Directed by Sebastian Junger
From Outpost Films
Restrepo follow-up provides delicate examination of soldiers in war
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
What we don’t understand about battle-born PTSD isn’t that troops want out of the war zone, but they want back in.
That is one of many interesting new insights in Korengal, the sequel and follow-up to the award-winning Restrepo, which featured a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, where gorgeous scenery concealed hundreds of enemy combatants and the daily hell they brought to American troops.
Restrepo is the name of the sandbagged outpost perched high up on a mountain in Korengal. It’s named after a soldier who was killed there. The way the soldiers talk about their mountain fortress reminded me a lot of Apocalypse Now. Restrepo was their Kurtz compound. But instead of a long ponderous journey down a river to get there, they’re airlifted there in a day. There’s no acclimation. One day they’re somewhere safe; the next they’re in the maws of the mountain, a death zone that will torment them throughout their tour.
And yet, when the soldiers talk about it, Restrepo is their home. They feed off the danger, the rush of firing that massive 50-caliber machine gun, the crack of bullets over their head, the solidarity of their weary band of brothers. Sebastian Junger’s documentary benefits because it doesn’t have to say anything; it lets the soldiers speak. And we have the opportunity to listen.
Of course, it helps if you’ve seen Restrepo, though that’s certainly not mandatory. Some of the footage will look alike; Korengal is essentially B-roll from the earlier movie. But where Restrepo was more about the perils of war, this movie is more ponderous and concerned with the details of the day-to-day living and fighting. Korengal Valley is home to an Al Qaeda highway, but it “looks like Colorado Springs,” one soldier says. He walks us through the nicknames of some of the pre-sighted hills — Spartan Spur, Nipple Rock, Honcho Hill. Personalities start to come out heavier. One soldier romanticizes his machine gun in a way only other soldiers will relate to.
The troops confirm something that Americans might be unsettled by: they love the firefights. Injuries and deaths were always awful, but the occasional skirmish lets them blow some steam off. And their weapons become extensions of their souls, screaming to release. One man is asked what he’s going to miss. “Shooting people,” he says.
The firefights serve an important purpose beyond their obvious catharsis — they are proof the enemy is still there. Silence and boredom have been known to wage wars of attrition in Korengal. On slow days, the troops lounge around, the weight of the world grinding against them. If only they had something to shoot, or kill, or blow up. When the enemy doesn’t come to them, they go to the enemy on patrols to nearby villages, where villagers greet them. “That guy accepts our 10-pound bag of rice during the day. Fires RPGs at us at night. And then the next day he smiles and waves. Fuck his heart. Fuck his mind,” a soldier says, quoting LBJ’s mission in Vietnam to win “hearts and minds.”
The movie has some absurd imagery right out of a Joseph Heller novel: soldiers firing their machine guns wearing only their military-issued boxer shorts, soldiers playfully holding hands on a patrol, and a scene of a guitarist smashing his guitar at Restrepo so it can’t be played anywhere else. War might be hell, but it’s also surreal and strange.
Junger filmed Korengal and Restrepo with photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was later killed while covering the Arab Spring in Libya. His camera work is exceptional because he focuses on what matters most — faces. It’s a personal touch from which the movie benefits greatly.
Korengal might be a slight rehash of Restrepo, but it gives us another chance to listen to soldiers tell us their stories. We should never stop listening.