In one way “Korengal” completes the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo” that Junger made with cameraman, photojournalist Tim Hetherington who died in 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya. But as Junger expresses it, “’Restrepo’ was intended to be a way for civilians to experience what combat feels like. “Korengal” “… strives to impart understanding of the inner psychology of the soldier, rather than the experience on the battlefield.”
The Korengal Valley of Afghanistan is a narrow gorge, six miles long, close to the border of Pakistan. For a little more than a year, May 2007 to July 2008, Battle Company — the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade — built their own fort or camp on a hillside overlooking the valley, a transit route to Kabul and probable base of operations for the Taliban. The soldiers named it “Restrepo” in honor of PFC Juan Restrepo, their medic who was killed in action. In this new film we meet these men again.
Because of the treacherous environment and Taliban activity, conditions for filming were extremely difficult. Junger and Hetherington lived side-by-side with the men for several months and taped 150 hours of film.
When they were editing “Restrepo,” Junger and Hetherington decided to use the extra footage they shot and add in interviews they had with the soldiers after their tour of duty ended. “Korengal” is the heartbreaking result of their efforts, though Hetherington did not live to see it completed.
Because the interviews took place three months after the unit’s deployment had ended, the men had time to reflect on their experiences. If you’ve seen “Restrepo” you’ll recognize some of the men. But even if you have not, when you listen to Brendan O’Byrne, who left the U.S. Army as a sergeant in 2008, you will wonder at the insanity of war and what this country has asked of these men, all of them intelligent and articulate — and some mother’s son.
I asked Junger if “Korengal” was an anti-war film. He said “no” and that he judges the morality for war on how much the people are suffering, and if and how much their suffering is relieved. He believes that U.S. and NATO intervention in Bosnia, though it came late, did relieve the suffering of the people. Now he hopes that politicians — on the right especially who normally do not want to know what war is really like and what it does to soldiers — will see the film and think about suffering.
I also asked him about the idea of “moral injury,” something that goes beyond PTSD, because it involves trauma to one’s conscience that has emerged since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Did O’Byrne and the other soldiers exemplify this condition? He agreed that they do and O’Byrne in particular reveals what soldiers go through who suffer from moral injury.
As the scandal about the Veterans Affairs hospitals deepens and the war in Afghanistan comes to a close — except for a large contingent that will remain to train Afghan soldiers — what lessons have we learned from America’s longest war? Although Junger does not think that “Korengal” is an anti-war film, I think it belongs in that intelligent and moving category of films that reveal the banality of war, in particular wars of choice.