Sebastian Junger felt as though he had never been tested. Growing up in a "peaceful American suburb during the 80's" he needed to prove himself, to experience some adversity. So in 1990, approaching 30, the author took himself to Bosnia to cover the war. He survived and proved to be an astute observer. He went on to bring his observations to a wide audience through his first film, "Restrepo," the outcome of a year-long collaboration with photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded with the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Junger was in LA last week to talk about his latest film, "Korengal," and he remembered vividly an essential element of his lengthy visits to the war zone: the bone-crushing boredom.
"Monotony is an important part of war," Junger said. He and Hetherington spent the better part of a year documenting combat and life for their first film. "Korengal" is the companion piece to "Restrepo," done after the tragic death of Hetherington on assignment during Libya's civil war in 2011. Junger reluctantly revisited the footage shot for Restrepo to complete a second film that he and Hetherington had talked many times about making. And after Hetherington's death, he decided ("within an hour") never to cover combat again.
"Restrepo" showed what combat looks like. "Korengal" tries to show what war feels like. He recalled a period of several weeks on the mountain outpost where no fighting had erupted. "I felt a little guilty for finding myself wishing something would kick off. Then, the lieutenant walked by muttering 'Please, someone attack us today.' I heard that and thought--nothing to feel guilty about. We're all on the same page."
That anecdote seems to sum up the complexity of war, and the conflicts our military men and women live with every day. Junger knows that there are many reasons why they sign up for military service, from altruism to curiosity to adrenalin. "Korengal" gives the soldiers a chance to talk about those conflicts and complexities. It asks the audience to consider these questions: How does fear work? What do courage and guilt mean? Why do so many soldiers miss the war when they come home?
"Korengal" reflects the structure of an earlier book of Junger's called "War," which he divided into three parts: fear, killing and love. "There is a psychic voltage in the experience of combat, and you can absolutely grow to like it," he says. "But equally and more important than that is the true sense of brotherhood and close bonds." He feels that a big part of the re-entry problem that returning veterans experience occurs because "they are not coming back to a close-knit, tribal or agrarian community where as warriors they are welcomed back into the fold, but to Western society. And for all our technology and culture, we are a very fragmented and alienated society. We have the highest rate of suicide, and depression, child abuse and mass murder of any society. They are coming from an environment of extraordinary closeness and loyalty. So who is messed up, us or them?"
His explanation puts the re-rentry process into a different perspective and makes it easier to understand how a soldier can miss the war once he returns home. "Brendan (O"Byrne) misses the war a lot, but is also very damaged by it. This is the dilemma. He did a lot more thinking than some of the guys in the platoon and can be wracked with guilt over the killing of innocents during warfare, yet says he would jump at the chance to get back to the battlefield. He has all those conflicting feelings and is not landing on any one of them...he's stuck with all of them. That is the moral confusion of war," Junger says.
Indeed, watching "Korengal" does give you an understanding of the bond that was forged on that remote outpost. And no matter how primitive and dangerous the conditions are, the experience creates a closeness that pales in what we know as daily life for a civilian. Add a dose of PTSD, the physical and mental pain of war injuries and the stress of earning a living, and the tremendous difficulty of being a reentering veteran becomes crystal clear.
"Korengal" opens June 13 in Los Angeles.
Photo of Junger by Iris Schneider