An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
War isn’t just about the good guys versus the bad guys – you can watch any Marvel film if you are looking to draw a clear line between what is right and what is wrong. In reality, war is far more complex. In most cases, one man makes a decision to enter his country into war. Once that decision is passed down through the ranks and moved through the proper channels, war becomes reality. A country sends its young to bravely fight for freedom, or for a cause. War has always worked this way and will continue to do so. War is not nice, nor does it pretend to be. One of the highest profile wars in recent memory has been the fight in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Many lives have been lost in this war, while those that survived have spoken of a life-changing experience they will never forget. The young men that fought for our country carry it with them in their minds, their hearts and their souls. Some never want to speak of the things they’ve experienced, while others long to go back to a place where they protected and were protected by their ‘brothers’ – it was a time of their lives when they didn’t feel alone.
In 2007, director Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington worked together and spent a year with one platoon in Korengal Valley, which has been called the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. They were embedded with the platoon at an outpost called Restrepo – named after Pfc. Juan Restrepo, a combat medic who was killed in action. With hundreds of hours of footage, Junger and Hetherington managed to piece together a powerful documentary called Restrepo. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011. In the midst of all the press for Restrepo, Hetherington was killed by shrapnel during an attack while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. In the years since Hetherington’s death, Junger – who is also an author best known for writing the books The Perfect Storm and War – stopped covering the war and moved onto other subjects. During this time, Junger realized that there was still a story to tell based on the footage that he and Hetherington had filmed at Restrepo. This time, he wanted to show the effects that war had on the members of the platoon he got to know so well. Going back to the unused footage, Junger was able to create a riveting and powerful documentary entitled Korengal. In this film the viewer revisits the same platoon they met in Restrepo, but it sheds new light on their emotions and their thoughts. Korengal isn’t a political film – it is a personal one. There’s a heartbeat in every soldier and a bond between them that is often stronger than family. Korengal shows a war far more complex than what you see on any nightly news broadcast. The American troops stationed at Restrepo may be the ‘good guys,’ yet the film goes much deeper than that. It is a film that makes you think.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Sebastian Junger about Korengal, Restrepo and more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Korengal is just about to be released. How are you feeling so far about the reaction to the film?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I’m feeling incredibly good about it. It’s been tremendous, and we’ve had a lot of press, which was great.
SPAZ: The film is at times harrowing, at other times humorous, but ultimately it’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Were you trying to convey that in the film – offering the viewer sort of this up and down ride?
SEBASTIAN: Yeah. The film is about the emotional consequences of combat. Both the positive and the negative, and there are both. Obviously, I wanted it to be in their words. I mean, it’s about them, so I truly tried to find the discussions that we had about the emotions surrounding all of this. You know, in our interviews I really tried to find the parts of those discussions that were really powerful and illuminating, and used those in the film.
SPAZ: Now, all this footage was shot at the same time as Restrepo?
SEBASTIAN: Yes. It’s all the same mass of material. The bulk of the footage was shot in ’07, ’08 and then the studio interviews were done after their deployment in ’08.
SPAZ: What inspired you to go back and continue the story of these men?
SEBASTIAN: I think that there was more value. We shot a couple hundred hours and we only used ninety minutes of it in Restrepo. I felt there was a lot more value in there and also, we’re at a different point. You know, the wars are ending and now what we’re facing is three million people who have been deeply affected by their experience in combat. I thought I could make a film that spoke to that a little bit.
SPAZ: Do you feel that this movie gives a face to something that most of us just think of as “war”?
SEBASTIAN: Yeah. I think people often think about war in very political terms, and they sort of forget that it’s actually fought by young people – and they’re young people just like them or just like their children, you know? This isn’t some other species. It’s us. Soldiers are us, and they have all the reactions that you or I would have in that situation. I think people kind of forget that, and they also forget that the war doesn’t belong to the soldiers. It belongs to all of us across the nation and to the civilians who elect the governments that go to war. It really belongs to all of us. The war doesn’t belong to just the nineteen-year-old soldiers. They’re doing the job that we asked them to do, and that’s it. People really forget that. I just thought, if you make the right kind of film, it will somehow elevate the conversation a little bit about how war affects the mostly young men we send there.
SPAZ: You were filming there for a year?
SEBASTIAN: Off and on for a year.
SPAZ: So you were basically experiencing the same emotional highs and lows that the soldiers were?
SEBASTIAN: It’s sort of equivalent highs and lows. I mean, it’s not quite the same. You know, we weren’t engaged in the protection of the group. We weren’t carrying weapons. We didn’t have to really worry about inadvertently causing someone else’s death. It really wasn’t our job to protect the group, which meant that we weren’t ultimately as close to those guys as they were together, either. They’re all completely interdependent on each other, and they were not interdependent on us. They liked us a lot because they got to know us, but they weren’t interdependent on us for their safety. We helped when we could. We did stuff, but they weren’t depending on us for their lives. And that’s a crucial difference.
SPAZ: When editing the film, did you struggle sometimes with what you were going to show and what you weren’t going to show?
SEBASTIAN: No. Nothing. I mean some of it is very intense, but there was nothing that I thought, “No, that’s too much, a viewer can’t take it.” What we wanted to do was show war. What’s the point of showing a watered down version of war? If it’s too intense to show, it should be too intense to do. And we’re doing war, so if you’re doing something you can’t show, then you shouldn’t be doing it. No, there is nothing I would have left out of there for that reason.
SPAZ: What do you hope the viewer takes away after watching the movie?
SEBASTIAN: Well, I think I would like the viewer to take away the fact that the emotional reaction to war by young men is very complex. It’s a complex reaction that happens very much apart from the moral and political discussion about war, and it’s a reaction that happens in war after war. I have a letter that someone sent me from a World War I soldier who was writing to his friend about how much he missed combat on the front lines – World War I, imagine. There’s letters from the American Civil War saying the same thing. There’s also an enormous amount of guilt in soldiers that they’ve killed. You know, that they’ve killed people and it still bothers them. This is not an anti-war statement; I’m not anti-war at all. I think there are some wars that need to be fought, so I’m not anti-war in that sense, but I feel like people are not realistic about the emotional consequences of war for young men. They need to be realistic about it. They need to know that combat fulfills an awful lot of really hardwired tendencies in young men, and as a result, they miss it afterwards. Society really needs to understand that, and they also really need to understand that there is enormous moral damage that comes from killing other people, regardless if they’re right or wrong in the war is completely irrelevant. In other words, I feel like society isn’t being very realistic about what war is when they send people out to do it, and that’s – again – not an anti-war statement. It’s just a reality.
SPAZ: The film focuses on these troops, but it doesn’t state an opinion like “Taliban, bad. U.S., good.” It feels like the film has a very apolitical view. Would that be accurate?
SEBASTIAN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean my personal opinion is different, but the film itself, yeah. The film is about the soldier’s experience, and they didn’t have experience with the Taliban. They got shot at by them, but they didn’t have any direct experience with the Taliban, so there’s no way to evaluate the Taliban for the soldiers, other than these are people that are trying to kill us so we’re going to kill them.
SPAZ: As an author and filmmaker, was there ever any time where you just thought, “What on earth am I doing here?” Did it become so intense for you, being there in the midst of it?
SEBASTIAN: I was amazed that I was allowed to be out there, but no, I never wondered… I’ve been covering war since the early ‘90s. I felt very lucky to be out there.
SPAZ: Was it difficult to make the project without Tim?
SEBASTIAN: Yes and no. I mean, his ghost was sort of in the room, but I knew the story I wanted to tell. I worked with the same editor that he and I had worked with before. We all knew the material extremely well. You know, it wasn’t quite paint by numbers, but I mean, it didn’t feel like a stretch.
SPAZ: What’s next for Sebastian Junger?
SEBASTIAN: I stopped covering war after Tim was killed, and I’m just doing other stuff. I have another film coming out with HBO called The Last Patrol and that takes place in this country. It’s a documentary. I’m starting in on another book. Yeah, I’m sort of off the war thing.
Thanks to Sebastian Junger
Special thanks to Craig Van Gorp, Dana House and Holly Schnee