Why Sebastian Junger Believes America Needs to Reconsider How It Talks About War

Soon after the Academy Award-nominated Restrepo was released in 2010, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger thought he was finished covering war. After decades reporting from conflict zones ranging from Bosnia and Sierra Leone, and releasing a book entitled War on the heels of the movie, the correspondent decided to quit war journalism after his friend and filmmaking partner on Restrepo, Tim Heatherington, was killed in Libya in 2011. But then Junger’s producer pushed the journalist to return to the material he had shot with Heatherington in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007. From that footage, Junger has made another film, Korengal, which follows the same soldiers through the same deployment only it frames their experience in an entirely new way. Less about combat than the slow burning psychological toll of warfare, Korengal completes a docu-diptych, a two-sided look at what it means to be a soldier. We spoke with Junger about his new film, why he returned to this story, and why he believes America still doesn’t understand the real effects of warfare on its troops.

Korengal is made entirely from footage shot during the making of Restrepo. Did you always have a sense that here was another movie in the material that was left on the cutting floor from the process of making that documentary?

Sebastian Junger: Tim and I didn’t really talk in any detail about what other story there’d be. Restrepo seemed like the obvious story. It wasn’t later until after Tim died that I really started to think about it. I was pushed by Nick Quested, my executive producer. We were all good friends. He pushed me back into all the material. I hired Michael Levine, the editor from Restrepo. And I wrote a book called War that came out with Restrepo, and it was Michael who said the structure of War is actually pretty interesting as a template for a different take on that deployment. War is divided into three sections: fear, killing and love. The three emotional experiences of combat, as far as I understood it. That’s actually the structure in Korengal, although we don’t call attention to it. Underneath it is the structure.

So much had happened since Restrepo, especially with Tim’s death. What was that like returning to that material?

SJ: War is incredibly compelling. It’s a lot of things, but compelling is one of them. But once you move outside of that reaction to war, you kind of don’t want to have anything to do with it. And that’s a little bit what happened to me. I just wanted to get beyond the topic of war and killing and all that stuff and on to something else. But I’m glad I went back into it. I think we made a really strong film. Actually, it will be quite helpful to people.

It’s interesting to say “compelling.” Can you expand on what you mean by that? I think what’s interesting about these two movies is they’re both compelling in different ways and show completely different sides of the soldier’s experience.

SJ: It’s exciting. Anything where the stakes are that high is exciting and gets your attention. It requires the young men who fight those wars to adapt in the most extreme ways and to utilize every scrap of resources — psychic and physical — that they have. It’s incredibly dramatic and it’s very meaningful. The consequences are enormous at war, personally and socially. Compared to anything else I can imagine doing, the consequences and the meaning and the intensity of war eclipses all of it. We edited Restrepo in such a way that civilians could go into a dark room for 90 minutes and experience some approximation of what it’s like to be in combat. Korengal is different. It’s not trying to put you inside combat, it’s really an inquiry to try to understand combat and how it affects young men. It obviously traumatizes young men, obviously stimulates them, for some reason, which I try to go into. Many young men miss it after it’s over. And it’s such a politically incorrect, troublesome idea, but it’s the truth.

The timing of this film, four years after Restrepo, is also interesting because it feels like the conversation has moved on to the lingering effects of war on the veteran. Was that something you were trying to address explicitly in Korengal?

SJ: We had had these conversations with the troops that were really valuable about courage. Who knew that soldiers don’t really like to use the word “courage?” You think that would be a central word in their vocabulary. Politically, I’m liberal. Democratic from Massachusetts – absolutely liberal. But I feel like both political voices in this country, the far left and the far right, are really ideological and fall back on very programmed ideological easy truths that don’t bear scrutiny. One of the things I try to do in all of my work, but in this film specifically, is to sort of undermine the easy assumptions, the facile truths of the far right and the far left. I think they’re equally damaging and they’re stupid. One of the things the far right doesn’t want to engage with is the fact that war is morally very complicated and causes a lot of moral damage to the soldiers. It really isn’t just do your duty – “I’m a patriot, long live America” — it really is a lot more complicated than that for the soldiers. I think the right wing really doesn’t want to engage with that messy conversation about war and civilian casualties. I think the left wing, they really don’t want to engage with the idea that soldiers are not victims. They sign up of their own free choice. The guys in combat units quite eagerly join those units, they have to pass a lot of tests. It’s like getting on the football team. You don’t get sucked into combat, you have to pass a lot of tests to qualify. They are very eager and proud about it, and a lot of them miss it when it’s over. The left wing just hates that. And one of the things I wanted to do with the film is undermine those things. So we actually have a real conversation about how real soldiers experience real war. Because they are coming home with their realness. They aren’t coming home with ideological slogans; they’re coming home with realness, and it makes people very uncomfortable. Of course it’s exciting. Of course when you train guys that highly and have them do their thing, it’s thrilling to be that competent. Of course it is. It’s like, you’re that highly trained and hate the fact that you’re really good at it? That’s not realistic. But it also involves killing other human beings, even the ones who are shooting at you.

And that makes coming home a very complicated experience.

SJ: The guys that I knew, all of them responded to the adrenaline of the moment. And they come home, and let’s face it, it’s dull. Society has made a point of making sure it’s as uneventful as possible. Fine. But there’s a consequences for that, especially for young men who have been exposed to that level of intensity. And the experience of such a prolonged, intense closeness with 30 people – 30 other men – is a drug in its own right. Adrenaline is a drug, and that kind of human closeness is a drug. We evolved to live like that as a species. Our pre-history is basically 30 or 40 people, in a small encampment defending itself in a hostile environment. That’s what we are, That’s what we’re wired for. And then you send guys out and they have something like that experience for a year, like sleeping shoulder to shoulder and being totally inter-reliant, and then they come back to a society which is as dispersed and fractured and wide open and alienated as this one is. In some ways there’s nothing more terrifying than an American suburb, you know, existentially terrifying – at least for me. We have the highest rates ever in human history of suicide, depression, child abuse, and mass killings in our communities. No society has ever produced that. We did. They’re coming back from in some ways, a very healthy human experience, and I think seeing the society clearly for the first time. And they’re having trouble adapting.

You’ve covered a lot of combat. Do you think it’s a similar kind of thing for a journalist, that war offers a kind of closeness to your subjects, to something real. Is there always a nagging sense that, okay, I need do go to this again?

SJ: Yeah. I think soldiers miss three things. They miss the adrenaline, which journalists definitely have the same reaction. One very articulate soldier, veteran, told me, he said, “It’s a matter of agency.” In combat, you have an enormous amount of agency. You’re calling in 10 gun runs. You’re affecting the world. You’re affecting people in incredibly dramatic ways. You’re driving a tank, and then you come home and you’re driving a Kia or whatever. He says it’s the delta – the difference – the delta between the two that kills you. Journalists don’t have agency. They’re passive observers, mostly. Adrenaline, yes. Loss of agency, no. And the brotherhood, no. I experienced that closeness because I was with a platoon, but all my other experiences in war, I was alone, individual, in this sort of chaotic situation. I’m not affiliated with a group. I’m not in a platoon. My photographer and I are a unit. If anything, with journalists, there’s a certain amount of competition. But when journalists talk about missing war, they don’t just mean US combat infantry, they mean the whole thing. It’s like Libya, Syria, whatever. I think it’s mostly the adrenaline. And you know, your sense of meaningfulness. You’re telling the world about this terrible situation. You’re the medium through which this information is traveling. It feels very, very important when it’s happening. So I think what journalists get hooked on, the adrenaline and that sense of the importance of their own role in human events. It’s really intoxicating.

You said that after writing War you wanting to move on, and then you came back to war to put this movie together. At this point, are you thinking of stepping away from covering war again?

SJ: Yeah. After Tim died, I immediately decided to stop covering war. I mean, like, within an hour.

What were you thinking?

SJ: I was watching everyone who loved Tim react with this shock and horror and incredible grief. The light bulb sort of went off. I don’t ever want to run the risk of doing, what I’m watching right now, to everyone that I love. I just don’t want to do it. At 30, yeah. At 40, maybe. At 50? At some point, you have to start living with the interest of others foremost, and not your own. It’s a little bit like being in a platoon. This isn’t about me, this is about everyone else I love. And you’ve got to put those peoples’ interest first.