Conflict & Justice

This new film looks at the real, enduring toll war exacts on soldiers

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl returned to the US today, but the controversy around his prisoner transfer hasn't really subsided.

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The case has raised difficult questions about how Bergdahl came to be captured and what happened to Sgt. Bergdahl during his captivity, highlighting an emotional disconnect between how civilians and military personnel understand the impacts of war.

Sebastian Junger is a journalist and director of the award-winning documentary "Restrepo." His latest documentary, "Korengal," picks up where Restrepo left off, delving into the psychological journey soldiers experience during and after war. It's an effort to explain that experience to a nation that, for the most part, hasn't ever experience it first hand.

Junger spent 14 months with soldiers in combat in Afghanistan, and he says that the debate over the Bergdahl prisoner swap does have some nuance.

"I think if the Taliban had been taking more prisoners on the scale that happened in Vietnam, World War II or Korea, we'd be more accustomed to it," says Junger of the prisoner swap. "The thing is, they had only got one prisoner: Bergdahl. We just haven't confronted it until now. The Taliban commanders who we released from Guantánamo, my understanding is that they were held as POWs, not as terrorists. We'd have to release them anyway — at least we got something for that." 

Junger, along with his colleague and friend Tim Hetherington, set out six years ago to document the gritty realities of war alongside the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Their work is intended to be completely apolitical — it makes no suggestion that that the war is good or bad — and instead brings to audiences the incredible sacrifices being made by our service men and women.

With the 173rd, Junger and Hetherington were stationed in the desolate and dangerous Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, just along the border with Pakistan. The lush mountainous region is considered a base of operations for al-Qaeda.

"From the walls of Troy on up through World War II, Vietnam, and now Afghanistan, war doesn't change that much for the foot soldier," Junger says. "The only emotional and physical security that you have out there as a soldier is the fact that you're in a small group of men — 30 or 40 men — all of whom are willing to risk their lives to save you and vice versa, no matter how you feel about each other. That's what brotherhood is."

Junger says the bonds established among a platoon run much deeper than any form of friendship.

"It's a very, very secure place to be emotionally," he says. "I think, in some ways, as these guys come home and have trouble fitting in, what's happening is even though they're physically safer, they're emotionally vulnerable because they're no longer in that group."

Stories of these bonds and the real challenges on the ground are what Junger and Hetherington hoped to capture with "Korengal." They learned that war is extremely complex, complicated and confusing.

"That's the terrible thing of war — you do terrible things, and then you have to live with them afterwards, but you'd do them the same way if you had to go back, so what do you do?" says U.S. Army Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne, one of them men featured in the film. "It's an evil, evil, evil thing inside your body. Everyone tells you that you did an honorable thing, that you're all right, that you did what you had to do. I just hate that comment — 'did what you had to do' — because I didn't have to do any of it."

The painful internal conflict experienced by people like Sgt. O'Byrne is something many veterans experience, an affliction Junger hoped to capture in his film.

"This is the complicated thing about war," says Junger. "Brendan obviously is in a certain amount of moral anguish about the civilians he might have killed, or just the fact that they were out there shooting at people and getting shot at. But he also misses combat tremendously. He really misses it, and a lot of those guys miss it."

Junger says that despite the internal conflict, many soldiers in the 173rd want to return to combat.

"When they got back to Vicenza, Italy, where they were based, a lot of them actually told me personally, 'We would go back tomorrow if we could,'" Junger recalls. "Brendan was one of those guys."

Confusion from the fog of war is not only an internal struggle, but an external one as well.

"It's not their decision to fight or to go to war, it's the nation's decision and they do exactly what they're told," Junger says. "Then they come back and people are like, 'How could you do that?' They're like, 'What do you mean how could we do that? You sent us — we just volunteered to do whatever you told us to do. It's your war, it's the nation's war, it's the civilian's war. We just signed up to follow orders.' That's really confusing for them."

Junger and Hetherington both made it out of Afghanistan, but in what can only be described as a tragedy, Hetherington was killed by a mortar blast just a few years later in 2011 while working in Libya. He did not live to see the completion of "Korengal."

"We made 'Restrepo' and it was successful beyond our wildest dreams and we went to the Oscars," Junger says. "A few weeks later, he was dead in Libya in combat on an assignment that I was supposed to go on and the last minute I couldn't. I felt, among other things, extremely guilty about it."

A mutual friend of Junger's and Hetherington's, Nick Quested, the executive producer of "Korengal," encouraged Junger to make the film in the wake of Hetherington's death.

"I really didn't want to, just for emotional reasons," Junger concedes. "I just wanted to get clear of all that stuff. [Quested] said, 'Look, go back into all of that amazing footage you guys shot—there's another movie in there.' I went back, and he was absolutely right. There was another film that would do something very different from what 'Restrepo' did."

"Korengal" will be Junger's last film about combat.

"I'm done with war — completely, utterly done with war," he says. "I've spent 20 years covering war, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the career that I've had overseas. But after Tim got killed, all of a sudden I just turned this corner."