korengal-posterIn 2010, American journalist Sebastian Junger and British-American photojournalist Tim Heatherington released their riveting documentary Restrepo, an intense filmed exploration of the year they spent embedded with the Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army in the Korengal Valley in northeast Afghanistan. The film was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Tragically, Tim Heatherington was killed the following year while covering the Civil War in Libya. He and Junger had discussed making a second film with the footage from their time in Afghanistan, and now Sebastian Junger is back with Korengal, an equally exciting film that picks up where Restrepo left off — the same men, the same valley, the same commanders, but a very different look at the experience of war. Korengal explains how war works, what it feels like and what it does to the mean who fight it. I sat down with Sebastian Junger to discuss this powerful documentary.

Danny Miller: I was so sad to hear about Tim’s death in 2011. Was that partly what led you to make this follow-up to Restrepo?

sebastianjungerSebastian Junger: No, not really. After we finished Restrepo, Tim and I had the experience that many filmmakers go through, thinking about all the great material we had that we couldn’t use in that film. When Restrepo did really well, we tried to sell a three-part TV series to National Geographic that would use that material in a different way, but that didn’t happen so we dropped it. Then, last year, my friend Nick Quested, our executive producer who was a close friend of Tim’s, urged me to go back into the material to see if I thought there was another film in there, and indeed there was. That’s how Korengal came about.

I was so glad to see more of these guys. As a viewer, you kind of fall in love with them in Restrepo, so it was like seeing old friends again. I was very moved when they talked about the lifetime bond they feel for each other and how some of them would rather be back in the Korengal than at home. Do you think they’d still make such comments today?

I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. Half of them are still in the military and have done other deployments. We shot those interviews four months after they left, and some of them were so ill-adapted to life at that point that they really missed the Korengal. I know some of them still miss that experience, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to go back there.

And we’re completely cleared out of that part of Afghanistan now, right?

Yes. The Afghan National Army is there but there are no longer any Americans on the ground — we just have some drone activity up there.

Did making these two films alter your personal feelings about what we’re doing in that part of the world?

It certainly made me understand the experience of war a lot better which I don’t think varies all that much from war to war for soldiers, no matter if it’s considered a “good” war or a “bad” war. I think all wars seem senseless when we look at  them but I think some are necessary and unavoidable.

Were there any reactions when Restrepo came out that made you uncomfortable?

It’s funny because politically I’m very left-wing. Restrepo was not a particularly “patriotic” film in that it showed soliders in a somewhat complicated light. They weren’t presented as cartoon character versions of soliders, it was the real thing and they were pretty ragged at times. So when the film came out, I thought the right wing might come after me for being somehow “unpatriotic” in showing the realities of war. But the truth is, when we did get criticized, it almost always came from the left.

Really? What was their main criticism?

That we should have overtly condemned the war. And that if you don’t condemn it, you’re supporting it, which, frankly, is just absurd — that’s not what journalism is for. These left-wing critics were forgetting that they very rightly criticize Fox News for having an agenda related to the war but then they wanted me to have one. It was just stupid.

Isn’t the whole point of documentaries to help us as viewers work out those issues in our own heads?

Of course. A documentary is not a public service announcement, it’s journalism.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live with the daily awareness that you could be killed at any time. You were embedded with those guys for a long time. What was it like living with that kind of adrenaline?

I assume you drove here and you’re going to drive home. The truth is that there’s a chance you’ll be killed. But you’re not driving with adrenaline — there’s a certain amount of denial in doing something that could get you killed but almost certainly won’t. It was kind of that way in the Korengal. We could have gotten killed on any given day, but it was much more likely that we wouldn’t. I think to some extent we all live our lives in that kind of denial.

That’s true, but it has to be a different feeling to leave my family in the morning to drive on the streets of Los Angeles versus heading to a war zone in Afghanistan!

Yes, but the risks feel manageable and the benefits are that it’s a very exciting meaningful job. Sure, the downside is that you could get hurt or killed — there’s definitely a psychological cost that comes with this work but journalists are generally ambitions people who become journalists because they want to distinguish themselves and serve a purpose. I don’t want to make us sound grandiose or anything, but I do believe that these stories need to get told and every journalist I know feels very lucky that they’re the ones who get to tell them. It’s not that we’re marching off to do our duty, it’s more like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I get to do this!”


I was so impressed with how forthcoming and moving these guys were on camera. They brought me to tears on many occasions.

I know. If this were a feature film, you’d think, “Wow, these are great actors!” They were incredibly honest about their experiences.

How do your goals for this film differ from what you hoped for the last one?

Restrepo was made to allow audiences to experience what combat was like. Korengal is really an inquiry about how combat affects young men in all sorts of ways. How does it change them? What does the experience mean to them? We had discussions about courage, about fear, about why some of them miss the war. This one was more about inquiry than an experiential film.

I haven’t seen Restrepo for quite some time but the two films go together so well, obviously — it almost becomes one thing in my head. 

Yes, they certainly complement each other, but, for example, Restrepo doesn’t have a musical score. As soon as you’re watching a movie with a musical score you know you’re not in reality because real life doesn’t come with a score or narration or interviews with generals.

Would you be an embedded reporter in such a situation again?

After Tim died, I decided not to cover war anymore, so I guess my answer is no. But from an ethical viewpoint, do I approve of the embedding system? Yes, absolutely.

That whole thing of embedding reporters with different units is a fairly new concept, isn’t it?

The word is new but I think any kind of journalism in such situations is “embedded journalism.” If you ride around with the New York City Fire Department, you’re “embedded” with them even if they don’t call it that. Tim spent time with the rebels in Liberia in 2003, but they didn’t say he was “embedded” —  that’s just what journalism is.

How do you think these soldiers are treated when they come home compared to veterans of other wars?

I think they’re more or less venerated by this country, unlike, say, vets from the Vietnam War. But in either case, veterans always say that they get the impression that civilians think  the war belongs to the soldiers. Civilians don’t seem to get that they chose the war. They sent the soldiers over there to do it, but it’s not the soliders’ war. That really puzzles every vet that I know.

How so?

Because it’s simply not their war. They were sent to do it, but they were not the ones who decided to go there. I think even people who are against the war still need to acknowledge that it’s their war. I mean, look, I’m against pollution, but I still make the decision to drive a car. Personally, I was totally against the Iraq War, but I did feel that the Afghan War could do a lot of good, and I think it has. I started going to Afghanistan in 1996 so I know that country really well and I think we’ve brought some incredible changes there — through great sacrifice, of course.

But not in Iraq?

No. And again, I’m very left-wing, but I feel that the left has a real problem with hypocrisy. I remember this bumper sticker that was very popular in 2003. It read “No Blood for Oil” and people would put it on their cars! The left was completely blind to the hypocrisy of that.

Korengal is playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles and other cities on June 13, 2014. It is also available on VOD.