This Is What War Feels Like: Sebastian Junger's 'Korengal'
Two journalists—Junger and the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington—embedded with a platoon and captured 150 hours of combat footage in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan from May 2007 to July 2008. Korengal is Junger's second feature documentary made from this footage.
"We saw Restrepo as an experiential movie," he says. "You have something close to the experience of combat. It's unfiltered, untainted by a musical score or narration. With Korengal, we didn't feel constrained like that. We really wanted to make a film that strove to understand that experience conceptually. And that was why we used interviews where we asked the soldiers, How does fear work? What does courage mean? Why do you miss the war?"
Korengal delivers on its promise to show us what war feels like. Shot in vérité and as a series of post-deployment interviews, it invites the audience to experience empathy for a role people have played for thousands of years: The Combat Soldier.
No one in the movie talks politics, though a soldier's presence is inherently political. No one discusses at length the moral implications of war—although the moral complexities are implicit—or why they're willing to fight in it. The entire content of the film is singularly devoted to the soldiers' perspectives.
"We did the interviews two months after the deployment ended," Junger explains. "The soldiers talked about their feelings because their feelings were extremely powerful. And so were ours. There were interviews where everyone was crying. All of us, including the two filmmakers, had a pretty good case of PTSD. So you have people with PTSD interviewing other people with PTSD."
Junger shapes a film where physical conflict begets internal conflict. Two wars are presented: The war on the ground, and soldiers at war with themselves. "There are unpleasant truths about war," he notes. "On one hand, you can see in one bit of footage how much fun they're having. They're just whooping it up during a firefight. They look like grade-school kids in a water balloon fight. It's pretty remarkable. And that makes civilians uncomfortable."
For a filmmaker, evoking discomfort can be a good thing. "I feel like the film will help civilians confront some of those uncomfortable truths that they'd rather think are not true," Junger maintains. "I start with a sound byte of a soldier saying, ‘I miss it. I wish I could go back tomorrow.' That has to be explained."
Junger uses the language of paradox to explore the question, as soldiers' actions are often at odds with their beliefs. Brendan O'Byrne, a soldier interviewed in the film, is not religious, yet he worries that he'll have to explain his actions to God someday. "And," Junger explains, "Brendan didn't even believe in God. He wasn't religious and he was worried about it. The longest single sound byte is Brendan talking about the tragedy of war and what it does to a person morally.
"I put that in to counterbalance the other things that are true," Junger points out. "A lot of soldiers play ‘war' when they're little boys. They join the Army because they want to know what combat is like. And they get into combat, and they love it. Then they get home, and they miss it. I'm trying to report all of that moral complexity, trying to report it honestly, and not censor it."
An honest look at a complex situation reveals an experience constructed as a series of paradoxical moments: The soldiers describe combat as an experience other people "can't understand," yet they often reflect about not understanding their own combat experience and the love/hate cycle it provokes. Another soldier mourns having to do terrible things, yet says, if given the chance, he would make the same choice again. The soldiers pretend to be in friendship with the local elder council, yet the platoon captain describes the elders as a "bunch of liars." In a rare moment of tranquility in the film, a soldier strums "Dust in the Wind" on an acoustic guitar. But before the deployment ends, a soldier smashes the guitar to pieces for fun. One soldier admits he's experienced racism within the platoon, but insists he would give his life for anyone, including the ones he believes have acted in a racist manner.
Such a close examination of soldiers in combat is evocative, offering the audience an immersive, riveting, and, at times, meditative window into a usually unseen world. The platoon's story is told in a simple, direct way. But like the experience it documents, Korengal is also challenging and complicated.
Ultimately, Junger believes, Korengal will foster understanding. "We send them off, and they come home. They come home changed. And I thought if I made a film that helped soldiers unpack and understand their own experience at war, if I could do that, civilians might also understand that experience better. It seemed like having a work that tries to understand that experience would help everybody."
Korengal opens in theaters May 30 in New York and June 13 in Los Angeles, through Goldcrest Films.
Suzanne Curtis Campbell is a Los Angeles-based writer, currently working toward her MFA in screenwriting at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. She has worked with Ladylike Films on the award-winning documentaries Somewhere Between and Code Black, and on PBS' Makers.