a lot of filmmakers feel that way, and I went and tried it.
But it wasn’t just more good material, it really had a different concept behind it. Tim [Hetherington] and I wanted Restrepo to be a visceral experience for the viewers. We wanted to give them the illusion of being in combat. So you’re in a dark room for an hour and a half, you’re up on this hilltop with these soldiers, you never cut to an interview with the ambassador in Kabul, with a General, there’s no musical score, there’s no narration, there are none of those little signposts that you’re safe in a cinema, you’re not actually over there. We wanted to get people to try to experience combat as directly as possible, because we’re in the middle of two wars. We thought it was important for civilians to have some sort of access to that experience. I’m not saying that as an anti-war or pro-war issue, just simply that the nation should understand what soldiers do. We sent them off, we should understand it.
Korengal is different. What I wanted to do was use that material and find the bits where the soldiers are actually trying to understand that experience. They’re talking about it. What does fear mean, how does courage work, what’s courage mean to a soldier? The word “courage,” what’s that mean? Why do soldiers miss war? Why do they want to go back to it? In Korengal, the guys that I was with are deconstructing their experience and trying to make sense out of it, and that also allows civilians to make sense out of it. So it’s a very different sort of endeavor. One’s experiential, the other is more cognitive.
One of my favorite sections of Korengal is the stretch where you’ve got a few different people discussing the word “bravery.” Some of the conversations are black background interviews off-site, but several of them are also in the field, in the valley. How did those two sets of conversations differ and how did you approach them differently as a filmmaker?
Well soldiers can’t, don’t want to, and probably shouldn’t talk too deeply about their experience while they’re in the middle of doing it. You don’t really want to do a long thoughtful exploration on fear in the middle of a combat posting, obviously. Combat requires an enormous amount of emotional denial, and that doesn’t lead to honest interviews. The things soldiers say in combat are interesting, it’s not that they’re without value, but the context is combat. And we realized that three or four months later, once they were out – not back home because they’re professional soldiers, [which means] they were going back to their base in Italy, in Vicenza – once they were out they would probably talk very differently about it. Because they weren’t in danger anymore, they were free to actually let their feelings out.
In combat all those feelings get pent up: grief, rage, fear, all that stuff gets pent up because it incapacitates you. And later it all comes out. One of the aspects of PTSD that is so obvious but doesn’t really occur to people is simply feelings coming out that got pent up. You dam it up, out it comes. You have to eventually pay the credit card bill. So we set up studio interviews in Vicenza about five months after the deployment ended. All those interviews are from there.
We did it that way also because we wanted the interviews, which are very tightly framed against a black background, to feel out of time and place. So we could put them into the vérité [footage in Afghanistan] and it wouldn’t feel like a violation. It isn’t an armchair with a hotel window in the background, suddenly you realize you’re in Arlington, Virginia. We wanted it to be sort of nowhere.
You’re participating in this to a large degree, everything short of manning a weapon. You document this adrenaline cycle that soldiers go through over the course of a given firefight, and there’s a moment when they get back after having exchanged fire and you see the ebb of that and the physical and facial effects it has. How much of that experience did you and your crew share in?
I didn’t have a crew, it was usually me by myself or Tim by myself. Half the time we were there together. But yeah, we had the exact same experience. There was an incredible amount of boredom out there. And the firefights would leave everyone very jacked up, and it was like a sugar high. Then you sort of bottom out. There were also days where there was nothing going on for days, weeks on end. You have to understand, there’s nothing up there. No television, no Internet, no phone, no girls, no cars, no sports, nothing that boys like. [chuckling] Except, arguably, automatic weapons and an enemy to shoot at! That’s in a sense the only form of entertainment. So a couple weeks go by without getting shot at, and the guys are just going out of their minds. And that was one of the things we tried to capture.
Because they’ve had the argument about who would win in a fight between Clooney and Fabio for seven hours.
How does that experience stay with you in the editing bay when you’re putting a narrative together for people without that personal experience? People imagine a sort of detachment in documentary work and journalism, but that seems impossible here, especially given that Tim Hetherington has been killed doing similar work in another part of the world.
I mean there was no detachment for us at all. All the things that they were experiencing we were too. Not all, but most of them, and all of the consequences that could come to them could come to us. You go to Africa to report on a famine, you’re looking at very unfortunate people and you don’t have to worry that that’s going to happen to you. You’re a western news crew, you’ve got food, you’ve got a plane ticket out. You’re reporting on something that isn’t your lot in life.
That’s a very different experience from being in combat and thinking, “That guy who just got shot? That could be me tomorrow.” Totally different experience.
So when we came back and edited Restrepo and now with Korengal, making these films, there’s no detachment for me. It’s not autobiographical, but Tim and I are sort of ghosts in the films. We don’t turn the camera on ourselves, but we’re right there experiencing all of that in some way.
There are a couple moments where you two are audible in Korengal, and in one of them you ask a soldier what he wants out of all of this and he says he just wants people to know the stories, the places, the things that happened, in the way that people do for other conflicts in America’s past. That’s a big part of what you’re trying to do with this.
That was [Specialist Tad] Donoho, if we’re thinking of the same scene. Yeah, of course. He wanted people to know what he’d been through. Of course. Anybody wants that, to know that your life has significance. Soldiers want the same thing.
That’s something other than news reporting. There was in some ways no news value out there, but it had tremendous significance for our country, for those soldiers. And what they were going through was I think emblematic of what a lot of soldiers went through in Afghanistan. Just one small spot but I think it stood in for a lot of people’s experiences.
A friend of mine who served said that’s true for him and a lot of his friends who served, they really appreciated Restrepo. The same friend has a lot of problems with fictional representations of these conflicts, like Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, The Hurt Locker, more typical Hollywood takes on these conflicts. Do you think about your documentary work within that landscape?
It’s probably impolitic to say this but I think Hollywood movies about war are just absurd. Laughable. Laughably inaccurate. Maybe they get at some kind of emotional truth, but I think they flub that too. Certainly on a tactical level it’s absurd. That bothers a lot of soldiers.
I have yet to meet a soldier who liked The Hurt Locker. They’re indignant about it. That guy, that cowboy dude who kept defusing stuff, his squad would’ve kicked the shit out of him! You don’t endanger other guys. Your job is to protect everyone else, not endanger them. The central ethos of being a soldier is that other men’s lives are more important than yours is. Certainly more important than your ego. That guy wouldn’t have lasted a week doing that. So that’s a civilian take on war.
It seems like a desperate lunge at finding something that will make sense as heroic to a doughy Barcalounger audience with a manufactured sense of heroism.
Absolutely. As a journalist, I try to avoid giving my opinion too much because I don’t think that’s our job. But I do think that it’s important for us to try to clarify reality for people, the consequences of things. I’m politically left-wing, I grew up in Cambridge, MA, surrounded by liberals. That’s the way I think and always will think. So I give a lot of talks to really antiwar people, I mean really, really antiwar, angrily, violently antiwar, right?
And it’s really funny: most of those people claim to hate war and to abhor it and have no interest in it, and yet I’ll ask them to raise their hands. How many in this room are against war? Everyone raises a hand. OK how many want nothing to do with it, hate war? They raise their hands. OK how many have paid 10 bucks to go see a Hollywood war movie, to be entertained by Hollywood’s version of war? And everyone raises their hand.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this, except that it seems like there’s an enormous disconnect in our society between this sort of sanctimoniousness about it on the one hand, and this real fascination with violence even among people who claim to be nonviolent. It’s amazing. I think it’s very hardwired into our brains, that’s what I think is going on. But I just wish society was a little more honest about glorifying something that they also claim to hate.
What do you make of this apparent shift in American attitudes away from a willingness to reluctantly enter these noble conflicts? Syria, Ukraine, this more tender diplomatic approach – is that about elections or is it a popular shift, and what role does your work play in that shift?
I think Bosnia and Rwanda reset everything. Clinton went into Bosnia and stopped a genocide because Rwanda unfolded. Almost a million people were hacked to death and no one lifted a finger. In the context of Rwanda, does true pacifism mean sending in the army or doing nothing? What’s true pacifism in the face of genocide? I don’t have the answer, but those conflicts did cause those questions to come up in very painful ways. So NATO bombed Bosnia, the Serb forces, and stopped the war in like 10 days. Likewise Kosovo, but a bit messier. Sierra Leone, Liberia, the French in Mali. Now they’re sort of on a roll. Even Afghanistan, as messy as it was, the decade that NATO was there was way better than the 90s. The civil war was monstrous compared to what we were doing. So I think the problem with Syria is that a western military like the Serbs in Bosnia, you can bomb their artillery positions and pretty much stop the war. In Syria it’s tactically very different. Libya was also simple. It’s a wide open desert, Gaddafi’s forces were arrayed around Benghazi and Misrata, and they just had to drop bombs on the artillery positions and it was pretty much over.
I think we go into wars that are tactically simple. So again, what’s the morally— OK, wars are bad, dropping bombs on people is bad, but standing by and doing nothing is also bad. And I don’t think the pacifist community has really grappled with that. The Rwanda conundrum, I don’t think they have an answer.
Are there veterans writing fiction who you would recommend?
There’s a book that just came out called Redeployment [by Phil Klay] which is amazing. Just a couple months ago. He is one of the best writers I’ve read in an awfully long time. It’s a series of short stories, and he’s amazing. Really, really good.