Life During Wartime: Sebastian Junger on 'Korengal'

The documentary filmmaker revisits the world of his Oscar-nominated movie 'Restrepo' for a look at the soldiers' P.O.V.

Sebastian Junger Outpost Restrepo Afghanistan Korengal Valley
Tim Hetherington/Outpost Films/ZUMApress.com
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington at Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
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From 2007 to 2008, writer, seasoned war journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger went on patrol, survived an IED attack, endured firefights and boredom, and bonded with the soldiers of Camp Restrepo, a remote outpost deep in the Korengal Valley in the northeast region of Afghanistan. Embedded with the men of U.S. Army Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Junger and his co-director, Tim Hetherington, documented the experience in their 2010 movie Restrepo — a you-are-there account of modern combat that earned the duo an Academy-Award nomination for Best Documentary.

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Blessed with an abundance of footage, Junger and his partner pitched the idea of pulling other stories out of the material to various folks; on April 20th, 2011, Hetherington was killed while covering a rebel siege in Misrata, Libya. Despite the fact that it seemed inconceivable to go back to the material after Tim's death, Junger would eventually be convinced to return to the story of Camp Restrepo and its inhabitants — and the result, Korengal, allows the soldiers themselves to talk about the fear, courage and camaraderie of life during wartime in their own words. "Same valley, same soldiers," the movie's trailer proclaims. "Different journey." (The film opened in New York on May 30th.)

The day before Korengal's opening, Junger met up with Rolling Stone at the Chelsea bar he co-owns, The Half King, to talk about revisiting the footage, why the rush of war is addictive, and why it's important for civilians to understand what the soldiers went through on their behalf.

You've had the idea of returning to this material for a while, right?
Well, it's sort of complicated…like any filmmakers, Tim and I anguished over all the good stuff we couldn’t put in Restrepo — we didn't want to make a five hour film. So we pitched National Geographic on a three-part TV series, which would involve going back to that material and approaching it from a different angle. But they were interested; I think we brought it to A&E as well, and they passed. So we forgot about it and moved on.

About a year or so after Tim was killed, Nick [Quested, one of Restrepo's producers] started saying, "You know, Sebastian, there really another film here…I think there's a story a be told from this footage." I was just…I was really reluctant to go back to the material, for personal reasons. I knew there was great stuff in there, but it was just too painful; I felt like I'd be moving backward instead of forward in my life. 

But I convinced Michael Levine, our editor on Restrepo, to take another look at the footage with me, just to see what we could find. And once we started sifting through what we had, he came up with this wonderful idea of taking the structure of my book War, and imposing the three sections I used there — Fear, Killing and Love, which are the three emotional experiences of combat, as I see it — on to the footage we hadn't used. Once we finally decided that was the route to take, the movie felt like it sprung out of the material right away.

Do you think you would have eventually come up with that idea on your own?
Not at all, no. In fact, my first reaction was to say it would feel too self-involved if we consciously organized it that way. I didn't want it to seem like I was making a movie of my book. But the more we talked about it, the more I thought actually, this could work. There is a way to do this without seeming easy or derivative. 

You've said that Restrepo was about the experience of combat, and that Korengal was about the experience of the soldiers. Can you clarify that a bit?
Restrepo was designed to be seen as a first-hand experience of combat…Tim and I very consciously wanted audiences to feel like they were getting as close as they could to the combat experience without being shot at in a theater. You can't have a musical score; there's no music in combat. You don't have narration in combat, you can't cut away to archival footage or a talking head when you're in a firefight. The reason Restrepo feels like such a visceral experience is that we adhered to a set of rules: No one is in the film who wasn't fighting on that outpost, no score, no voiceovers. When things go bang in that movie, people jump, because a part of your brain thinks it's happening to you — I've seen audiences do this at screenings. But when you're cutting between battle scenes and an interview with Noam Chomsky, no one actually thinks they're in the middle of a war zone.

No, that's an entirely different type of combat.
[Laughs] Right! With Korengal, however, the idea was never to put you in the middle of a firefight. We wanted to go into it with more of a sense of inquiry, to have a little bit more of a perspective on things. What does the concept of courage mean to a soldier? Why do so many soldier talk about missing the war? We wanted to have the room to ask questions like that, so somebody like you and I could have more insight into what's going on in the mind of these men. All of those interviews you see in the film happened a few months after their deployment, when everything was still so raw…you can tell they're working really hard to articulate their feelings about what they went through. They're trying to figure these things out for themselves as well. So yeah, Restrepo was meant to be an experience and this is meant to be more of an exploration, if that doesn't sound too highfaluting.

You made a documentary about the life and work of Tim Hetherington last year for HBO (Which Way is the Front Line From Here), which I imagine was a very cathartic experience. But how did it feel to go back to this footage knowing that this was something you and he experienced, and he is no longer here?
You know, it's…um…[Pause] It's like looking at your wedding album after the divorce. You see those pictures and you think, wow those were such happy times, and here we are now. It's poignant — but life is filled with poignancy, and you don't need to go to war or to lose a friend to feel something like that. So, yeah — it was painful at times, and many times, it made me incredibly lucky. 

Lucky?
Yeah — lucky to have known Tim and be his friend, lucky to have know those soldiers and to have been there at Camp Restrepo and experience those things with them. And honestly, lucky to have gotten out of there alive. There were a couple of close calls; I'd been shot at before, in other war zones, but this felt particulate hairy at times. It's part of being a war journalist; you're putting yourself in harm's way. There's a chance you might be shot and killed, in the same way that there's a chance that, if you drive up to Boston, you may get in a car accident, you know?

I haven't driven to Boston recently, so I don't know what the roads are like — but surely the mortality rate is higher in a war zone!
Of course, but what I mean is: You going in to these situations knowing that this is theoretical. That's your mindset — then suddenly, sand is hitting you in the face because a high-caliber bullet hit the sandbag my head was resting against. It's no longer in the abstract; had me head been here instead of here, I'd be dead and not even know it. If you remember the beginning of Restrepo, there's an IED that goes off in front of a car…that's me filming that from inside the car. Thankfully, the bomb went off under the engine block, or else all of us would have been goners. Some pretty dark thoughts go through your head after that's happened to you once or twice. [Laughs] And it happened to us in the Korengal Valley a lot. So I do back at that footage and think I was very, very lucky.

Having spent a lot of time with these soldiers in the Korengal Valley, do you get the sense that these men no longer think of war as something noble, or as a rite of passage — that idea of war testing one's mettle no longer applies in the 21st century?
Well, a lot of the guys I knew out there, they literally went to war to become men. Some of them actually phrased it that way. Several did join because their dad or their grandfather fought, So that idea of testing one's mettle…that's still out there. So much of the military machine these days is technology-based; if you're operating a drone from a cubicle in Nevada, it's hard to call that glorious. I mean, they said that when the machine gun was invented as well…you know, "Why are we fighting with these things from far away? We're supposed to be doing this with muskets and sabers, the 'honorable' way!" [Laughs]

But in the Korengal Valley, the fighting was straight out of WWII and Vietnam. It was not a technology-driven campaign; it was on foot, with heavy rucksacks and guns, you were engaged by an enemy and you fought it out. So while I hesitate to use the word glorious, I think a lot of the soldiers there wouldn't hesitate to cal it that. They felt like they were getting a good, old-fashioned fight out of this.

I mention this because there's a scene in the film where a soldier refers to the fact that they are in this valley not to hunt down the enemy, but to have the enemy come to them….
Ah, right.

…which suggests they're being used as bait, really. And I wonder if the idea of being used as bait would be considered a glorious thing to some of those soldiers.
I think every war has something equivalent to what you're talking about, and that's not exclusive to this conflict. But I can tell you for fact that that was not the battle strategy here…no one in command ever said "Let's put some bait out here." I can tell you that for a fact. There was value to that valley and making sure it was secure. This wasn't the Fetterman Massacre of the 1860s. So while there may have been some frustration along the lines of what that soldier said, they all knew why they were there and they felt they were doing a job that needed doing. 

Did you ever have the sense that, by becoming a war journalist and putting yourself in hot spots and battle zones, that you were proving your mettle in your own way.
God, yeah. I went to war because I felt like I wasn't a man. 

So how did you feel after that?
I felt like I was man. [Laughs] I mean, it's really that simple. I was 30 years old, I'd grown up in the suburbs, and I'd never found myself in a situation that was completely out of my control…the kind where I'd had to reach deep down into my inner resources to overcome it. I was writing short stories and waiting tables, and on some level, I just didn't feel like I was a man. However that feels, you know…I didn't feel that way. So I went to war.

It required me to face fear — not personal fears, mind you, but the entire concept of fear. It required me to face the possibility of failure, and realize there are some situations where you are simply not allowed to fail. 

Have any of the soldiers you had interviewed and profiled seen Korengal?
A lot of them have seen it. They've loved it. Restrepo, really, was for the civilians; we were in the middle of two wars, a lot of the news wasn't really telling people what was happening, and I wanted people to understand what these guys were going through. Korengal really is for the soldiers; I wanted to help them understand what they went through, and by extension, let citizens understand as well. But it really is for them.

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Did it surprise you when some of the soldiers said that if they could get on a plane and go back, they would do it?
Not at all. I've been in and out of war zones since Bosnia, and I missed it. Keep in mind, I just missed the adrenaline surge and the meaningfulness of being there…these guys had all that as well as a profound sense of camaraderie. Never mind that, for some soldiers, it was, "I was driving a tank over there, and back home, I don't own a car." These guys had the full load of these things — the rush, the sense of agency and the sense of being part of a unit. So yeah, it didn't surprise me one bit. I get it. 

Do you still miss it? Being on frontlines and reporting on war?
[Long sigh] I'm relieved I don't have to do it anymore and I miss it. I don't know if you've ever smoked, but I used to smoke quite a bit, and I gave it up. I've given up covering warfare as a subject and smoking a pack a day. I associate both of these things with parts of my life that I'm nostalgic for. I miss them both, and giving both of them up has ultimately added years to my life.