The Huffington Post
February 18, 2011 10:30 AM
By Joshua Kors
Oscar Nominee Sebastian Junger Speaks About His Year in Deadliest Place on Earth
Sebastian Junger traveled to the remote mountains of Afghanistan, to one of the most violent places on Earth, armed with a pen and a video camera. “I wanted to capture something you never see on TV: the war from the soldiers’ perspective,” he says.
Junger, bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, spent more than a year in the mountains with the 503rd Infantry’s Second Platoon, which pushed into the Afghan woods and set up an outpost in the Korengal Valley, a six-mile-long stretch of land in the Hindu Kush mountains populated by heavily armed insurgents. Holed up in Outpost Restrepo, the Second Platoon faced fire on a daily basis and suffered significant casualties.
Over 14 months, Junger and his co-director, acclaimed photographer Tim Hetherington, recorded the blood, boredom and camaraderie of life at the heart of the war, footage they edited into a unique 90-minute war experience, Restrepo, now nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film is an eye-opening look at the war for viewers who know Afghanistan only from two-minute clips on cable, followed by hours of political analysis.
Junger and Hetherington’s film has no politics. It has no maps, no graphs, no press conference footage. There are no Pentagon officials to explain the larger military strategy and no voice-over narration from Morgan Freeman to put the battles in context. It is simply war on screen, as seen in the moment by the soldiers on the ground.
Junger spoke with me about his film and why it is resonating with military families across the country.
Kors: There have been some great films about the current wars, like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight. Why take this non-political, soldier’s-eye view of the war?
Junger: Because it hadn’t been done. We’ve been sending our young men and women off to fight, and the only news that wasn’t coming back to the citizens who authorized this war was the experiences of the soldiers themselves. Those experiences usually lack a political dimension. If the soldiers sat around discussing politics or war strategy, absolutely, that would have been part of the movie. But they don’t do that. Or at least, they didn’t in the unit I was embedded with.
Kors: The soldiers never spoke to each other about, “What the hell are we doing in this valley? What’s the point of seizing control of this backwoods stretch of land in the middle of nowhere?” Or maybe even: “Is it worth me dying for us to control this little hill?”
Junger: No, not at all. People who do really dangerous tasks can’t afford to sit around and discuss the merits of what they’re doing. Firemen don’t talk about whether a burning warehouse is worth saving. The guys who died on the BP oil rig, they weren’t discussing how the Western world needs to wean itself off of oil. So, why the soldiers were sent to the Korengal, in the moment, that didn’t matter.
Kors: Why were the soldiers sent to the Korengal?
Junger: Well, wherever these soldiers were sent, they were going to face a pretty good fist fight, whether it was the Korengal, the Waygal Valley or the Chowkay. You have to understand, half of the insurgents weren’t locals. They were coming from Pakistan to fight the Americans. They’re inculcated at the madrasas, told this is their duty, that if they fight, they’ll go to heaven, be part of the brotherhood. Plus, they’re given $200 a month to make the trip. In that sense, which valley the Americans went to was irrelevant.
Kors: At your recent talk at Columbia, one student asked this mamby pamby question about whether the firefights with the insurgents got you in touch with the enemy’s humanity.
Junger: [Junger laughs.] Right, right. That kind of question comes from someone who’s never been in a situation where someone else is trying to kill them. When you’re in it… it’s puzzling. You see bullets whizzing past your head—a stranger trying to kill you—and you’re thinking, “Why? Why me? You don’t even know me.”
Kors: In the film, you never actually see the Taliban.
Junger: Well, we never saw the Taliban. Most of the time, the soldiers were shooting at the light from their muzzle flashes.
Kors: You also never show any of our soldiers dying. Was that because the Army censored your footage?
Junger: No. Absolutely not. They had no control over what we shot. When we were done, we showed them a rough cut of the film. There are only two areas where the Pentagon can ask for changes: soldier privacy and military security, like an overhead shot of the base that would reveal its layout or location. In the end, they didn’t ask for any changes.
Kors: So keeping the blood off the screen … that was your call.
Junger: Definitely. We had footage of [Sergeant Larry] Rougle dead. He took a bullet to the forehead. The back of his head was gone. But to show that would have been so offensive—offensive to us as human beings, offensive to his mother. Someone else might want to show that. I won’t.
Kors: At that end of the film you reveal that in April 2010, the Army tore down Outpost Restrepo and moved out of the Korengal Valley. That must have been devastating news for the men who put their lives on the line to defend that valley. I mean, if the Korengal was so important that the Army was willing to risk these soldiers’ lives, why are they leaving? And if the Korengal was inconsequential, why did the Army send them there in the first place?
Junger: Well, the Army was never in the Korengal for the Korengal. It’s just not a relevant piece of Afghanistan. The Army’s mission was to bring clean water to the Pech River Valley and build schools for the families there, but they couldn’t because they were being hammered from the Korengal, which the insurgency was using as a base for its attacks. After the Army sent troops to the Korengal to confront them, the attacks on the Pech all but stopped. The Pech got schools, clean water and, for the first time, electricity. That area is now stable. Of course the soldiers didn’t know any of that. It’s not in the movie because it wasn’t in their reality.
Kors: That makes sense. Because the Korengal villages, as seen in the movie, it looks like the 12th century. Old men wearing rags, the lines on their faces, ramshackle huts. The soldiers who come to talk with them look like they’re from a different planet. And the idea that the locals are desperately seeking democracy, a representative government… it looks like they’re just trying to survive.
Junger: Well, you have to understand what the Korengal is. It’s a tiny, undeveloped valley in the mountains, one of the most rugged and backwards corners of the country. You can bring normalcy to some parts of the country but obviously not all parts. You can’t judge our success in Afghanistan by looking solely at the Korengal.
Kors: What do you think the military wants to achieve in Afghanistan?
Junger: What the Pentagon really wants is to develop some social and political stability, a stability that Afghanistan can use to develop relationships with other countries, instead of becoming a failed state, infested with drug cartels, that becomes a no-man’s land beyond the reach of the law.
Kors: Do you think we’re succeeding?
Junger: It depends where you look. A lot of Americans think this war is an endless quagmire, but I wouldn’t say that. You should check out this excellent article I read in Foreign Affairs presenting the counter-argument that Afghanistan is doing really well. I’ve seen that improvement firsthand. I was in Kabul in the ’90s, and it was a bombed-out ghost town. Now it’s a booming metropolitan city with cars, women in the work force, cell phones.
Kors: That’s not an Afghanistan you see on the evening news.
Junger: No, it’s not. Bad news is dramatic. It makes good TV. If there’s a firefight on the same day that a school opens up, the media will show the firefight even though the school is way more important and will affect the community for much longer. … People see Afghanistan as all bad. They don’t realize where it started, how bad it used to be. They don’t know that in the years following 9/11, Afghanistan had a higher rate of economic growth than post-war Germany.
Kors: I hadn’t heard that.
Junger: Nobody in the U.S. knows that. I’m not saying that we’re going to win the war and that everything’s great, but that information does drop out of the reporting. It drops out of my reporting too. I’m one of the guilty ones.
Kors: I saw a great play recently, Time Stands Still with Laura Linney, who plays a journalist traumatized by her time at war.
Junger: Yes, I saw it. Great play.
Kors: Yeah, it’s fantastic. The play explores how we, as reporters, are supposed to be immune to the lingering trauma of war. But we’re not, even though it’s not something we talk about much. You feature some powerful interviews in the film with the soldiers from Restrepo. One says he’s been on four or five sleeping meds, and nothing seems to help. I’m wondering… how are you doing?
Junger: I’m okay. … After I came home, I was very emotional. I got angry quicker, moved to tears quicker, which arguably is not a bad thing. I was never on sleeping pills. But I’m in my 40s. It’s different for these young soldiers. At 19, your brain hasn’t finished wiring itself. So the first time you have a good friend die, most people don’t go through that at 19. Soldiers do. They’re facing life in this accelerated, compressed form, and a lot of times, they’re not ready for it.
Kors: And this is not something the public seems to understand at all. Like for July 4th, we celebrate our soldiers with explosions and massive fireworks.
Junger: [Junger laughs.] Yeah. On New Year’s, I was in Vienna, and the fireworks… it was bang, bang, bang, bang. I was just crawling out of my skin.
Kors: Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are your interviews with the soldiers, which you shot several months later in a studio with this Charlie Rose-esque black background.
Junger: Yeah, we originally did those interviews because we didn’t want any voice-over narration, but we were afraid that the war footage might not hang together on its own. Those conversations ended up less like interviews and more like therapy sessions. The soldiers opened up because they were talking to me and Tim, and we knew what they went through because we were there. It wasn’t going on their record. It was just … talking with friends. Every one of those guys, at least at one point, went through an effort not to cry. What you don’t see is that Tim and I were going through same struggle. Every man in that room—the [director of photography], the sound guy, everyone—was in tears.
Kors: What surprised you most about making the movie?
Junger: Well, I’d never really been with American soldiers before. I was surprised how open and unguarded the military was. I expected more scrutiny, more supervision from command. Instead we were just there, completely unattended for a year.
Kors: Were you really there with the unit for a whole year?
Junger: Tim and I did five one-month trips. Sometimes we were together; sometimes we were apart. Between the two of us, we were there just over 14 months.
Kors: In the photography world, Tim is highly respected for his war reporting, his book on the Liberian rebellion and now Infidel, his photo journal from Afghanistan. What was it like working with him?
Junger: It was great. He was assigned to do pics for an article I was writing for Vanity Fair about the war in Afghanistan. I also wanted to write a book and shoot a movie. I’d never met him before, but both of us ended up embedding with the unit and directing the movie together.
Kors: In promoting the film, you also partnered with a former classmate of mine from Amherst College, Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Tell me about that.
Junger: Oh, Paul was great. We wanted to reach the military community and not just for Restrepo. Tim and I also made a video about Sal Giunta, the first living soldier to win the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. We had footage of the combat operation that Giunta fought in. But we could not get a corporate sponsor to produce that film. So we produced it ourselves and put it on our website. Paul sent his entire IAVA mailing list a link to that video. Now it has almost 600,000 views.
Kors: Did your work have any bearing on Giunta winning the Medal of Honor?
Junger: No, definitely not. Long before the movie, word was out about Giunta’s actions during the October ambush. The details of the firefight were recorded in the military reports, which are extremely detailed, almost like a criminal file.
Kors: Let me ask you something totally unrelated. One thing I learned about you this week is that the phrase “the perfect storm,” which is now just part of the language, didn’t exist before your book. Are you proud that you affected the language, introduced a whole new phrase into English?
Junger: [Junger laughs.] The fact that people use that phrase… no, I wouldn’t say I’m proud. And you know, it wasn’t even my phrase. I was quoting a meteorologist.
Kors: I ask because, well, you know how proud Stephen Colbert is to have invented “truthiness.”
Junger: Oh, well, truthiness: that’s a little different. The mind that came up with truthiness, now that’s a mind I wouldn’t mind having.
Kors: On my Facebook and Twitter pages, I told readers that I’d be interviewing you and asked them to submit questions. Most of what I received weren’t questions, just requests from soldiers to say thank you for telling their story: that they came home and couldn’t really explain what they’d been through, and now, with Restrepo, they could just say to their wives, “Watch this movie. It tells my story.”
Junger: Wow. That means an enormous amount to me.
Kors: Better than inventing a phrase?
Junger: [Junger laughs.] Absolutely.
Kors: I think there’s something important there. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the media and the soldiers. The media doesn’t seem to think the soldiers’ experiences are real until they cover them. And the soldiers almost don’t feel like their own experiences are real or newsworthy until the media tells their story. I’ll tell you a weird story: Recently a major news organization picked up on my reporting about how the military is purposely misdiagnosing soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, labeling them as having a “pre-existing condition” to deny them disability benefits. I called the reporter and said, you know, “So glad you guys are covering this story. I was wondering, after all these years, why now?” And I swear she said to me, “Well, we figured that if this were really happening, we would have covered it by now.” Uh, well, it was, and you didn’t.
Junger: That’s incredible.
Kors: At the same time, the first time I interviewed Specialist Jon Town, he told me that he was knocked unconscious by a rocket, so they diagnosed him with a pre-existing condition. I was thinking, “Wait—what?” But he thought nothing of it.
Junger: It is an interesting dynamic: the media and the soldiers. I think reporting like this, whether in print or on film, it validates someone’s experience. You go to war, and you come back. You have your suspicions about what you went through—and what you’re going through now. Then when you see it all on screen, it’s a relief: “Yes. I thought I was experiencing that.” Soldiers in combat exist in this bubble. They’re only around other soldiers and solely focused on the mission. With a movie, they have their life mirrored back to them. It’s a new opportunity to engage with that war experience, to place it in a larger context.
Kors: How have audiences reacted to the movie?
Junger: Well, the first audience we showed it to was the platoon itself. We brought all the soldiers to New York, with their girlfriends, with their wives, showed them a rough cut. One told me that her husband came back from Afghanistan all messed up, but he wouldn’t talk about it. It was straining their relationship. Now, she said, “I understand, so I can deal with it.”
Junger: At another screening, there was an elderly man who came up to me and said, “I finally understand why I did what I did in Korea.” Then he started crying and walked out. … One woman told me that her father served in the Marines for 36 years, that he fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and that the movie gave her a better understanding of who he was. Another woman told me, “If I had seen your movie and read your book, my husband and I would not have gotten divorced.”