Roving thoughts and provocations

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What Only Soldiers Understand

Outpost Films
A soldier on patrol in Sebastian Junger’s Korengal

The acclaimed documentary Restrepo, which was made in 2010 by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, followed a platoon of US soldiers during their fifteen-month tour of duty in the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. Released during President Obama’s Afghan “surge,” when there were some 30,000 US troops deployed in the country, the film took its name from Private First Class Juan Sebastián Restrepo, who was killed by the Taliban and immortalized in the name of an American observation post — “OP Restrepo.” The film began with a Taliban ambush and featured explosions, grueling patrols, and the slam of bullets into wood, earth, and metal. Restrepo conveyed with a relentless, almost monotonous immediacy the experience of combat — and this for an audience that was, in every sense, thousands of miles away.

Korengal is a new film that follows the same soldiers over the same period of time and draws from the same corpus of footage and interviews. But Korengal, while clearly related to Restrepo, cannot be considered its sequel; it might be misleading even to call it a war film. The film contains allusions to the death of PFC Restrepo, but the viewer is more aware of a second casualty, whose voice can occasionally be heard from behind the camera. By the time Sebastian Junger came to gather his material into Korengal, his confrere Tim Hetherington had been killed (while following another war, this one in Libya) and the US was preparing to pull out of Afghanistan. To some degree, the film is Hetherington’s memorial.

Korengal‘s subjects are youth and male friendship, and it deals in a peculiarly profound way with the unsettling sense that a young warrior experiences, after fighting alongside his brothers-in-arms, that he knows all the joy and agony that life can offer. “I’d rather be there than here,” says one of the film’s unsuspecting heroes, the elfin, soft-spoken Misha Pemble-Belkin, after his tour has finished; “I’d go back right now if I could.” His nostalgia is echoed by others who spent their entire deployments despising their surroundings and longing for home, and insights of this kind into human frailty and illogic lift Korengal into a rare category of achievement.

Junger is outstanding at evoking the diabolical thrill of battle. “Until you hear the snap of a bullet go by your head” — and here Specialist Kyle Steiner, another of the film’s stars, permits himself a knowing, almost superior smile –- “there’s nothing else like it.” The film’s pivotal scene is a single firefight built into a mesmerizing homage to combat, complete with thumping, cod-Irish score and whoops of bloodlust. “I’m on fucking fire!” someone yells amid the mayhem. We all are, and we can be pretty sure the Taliban shooting back feel the same way — only their shouts are a little different, more in the line of, Allahu Akbar.

After the high of engagement comes the low of enforced inaction, boredom, and jangling nerves. Some of these men only recently grew into their bodies, and they hardly know what to do with themselves. They wrestle like lion cubs, play video games, mistreat a guitar, and conduct inane conversations (would George Clooney beat Fabio in a fight?). And, like generations of soldiers before them, they smoke.

There is an affecting scene when one of the soldiers confesses that he is afraid that God hates him because he has committed sins while in battle. But Korengal does not mention religious faith as a possible psychological buttress , and whether this reflects the predilections of the filmmakers or the skepticism of the men is not clear. If the answer is the latter, then a want of belief may be one of the few things that distinguish the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company from their predecessors in war. Given the psychological damage to which many of them confess, it may not be a good thing.

More than the deaths, lost limbs, and broken ankles (plenty in the scree-covered mountainsides) that punctuate the deployment, it’s this vulnerability that interests Junger and Hetherington. In Specialist Miguel Cortez they have a perfect case to study. Cortez is the kind of man whose cracks show through his too-ready smile, and whose eyes flee when he thinks dark thoughts. As the deployment wears on it’s Cortez who begins to court death, and who has to be told by his comrades that by endangering himself he is endangering them. And it’s this same, magnificent Cortez who wins a Bronze Star Medal for valor, and who says (again with that disarming smile), “I would actually throw myself on a grenade [for them], and the guys know that I would, without hesitation.”

Complexities of this kind are the stock-in-trade of Korengal — the product of a close, compassionate interest by Hetherington and Junger in the soldiers around them. There is a fascinating diversion into the racial bafflements of Specialist Sterling Jones, for instance. He is one of the few black men in the whole company — because, as he says sardonically, “black people don’t jump out of planes.” Jones believes he is disliked by his white comrades, which makes his motivations for fighting all the more surprising. “I’m not doing this for recognition from my country,” he says. “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…that’s why in a deployment you see people run out under fire to go pull their buddy back.”

The irony about Jones is that his mother had urged him to join the army, and he had protested. Pemble-Belkin is the opposite. His parents were Oregon hippies who disapproved of him playing soldiers. Now he smiles angelically and asks, “What’s not to like about a giant machine gun?”

A second telling absence in Korengal is politics. Officers and NCOs dutifully repeat the message of bringing civilization to a benighted people, but for the rest the war seems almost like a sealed exercise, justified in personal, rather than patriotic terms. They certainly feel no sympathy for the locals, and why should they? As Steiner puts it,

Hearts and minds is out the window when you see the guy shooting at you and then he puts his wife and kids in front of him knowing full well that we won’t shoot back. Or the guy who shakes our hand, takes the ten bags of rice we give him for his family and the school supplies…and immediately walks up the mountain and shoots an RPG at us, and walks back down and smiles the next morning when he’s walking his goats…

Fuck his heart. Fuck his mind.

It is a remarkable commentary on modern warfare waged by a democracy that a film like Korengal can be made, with the full cooperation of the US military, and without anyone getting into trouble for an excess of candor.

Later on, after the deployment, Steiner is under pressure from his family and his girlfriend. He is back home, but it seems that he is not fully present. “You’ll never understand,” is his somewhat tetchy response. “It’s not your position to understand.” Steiner wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the helmet that protected his head from a Taliban round. He is the kind of man who would cross the country to help a former comrade change a tire –- “in a heartbeat.” Now he delivers himself of an aphorism that expresses his feelings brutally: “You may have your family’s blood running through your veins. You didn’t shed it with them.”

Even for the survivors, war is a kind of death.

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