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Sebastian Junger Explores Why Soldiers Miss War In 'Korengal'

OPB | June 27, 2014 midnight | Updated: June 29, 2014 4:01 p.m.

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Four years ago, journalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington co-directed and released the acclaimed documentary Restrepo.

The two journalists spent 14 months — between 2007 and 2008 — embedded with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade isolated in a deadly outpost in the Korengal Valley. The Boston Globe called Restrepo “one of the best war films ever made.”

This Friday, Junger is releasing a sequel of sorts titled Korengal. It’s a combination of unused footage from Restrepo and extended interviews with the soldiers. It’s premiering at Fox Tower 10 in Portland. A lot has changed since Restrepo was originally released. Perhaps the biggest change is the absence of Hetherington, who died in 2011 while covering the war in Libya.

Junger sat down with Think Out Loud for a conversation in front of an audience at Literary Arts. He discussed the new film and larger questions of war. Below is an edited Q&A with Sebastian Junger and Think Out Loud host Dave Miller.

Why Do Soldiers Miss War?

Sebastian Junger: If you’re in combat you’re getting dosed with two powerful drugs. One is adrenaline. It’s why people skydive; it’s why they drive too fast. It’s a chemical we experience in a crisis and it feels good. The other thing you get in combat is this incredible closeness. There are 30-20 guys sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder for a year on a hilltop, without Internet, without a phone. They just have each other. And then they come back.

They come back to a society that’s quite dull. We’ve made a specialty in Western civilization of making sure the unexpected doesn’t happen too often. It’s a very alienated, fractured society. Western post-industrial society has the highest rates of suicide, depression, child abuse and mass killings in our communities of any human society in history.

They’re coming from an experience of incredible intimacy, closeness and self inter-reliance to a society where they’re sleeping by themselves in an air-conditioned room in a suburb. Frankly, a lot of people who haven’t experienced combat get suicidal because of the alienation of that. And, they want to go back.

‘Brave Soldier’ Is Redundant

Sebastian Junger: To call someone a ” brave soldier” is redundant; it’s like saying ‘brave fireman.’ If you’re going to be a fireman, the job involves running into burning buildings. Just call it a fireman. It’s an act of bravery to sign up for the fire department or to be a solider. But once you’ve accepted the terms of that job, doing anything less than that is just not doing your job.

Dave Miller: Would you describe being a war correspondent — a photojournalist, or a writer, somebody who’s right in the midst of combat — in the same terms?

Sebastian Junger: No. I wouldn’t. I think the courage that is shown by soldiers is a courage enacted for others. And journalists are understandably ambitious. I’m ambitious — every journalist I know is ambitious — and they run a lot of risk because they want to be a really good journalist. In fact, they want to be a better journalist than everyone else.

They’re confronting their fears in order to do something they want to do. But, courage in the sense that soldiers sort of understand that word, I think, is about everyone else. And that’s not what the press is doing.

What Changed After Tim Died

Dave Miller: When Tim was killed, did that change your understanding of what the men were living with and had been through?

Sebastian Junger: It changed my understanding completely. One of the things that I never got was various soldiers — one of them particularly named Cortez, who’s in the film — talking about their sense of guilt and responsibility about other guys who got killed.

Cortez was really anguished about the fact that Rougle got killed. Rougle was hit in the forehead with a bullet. There’s not much you can do to protect someone who dies like that. It was tragic. He was an amazing man. And Cortez just felt guilty about it. He thought it was his fault. I couldn’t understand it. He was at the bottom of the hill. He was nowhere near Rougle. And then Tim got killed.

We were supposed to be on assignment together in Libya. At the last moment, I had to pull the plug on it for personal reasons. Tim went out on his own. He got hit by fragments from a mortar shell and he bled out in a rebel pickup truck in the streets of Misrata.

I got the news and watched this wave of guilt wash over me. I felt like I should have been there. I should have died instead of him. I should have been there to save his life. I was 5,000 miles away and took full responsibility for his death. It added immeasurably to my grief and pain.

The Thought Process Behind ‘Korengal’

Dave Miller: You’ve said that Restrepo was for civilians and this new movie was for soldiers. What do you mean by that?

Sebastian Junger: The film we made Restrepo was an attempt to give people the feeling of combat. You go into a dark room and you’re on that hilltop with those guys for 90 minutes. There’s no interviews with generals, there’s no musical score, no narration — you’re just stuck on that hill.

What I wanted to do with Korengal was make a film where I used parts of the interviews we shot after deployment and the vérité footage we shot — to talk about the war.  What the experience of combat is like for soldiers, how it affects them.

To listen to the entire Think Out Loud conversation with Sebastian Junger, click on the audio link at the middle of the page.

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