Though probably best-known for his book “The Perfect Storm,” which was adapted into a smash 2000 movie starring George Clooney, journalist Sebastian Junger is a prolific writer whose reports from many war zones have attracted admiring notice. In 2007-08 he collaborated with fellow correspondent Tim Hetherington in a series of visits to an American platoon manning a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley and interviews with the men after their tour there was over. That resulted in their film “Restrepo” (2010) and Junger’s book “War,” published in the same year. Now he’s revisited the material and made a second film, “Korengal,” from it, intended to complement the first.
“[It’s] not the same footage,” Junger explained in a recent Dallas interview, “but it’s all from the material that was shot in 2007-08. I did five trips and Tim did five trips. The first trip, the guys were perfectly polite but didn’t say much of any insight—they certainly weren’t emotionally revealing. The next trip was a little better, and by the third trip I was sort of included in the platoon and they were glad to see me when I showed up. By the end I felt completely part of the platoon, and they were completely emotionally uncensored in what they said.
“In ‘Restrepo,’ Tim and I wanted to give civilian audiences an approximate experience of what combat is like—so we put them on that hilltop with no musical score, no images of generals, no used footage. No matter where you are in combat, you feel like a sitting duck. You can be inside a tank, and you feel like a sitting duck. In ‘Korengal’ I wanted to do an inquiry into the effects of combat on young men—why they’re traumatized by it, why they miss it, why they feel disoriented after they come home—an inquiry into combat and its aftereffects. And the structure I actually based on my book ‘War.’ It’s divided into three emotional experiences of combat—fear, killing and love, the three primary experiences as I understood it. We don’t call attention to it, but actually that’s the structure. I thought it might help other vets understand their experience a little bit better.”
In making the film Junger had to deal with the fact that his collaborator Hetherington had been killed while covering the conflict in Libya in 2011. He’d already honored Hetherington with a 2011 biographical documentary, “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?” but said that making it wasn’t really a catharsis for him. “Actually, no,” he said. “I mean, journalists have to—when you cover things like wars, you have to learn to shut down your feelings in order to function, and function on deadline. So yes, there were emotional moments in making a film about Tim, but you can’t cover war and be fully in touch with your feelings. Catharsis happens elsewhere, but not in the editing room.”
Asked about why he was drawn to covering dangerous combat zones, Junger explained, “Everyone responds to adrenaline to some degree, and there’s a lot of adrenaline in combat. Soldiers, civilians, journalists—that adrenalized experience is a compelling one. And as a journalist you also feel that you have a very meaningful role by communicating what’s happening on the ground in a situation like Sierra Leone or Bosnia or Kosovo—communicating that to the rest of the world. It feels like a very meaningful role and that you’re doing something quite crucial. And that feeling of being necessary and crucial is pretty intoxicating. And the worst situations are the ones that most urgently need reporting and that contain the most adrenaline. So journalists are drawn to those situations.”
The same adrenaline rush, Junger suggested, is part of what draws volunteers to join the military. “I think soldiers respond to adrenaline just like journalists or anyone else does,” he said. “Soldiers are also active and not passive reactors. You’re affecting the world in a very, very intense way, and that’s intoxicating. But journalists don’t have an agency in war.” In response to a question about soldiers’ attachment to their firearms, he added, “Guns are what’s keeping them alive, and they love their lives, so they love their guns. And their guns give them incredible agency.”
In the interviews conducted with the men after their return from Korengal, some, like Spc. Kyle Steiner, openly testify to the satisfaction they got from killing Taliban fighters, while one, Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne, expresses a far more conflicted view when he says, “I just hate that comment—‘You did what you had to do’—because I didn’t have to do any of it.” Junger noted, “Brendan got as excited as anybody else during the firefights. Those sentiments aren’t divided between soldiers. Most of the soldiers have both reactions. Some are less willing to talk about it than others.”
Asked about fictionalized war films, Junger said, “I’ve never seen a Hollywood movie that captured combat at all. I don’t think you can portray combat accurately if you haven’t been in it. Imagine making a film about being married and getting divorced if you haven’t been married and gotten divorced, or a film about having children if you’ve never had kids. Hollywood war movies are made by people who have never been in combat. So what they rely on is the cultural myths about war that they get from other Hollywood movies about war that are also made by people who have never been in combat. They’re compelling stories, but they have nothing to do with combat as I understand it.
“That’s not to say that they’re not very entertaining. I just watched ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and I loved it. But the combat scene—I didn’t understand what they thought they were doing. They’re saying something interesting about what they think people are like in combat, but they’re resorting to cultural ideas, to cultural myths—they’re not portraying reality.”
Asked about his own future plans, Junger said, “I’m not covering war anymore. After Tim was killed, I decided to stop covering war. That doesn’t mean I won’t go overseas, but I’m just not going to cover combat.”
At the close of the interview, Junger commented on the firestorm that had erupted over the decision to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who’d been in enemy hands for five years but was suspected of having deliberately left his post before being captured. “War is very, very emotional, particularly for the veterans,” he remarked. “Things like Bergdahl inflame their passions. I kind of understand the sentiments behind it.
“But if you remove those emotions and try to make a responsible, rational decision about what to do, of course we had to get him back, if only to try him. Either we examine whether he fulfilled his duties or not, or the Taliban try him just for being an American. Also, it’s an enormous compromise of our national security if we fail to get him back—future soldiers would worry that if there’s any ambiguity at all about the circumstances of their capture, then the nation might forget about them. You don’t want soldiers worrying about that.
“And finally, if we had not entered into talks with them, what are they going to do? They’re going to put him back into uniform and stand him in front of a video camera and cut his head off. Imagine the effect and the very real damage if there were a video out there of an American soldier in uniform having his head cut off.”