In the new documentary, “Korengal,” author, war journalist, and filmmaker Sebastian Junger returns to the war footage from Afghanistan’s dangerous Korengal Valley to pick up where his Oscar-nominated film, “Restrepo” left off. Envisioned as the second part of the story detailing the Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in this remote Afghanistan valley, “Korengal” examines the personal perspective of being a soldier. It’s not solely about fighting the Taliban who smuggled weapons along this route, but also about the soldiers’ camaraderie, boredom, tension, guilt for one’s actions, as well as the possibility of being killed at any moment.
In June 2007, Junger and fellow journalist Tim Hetherington were embedded with the combat unit in the Korengal Valley for an assignment for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News. Junger and Hetherington made a total of ten trips to the Restrepo outpost (named after Juan Restrepo, a medic who was killed in action), and shot a total of 150 hours of footage. Junger and Hetherington became, in a sense, part of the platoon, pulling their own weight, helping out on camp duties, etc. Their close relationship with the men allowed them to film all aspects of the soldiers’ lives.
When this platoon pulled out of Restrepo in July 2008, the unit was stationed in Vicenza Italy. This is where Hetherington and Junger traveled next to record the soldiers’ personal testimonies about their time at Restrepo and their thoughts on their fellow soldiers, family and their own futures.
Per the film’s production notes, Junger and Hetherington always thought these personal interviews would make an interesting second film to “Restrepo,” one where the men, away from their day-to-day combat deployment, could reflect on what it meant to be a soldier. Unfortunately Hetherington was killed while on assignment in Libya in April 2011. But Junger went back to complete their work together and self-financed the second film, enlisting the help of his “Restrepo” editor Michael Levine.
“Korengal” gives a first-hand account from the men in the trenches. Although it’s quickly apparent that these men would do anything to save their brethren, not all walk away with the same take on their military actions. There are those who would return to combat at Restrepo in a second. “There’s nothing like the crack of a bullet whizzing by your head.” Then there are those who remark on their “perceived sins.” Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne says he hates the phrase, “You did what you had to do,” because did he have to do any of it? He questions whether “… God [is] gonna say, ‘you did what you had to do. Good job.’” O’Byrne doesn’t think so.
There are also pointed scenes of the squad interacting with the Afghan villagers. There’s a mutual distrust between both sides, and strikingly the soldiers admit that they think the villagers are liars. They accept aid, but are happy to kill a soldier too. They fully realize that the villagers didn’t ask for the U.S. to come, and yet they fear the Taliban more than the U.S. soldiers. So although mistrustful, the men understand how the Afghans are caught between a rock and a hard place. Which basically sums up a great deal about the War in Afghanistan.
Although, “Korengal” doesn’t push any new bounds, it’s still immensely admirable that Junger keeps the personal stories and plights of the soldiers alive in the minds of the U.S. public. With more and more returning soldiers who face the challenges of “normal” civilian life, “Korengal” serves as an important reminder as to what these men have gone through physically and mentally.
“Korengal” is 84 minutes, Rated R and opens June 13 exclusively at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. Sebastian Junger will be in person for a Q&A at the Friday, June 13 and Saturday, June 14 screenings.