Filmmaker Sebastian Junger

Junger describes his latest documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Korengal, which picks up where his Oscar-nominated Restrepo left off.

Investigative journalist Sebastian Junger is drawn to stories of adventure. He won a National Magazine Award for his world travels covering life on the edge and is credited with reviving a new genre of storytelling—the true-life disaster tale. His debut book, The Perfect Storm, was a publishing phenom and adapted for the big screen. His text, War, spent over a month on the NYT best-seller list, and the companion documentary, Restrepo, a first-hand account of the reality of combat, was nominated for an Oscar. His latest film, Korengal, offers a very different look at the experience of war. A native of Belmont, MA, Junger writes for numerous magazines, including Vanity Fair and Men's Journal.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Award-winning journalist and filmmaker, Sebastian Junger, spent months imbedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan, an experience that he and fellow journalist, Tim Hetherington, chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Restrepo.”

In this latest, “Korengal,” Sebastian returns to that experience editing together previously unseen footage to reveal what it was like for the men of that brigade to survive horrendous battles. We’ll start our conversation with a scene from the documentary, “Korengal,” which is now in limited release before going nationwide.

[Clip]

Tavis: Sebastian, good to see you again.

Sebastian Junger: You too.

Tavis: I tried to point up a bit of the distinct difference between “Restrepo” and “Korengal.” Give me more on what makes the two projects different. What are we seeing this time around?

Junger: Well, “Restrepo” came out in the middle of two wars and we wanted to make a film that gave civilian audiences the experience of combat or as close as they could come to it.

There were no interviews with generals. There was no musical score, no news footage. It was just the footage Tim and I shot on that hilltop and you’re stuck there for 90 minutes.

“Korengal” was really very different. I wanted to do something that would sort of unpack the experience of combat and try to understand it and understand its effects on the young men in battle.

Tavis: And what is it that you hope or believe that the audience will come away with with regard to understanding better what they are going through?

Junger: Well, it’s a complicated thing. On the one hand, as Brendan O’Byrne in that clip said, there’s enormous moral damage that comes from killing. And I believe that’s true regardless of the merits of the war. I think World War II, for example, was a war I think we had to fight.

But American bombers killed almost one million civilians in the world and I’m sure some of those guys on those planes came home with some real questions about the killing that they did even though the war was arguably necessary.

But on the other hand – so they’re morally damaged, but on the other hand, they miss it. They miss the war tremendously. Many soldiers miss the war.

So “Korengal” was an attempt to sort of explore using the footage Tim and I shot originally and interviews we did shortly after their deployment to sort of understand those issues more deeply.

Tavis: How would you best explain to an average everyday fellow citizen how anyone who survives this could miss this?

Junger: Yeah, it’s complicated. War – you hear in combat you get dosed with two very powerful chemicals. One is adrenalin, of course, and men have a very strong adrenalin response. They get a lot of dopamine out of complex tasks that they do well. Women don’t have the dopamine responses nearly as strong as men do.

So they really do sort of take some thrill from challenges like that. And you can see there’s some footage in the film of them during a firefight and they’re absolutely cranked up, you know.

But the other chemical, if you will, that they get is an enormous amount of human closeness. I mean, they’re sleeping shoulder to shoulder the way our human ancestors have for hundreds of thousands of years in a small location in a hostile environment.

They’re reliant on each other and that creates a really strong brotherhood that they can’t reproduce back home and they miss that tremendously.

Tavis: These are my words, not necessarily yours. When I see this and saw it, what I see is, to a large degree, a confessional. And by confessional, I mean these are soldiers who get a chance to open up and to share their hearts with us. So it’s a confessional in that sense.

Junger: Yep.

Tavis: What’s the American public to do with that? A soldier opens up and pours his or her heart to you about what they’re going through and what it means, and we’re supposed to do what with that?

Junger: You know, I think soldiers, from their viewpoint, it’s not their war. We civilians sent them to do a job for us. That’s how they see it. And they have a set of experiences that make them angry, that make them sad, that make them happy, that make them miss it.

Whatever it is, they have a set of experiences that are very complicated and profound. And they come back and what they find is that the civilians who sent them off to do a job don’t really want to hear the details of the job.

And I’m sure that American bomber crews that came back from World War II with the knowledge that they helped kill a million civilians, any of those young men who wanted to unburden themselves of their moral questions at the dinner table were probably politely told that, you know, don’t worry about it, you did what you had to do. That’s not going to help a soldier.

I think what we really need to do is really open our hearts and our minds and listen to what they have to say about the job that they did for this country. And that’s not an anti-war statement. It’s not a pro war statement. It’s just the reality that we’re in right now and that they’re in right now.

Tavis: So we listen to them tell us in their own words about what they did for us, the job that they had to endure, and then we do what with that?

Junger: I think it’s cathartic for them.

Tavis: Yeah.

Junger: I think it’s just cathartic. I mean, AA is based on that. You know, in tribal societies, obviously there was a lot of warfare in tribal societies. The young men would come back and they would talk about what they did. Often they would boast, sometimes they wouldn’t.

But there was a cathartic process of articulating what happened out there in the killing fields, and I think that that’s a very important psychological process that modern industrial society is completely devoid of.

Tavis: As we sit for this conversation tonight, this story is still developing in the sense that we will see in the coming weeks and months and years, obviously what happens with the Veterans Affairs Department and how these vets are going to be treated into the future. But when that story broke – just look back a few weeks for me now. When the story broke, what did you make of that story?

Junger: Well, you know, I’m very close friends with Brendan, right? I mean, we talk to each other almost every day. We live near each other. I’ve been hearing, you know, for years how frustrating it was for him to try to get through to the VA and even arrange a doctor’s appointment.

And he finally – he lives in Massachusetts and he finally tried Obamacare, the Massachusetts version of Obamacare. And they said you can’t sign up for Obamacare. He needed surgery on his hands for carpal tunnel.

Obamacare said you can’t sign up with us because you’re a vet. You have to go to the VA. Well, the VA couldn’t schedule anything for him for a year. I realized hearing his terrible story – I mean, he can’t work. If his hands are injured, he can’t work, right?

And I realized maybe one solution is to just allow vets to sign up for Obamacare. Why not? You know, it’s a bureaucratic decision. Why not temporarily just take them out of that mess at the VA and allow them to sign up for the healthcare that all of us have available?

Tavis: In the final analysis, what do you hope that the takeaway will be for the soldiers who are in this film, “Korengal,” and for those of us fellow citizens who will see the film?

Junger: You know, I think politically I’m pretty left wing and I try to be very neutral in my work. I think the right wing in this country doesn’t really want to acknowledge the moral cost of waging war. They just don’t want to talk about it, you know. It’s an unpleasant conversation.

In some way, I don’t blame them. I think the left wing doesn’t really want to acknowledge that the soldiers who fight, fight absolutely voluntarily, and that many of them miss the war and that that has to be dealt with also.

And I think – what I’m hoping my film does is undermine the sort of ideology and the unthinking positions of both political extremes.

Tavis: “Korengal” is the latest project, this documentary from writer, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger who also brought us “Restrepo” a few years ago. Sebastian, good to have you back on the program, and congrats on the project.

Junger: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: June 18, 2014 at 1:54 pm