'Korengal' director Sebastian Junger gives voice to soldiers back from war

New film shines a light on experience of battle

Sebastian Junger is no stranger to battle. But when faced with the decision of whether or not to make another movie out of the footage he shot while embedded with 2nd Platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, no struggle was necessary.

“Restrepo,” the Oscar-nominated first film, was shot with photojournalist Tim Hetherington and released in 2010. It’s an experiential film that brings viewers into the heat of battle.

“Korengal,” gleaned from the same footage and now in limited release in the U.S., is a film for the soldiers. Junger spoke about the new film, his motivation for continuing to tell this story, and how the death of his good friend and colleague Hetherington during the Arab Spring affected him.

Q: When you were filming in 2007-2008, were “Korengal” and “Restrepo” envisioned as separate parts of a plan?

A: We were really just focused on making one good movie. It was really after Tim’s death that I really thought seriously about what a second movie might be. You realize that there’s a lot of great material that didn’t make it into the film, and that’s sort of painful to realize. After Tim died, our producer kept saying there’s another movie in there, you should give it a try. So in 2013 I went back into the material.

Tim and I, our idea was that “Restrepo” would be an experiential film, it came out in the middle of two wars, and its purpose would be to give civilians the idea of what combat means, what war is like. We didn’t mean that in an anti-war way, just that this is what war is like, for the men in the Second Platoon, for the men who fight it. “Korengal” is different, it’s not so much an experiential film.

In “Korengal,” I didn’t feel constrained in that way — there is news footage, there is a musical score. It’s much more focused on sort of inquiring more deeply on how combat affects young men. I really thought of it more as a film for the soldiers, to understand their experiences, to remind the population that we are at war and this is what war is like.

Q: Having escaped from a hostage situation after being kidnapped, I really connected with what one of the soldiers said in “Korengal,” about how he always knows where he would go if there were gunfire. Similarly, I always know my exit points in a room. Do you think some of the soldiers’ experiences will connect with civilians watching the film who have experienced trauma, though not necessarily in battle?

A: Yes. After combat there is a very intense awareness of your surroundings. A good friend (Marine Lieutenant Karl Marlantes) who saw a lot of combat in Vietnam, said to me, combat contains a lot of the elements of spirituality, of religious experience, in that your awareness of your mortality puts you very much in the present moment. It forces you to pay incredible attention to reality, and what’s happening now, and it’s a kind of Zen focus.

That is what religion tries to impart to people and in my opinion often fails. Combat or a situation like you were in does that. It comes out of a terrible thing, but in a way it’s kind of a blessing. You have an understanding of reality that very few other people have.

Q: What motivated you to share the story of these soldiers with “Restrepo” and “Korengal”?

A: I started going to Afghanistan in the mid-90s, and had been there many times, it’s a country close to my heart. By 2005, I thought I should be embedded with U.S. forces, we were really starting to get bogged down in a war that, in my opinion, was an easy one, and an easy win. It was the right war, and we made a lot of mistakes. And I had never been embedded with U.S. forces before, and after that experience in 2005 I wanted to follow a platoon in combat for a year, checking in with them over the course of a year. Sort of a journalistic impulse.

I studied anthropology in college, and I’d always been interested in how male groups function in society. They’re quite old, hunting and war groups, in tribal societies, that go back into our prehistory. My hunch was that a platoon in combat in some structural way functioned in that way, and I was completely right. It really evolved into that.

Q: What would you like audiences to take away from “Korengal”?

A: I think civilians have this idea that the war belongs to the soldiers, since they’re the ones who fight it. And they’re really wrong about that. We live in a democracy, which means that the military does what its civilians tell it to. Which means that the war is the civilians’ war. If you live in a military dictatorship, I don’t think you have to take ownership of it if the government regime starts something. But here, even if you disagree with the war, as many do, it’s still owned by the nation, by the civilians.

The point I wanted to make in “Korengal” is that if you send young people to war, this is how it affects them. It affects them in good ways and bad ways: It damages them and makes them stronger. It gives them an experience they miss and an experience they regret, but it affects them and it changes them. They’re going to be coming home with those changes. I wanted to make a film that allowed the soldiers themselves, and also civilians, to understand those changes and effects more deeply.

Q: One thing that resonated with me when I spoke to Tim about “Restrepo” was his openness to the possibility of death, and the belief that what you both were doing was worth it. How do you prepare yourself for something like that?

A: I’ve been covering wars for a while, and the idea that you could die is there. Rationally, I felt like there was a very small chance. Nine guys died out of about 200 men while we were filming with the platoon. I was there maybe a third of the time, if that. So my chances, looking back, were like one percent. That’s OK. I could’ve gotten unlucky, and a couple of times were very close. One of them was the IED that blows up at the beginning of “Korengal.”

Q: Is it true that you will no longer cover combat zones, and if so, what spurred that decision?

A: It is true, and it is because Tim (Hetherington) was killed in Libya in combat. Within about an hour, partly in conversation with my wife, I just thought, “I’m done.” I was watching the effect of one’s own death unfold on everyone who was close to Tim, including myself and my wife. I just thought, “I’m not going to risk doing that to the people in my life.” I’d been at it for a while, and that was it.

Q: What’s next?

A: “The Last Patrol” is next. I wanted to encounter America in a very direct, raw way, and walking along the railroad lines seemed like a very interesting way to do it. It’s sort of a high speed vagrancy. Four of us did this and had a conversation about war over the course of a year. It’s a 400-mile conversation. It airs on HBO in November and will have an Oscar-qualifying run in theaters before that. I’m also writing a book based on my experiences filming it.

Check here to see if "Korengal" is showing in a theater near you.

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