Sebastian Junger's films about Afghanistan have a knack for coming to town when news is spiking about the war.
"Restrepo," his film about an Army company's tour of duty there, was released in 2010 as Gen. Stanley McChrystal was being relieved of his command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; the war had officially become the longest one in U.S. history; Congress was debating a multibillion-dollar supplemental war-funding bill, and U.S. coalition forces had endured their deadliest month to date.
Now, as "Korengal," his sequel to "Restrepo," opens in Washington Friday, the country is in the midst of an intense debate over how to take care of its returning veterans , typified by the unfolding Department of Veterans Affairs waitlist scandal. President Barack Obama has nominated a new commander for Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, as the U.S. combat mission there winds down and veterans have begun to speak out more candidly about the divide between military and civilian life. "I'm not doing this for recognition for my country. I'm not doing this so someone says, 'Wow, those guys are really patriotic. Those guys are really brave.' Truthfully, I could give a shit what anybody thinks except for those guys to my left and my right, because that's what it's about. Those guys are what it's about," Spc. Sterling Jones says in the film.
Junger took two distinct approaches with each of the films. "Restrepo," co-directed by the late Tim Hetherington, is cinema vérité at its best: A raw look at combat in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley with the Army's 2nd Battle Company of the 503rd Infantry Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. "In 90 minutes, you go into a dark room and you experience combat as directly as you can without being in it. I felt that that served a very good purpose in the middle of two wars, allowing civilians to understand what soldiers were experiencing," Junger told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview.
"Korengal" has more of a narrative arc. "With 'Korengal,' I wanted them to understand it. It's one thing to have the combat experience of film. It's another to have soldiers attempting to disassemble it and understand it," Junger said. Such an approach allows for things like a musical score and quicker editing cuts to lead viewers on a journey that shows some uncomfortable truths, such as soldiers both enjoying war and being traumatized by it.
"One of the burdens a soldier has is they come back to a society that just doesn't want to hear about it," Junger said. "So, it costs nobody anything to put some vets, some wounded vets in good seats in a baseball stadium. I mean, it's a lovely thing to do, but it doesn't cost anyone anything emotionally. But you have a vet saying to someone, 'You sent me to war, and I killed people, and I gotta carry that the rest of my life. What are you carrying? You're the one who sent me. ... This isn't our war. We just fought it for you. It's your war,' " he added.
It might be hard for some to grasp the seeming contradiction of soldiers saying that shooting people will be the thing they miss the most, and seeing soldiers who ask, mischievously, "What's not to like about a giant machine gun?" but then turn quickly to examine their deeds deeply and spiritually.
"For a while there, I started, I started thinking, 'God hates me,' " former Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne says in the movie.
"I'm not religious or anything, but I felt there was this hate for me. Cause I did sins. I sinned. Although I would have done it the same way. Every time the same exact way. I still feel this way. And that's a terrible thing of war," he says. "You do terrible things and you have to live with them afterwards, but you'd do them the same way if you had to go back."
That's the point, Junger explained.
"One of the things I wanted to do with 'Korengal' is get that conversation going, and if it makes people squirm, good. I mean, if you don't squirm at that stuff, there's something missing from you," Junger said. "If you start disassembling combat and understand it, yes, it gets very dark. It gets very everything for that matter."
He's quick to note that it's not all dark. Some of it is actually quite funny. In one scene, the soldiers, bored out of their minds, toss rocks, then pipes at one another. They even horse around with a Taser. "You put 20 boys on a hilltop for a year, with limited, well, limited entertainment? No entertainment, except combat. The only entertainment there was was actual combat, right? And there was no television, there was no internet, there was no phone, there were no girls, there were no cars, no sports, there's none of the stuff boys like up there, right? And, what do you have laying around? You got a Taser. You got some rocks. ... Twenty girls would turn to other things. But, they're boys."
Getting that conversation going had to be done without Hetherington, who died covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. Although the two had discussed the possibility of taking their footage and making two distinct films, Junger had to complete "Korengal" on his own after Hetherington's death. "He was very much a ghost in the edit room, in a nice way," Junger said. "I think he would have been very proud of it."
With "Korengal," Junger is done with war zones. He leaves a legacy with his book "War," also about the Korengal, and his two films, but also through a nonprofit he started after his collaborator's death, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues .
"Tim died because he bled out, from a wound that wasn't necessarily mortal," Junger said. But none of his colleagues were trained in combat medicine or first aid to help save him. RISC hosts three training sessions per year, in New York, London and Beirut, and the training, lodging and combat medical kit is free to those who pay their travel expenses to the sites.
Junger also is hoping "Korengal" can leave a legacy for the film industry. "It's very DIY," he said, noting that, like "Restrepo," it's an independent film through and through so he could retain creative control. That meant raising the money himself, outside of a studio and without distribution. The film's initial runs in places such as D.C. will determine how widely it will be shown. "If it does well, then Landmark will pick it up and more widely distribute it. ... And if that happens, it'll be a real victory for independent film."
"Korengal" opens Friday at E Street Cinema at 555 11th Street NW.