The War in Afghanistan has virtually vanished from public discourse, even as it eclipses the 13-year mark this October (it is and will likely forever be the longest conflict in our country’s history). Fatigued by political handwringing and public outrage, nobody really wants to push an Afghanistan agenda anymore —not policymakers, not citizen groups, not the media, and not artists and filmmakers. Evidently we’re all just hoping the conflict will quietly fade as combat troops withdraw at the end of this year, our disappointment assuaged by the fact that bin Laden was vanquished, even if the Taliban wasn’t. Besides, now we have Syria and Iraq to distract us, again.
Director: Sebastian Junger
Producer: Nick Quested
Cinematographers: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Editor: Michael Levine
Cast: LaMonta Caldwell, Miguel Cortez, Stephen Gillespie, Aron Hijar, Sterling Jones, Dan Kearney, Joshua McDonough, Brendan O’Byrne, William Ostlund, Mark Patterson, Misha Pemble-Belkin, Juan ‘Doc Restrepo, Kevin Rice, Tanner Sichter, Marc Solowski, Kyle Steiner, Angel Toves
US Theatrical Release: May 29, 2014
US Distributor: Independent
And so as hundreds of thousands of American combat veterans integrate back into our homes, schools, and workplaces, the tone of war films has shifted from sermonizing to swaggering, allowing those of us who didn’t serve an easier way to connect with those who did. Nobody wants to speak out of turn in a water cooler conversation about politics with a three-tour vet, but we can sit together in a theater and share pride in the bravado on display in movies like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lone Survivor. Nevermind why we were “over there” in the first place—let’s at least celebrate our courageous commandos and leave aside potential ramifications on the horizon (until something like ISIS comes along to throw ice water in our face).
Korengal, the “new” documentary by American journalist Sebastian Junger, fits neatly into this third act of War on Terror cinema. Billed as a follow-up to the unforgettably gripping, Oscar-nominated Restrepo, the sequel does not actually follow in sequential form, but in parallel form. It’s akin to an easter egg on the Restrepo DVD, compiled almost entirely from unused interview and on-the-ground footage from the original film. Junger, whose fellow journalist and filmmaking partner Tim Hetherington was tragically killed on assignment in Libya in 2011, has since stopped reporting from the front lines, and presents Korengal partly as a tribute to his fallen friend (Junger also produced a feature documentary about Hetherington last year).
This context explains why the footage in Korengal is six or seven years old, and that while any urgent political relevance is thus completely drained, it doesn’t really matter. This film could be about the War of 1812, because following the recent trend, Korengal is not about war but about warriors. It’s a familiar examination of the mindset of a soldier, and the fear and anxiety that hangs like a cloud over every day of deployment. Junger’s subjects, as you may remember from Restrepo, are a charismatic band of brothers, part of a small U.S. Army unit stationed at an isolated mountain outpost in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley.
Unlike in Restrepo, however, we don’t see the crew out on patrol much and there’s little to no combat action; only once or twice does Korengal recapture Restrepo’s harrowing, hair-raising dread. The infantrymen explain that they gradually get used to being shot at every day, and that their biggest fear is not the Taliban but themselves: any slight mistake could get someone else killed, and living with that guilt would be unbearable. The anxiety of simply walking outside is also effectively portrayed, underscoring the devastating mental scars veterans often bear when they return home. While on patrol the soldiers cannot let their minds wander for even a millisecond as they constantly scan the ground and the trees around them, analyzing whether a rock looks out of place or whether an Afghan’s body language is threatening or welcoming. It doesn’t take much to imagine these jittery veterans struggling with daily life back home.
But aside from these rare scenes, Korengal is a slower more introspective film in which the archetypal soldiers field generic questions about their favorite weapons, their thicker-than-blood bond, what they did on their home leave, how they define bravery, and why firefights are so incomparably thrilling (answer: it’s like cheating death). It’s in these too frequent moments that Korengal unfortunately treads water, failing to provide much new insight that wasn’t gleaned from Restrepo or, for that matter, dozens of war films over the last decade, let alone the last century.
This is not to say Korengal is entirely stale. Down time between patrols leads to meditations by the troops about race relations in the military today, the difficulties of describing their experience to their families, and their motives for joining in the context of 9/11. One boyish specialist explains that he had fantasies of being a sniper or paratrooper, but really he just wanted to travel. Forlorn but not regretful about enlisting, he stays motivated by the vision of one day telling his grandchildren that he was in the Korengal when they read about it in history books. Another soldier describes how at one point he just stopped caring whether he lived or died, lazily failing to protect himself until being scolded that his death would inevitably put his brothers in danger.
Perhaps most poignantly, one rueful veteran explains his disgust when he’s praised for “doing what he had to do,” arguing that he volunteered to join the military, and he doesn’t expect that God will be so sympathetic at the gates of Heaven. A sharply different perspective is offered by his sergeant, who is convinced his soldiers “did everything they could down there to bring those people, I don’t want to say joy and happiness, but to bring those people into the 20th or 21st century. And I think they can sleep well at night knowing that they did something out there that, you know, wasn’t illegal, and they don’t have demons inside because of it.”
It’s in these moments that Korengal is most compelling, even though the dynamic of the conflict in Afghanistan is much different than it was in 2007-08, and even though Junger doesn’t fully justify the need for film’s production (perhaps tellingly, he funded its distribution via Kickstarter). It’s not revealing in the manner of Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team, but the interviews in Korengal still offer an illuminating lens through which to examine contemporary issues such as the Bowe Bergdahl desertion debate and even the VA health care scandal. Indeed, Korengal may not be timely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant, particularly as we welcome back an entire generation of veterans.