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Life during wartime 

Filmmaker Sebastian Junger brings the battle home

Whenever a military term like "theater of war" or "staging ground" is co-opted by politicians and pundits, there's a level of ironic detachment that goes along with it.

Unlike its film and media depictions, armed combat isn't about artifice and theatricality. In real life, soldiers under fire do not mimic Christ's crucifixion in a slow-motion rain of bullets, as Willem Defoe did in Oliver Stone's Platoon. Nor do they stand on flight decks declaring their mission accomplished, even though the battle is just beginning.

And, by nearly all accounts, there is no way to comprehend the realities of war unless you've lived through them.

Sebastian Junger, a celebrated journalist and author of The Perfect Storm, spent 15 months embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. That experience has since yielded two emotionally charged documentaries: 2010's Oscar-nominated Restrepo — which is named after the desolate outpost where the soldiers were based — and its successor, Korengal, which will open nationwide on Friday.

As Junger suggests in the following interview, witnessing the consequences of war isn't always the same as experiencing them personally. For him, it took the death of friend and co-director Tim Hetherington, who was killed on assignment in 2011, to bring the war back home. That loss prompted Junger to revisit their original footage and create a film that's more austere than its predecessor, but no less moving. He's also started a nonprofit called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), with the goal of providing first-aid training to freelance combat journalists.

Both Korengal and Restrepo dispense with traditional documentary conventions like voice-over narration and cutaways to armchair experts. Instead, Junger and Hetherington took a cinema verité approach that draws upon 150 hours of footage — including the first film's infamous opening scene, which is shot from the backseat of a Humvee as it runs over a roadside bomb and is ambushed by enemy fire.

In addition to war-zone footage, the duo shot some 40 hours of interviews with the soldiers after their withdrawal from a territory that was declared unwinnable. At the time, some were just wanting to go home; others were wishing they could go back to an outpost that was no longer there. Junger estimates that at least half have been redeployed. (Two soldiers from the film will be answering questions Friday after Cinemark Tinseltown's 7:15 p.m. screening.)

In the interview that follows, Junger discusses the romanticization of war, the irrational feelings that followed in the wake of his partner's death, and the reason he believes leftist journalism is no more honest than right-wing broadcasting.

At what point did you decide to put together a second film about the soldiers who appeared in Restrepo?

Well, when we were making Restrepo, Tim and I were painfully aware, like many filmmakers are, of the wealth of material that was never going to see the light of day. But then after Tim died, I returned to the remaining material about a year and a half ago to see what was there, and if it could become a film. And indeed it could. So I hired Michael Levine, the editor from Restrepo, and we went to work.

I know that documentaries that do away with narration go back at least as far as the Maysles brothers' [1969 film] Salesman. But in your case, how crucial was that approach, in terms of maintaining neutrality and not telling the audience what to think?

Well, I think you could write a neutral script, if you wanted to. But Tim and I were civilians, and we thought the war should be described by the soldiers who were fighting it, rather than by us.

And also, in Restrepo, we were trying to give audiences the illusion of experiencing combat. And there is no narration in reality, you know? There's no big voice booming down explaining what's happening, there's no musical score, you don't jump to interviews with ambassadors in the capital and then back to the hilltop. All those things take away from the feeling of reality, which is what we were going for.

You've said that you made the decision to stop covering wars within an hour of learning about Tim Hetherington's death. You've also said that your first reaction was guilt. I'm wondering why would you have felt that way.

I experienced what many soldiers experience, which I didn't understand when I'd hear it from them. And then suddenly I did. I felt responsible for what happened to him. I was supposed to be on assignment with him, and at the last minute I couldn't go. And against all rationality, I just felt like I should have been there, I could have saved him, it should have been me instead of him. I had a lot of very, very common but completely irrational thoughts about it.

How long did it take you to realize that they were irrational?

You can actually understand that something is irrational and still be affected by it emotionally. Unfortunately, they go together quite well. So I'm still affected by those feelings. Abstractly, I know that doesn't make sense, but that doesn't make them less affective.

If all that hadn't happened, how long do you think you'd have continued covering wars?

Well, I was already sort of thinking in terms of moving on from war coverage. But it's a little like quitting cigarettes, you know? You sort of hold onto the idea that maybe, once in a while, I can sneak one. [Laughs.] After Tim died, I'm like: No, I don't even want to sneak one anymore. I just don't want anything to do with this.

After experiencing all the risks and adrenaline rushes of warfare, it seems like civilian life would feel like some kind of never-ending Kansas. How do soldiers deal with that transition, and how have you yourself dealt with it?

Well, it's been a few years now. I think I haven't been in combat in six years, which is a tenth of my life almost. I think there are a lot of reasons that soldiers don't deal with it very well, and one of them is that the society we've constructed is very uneventful. I mean, the unexpected doesn't happen much, and your fight-or-flight reactions are rarely triggered.

Would you say that, in some ways, that makes us lucky?

Yeah, well, lucky and fulfilled are different things. We're lucky, yes. But I think, you know, we're apes, right? We're primates, and we evolved to deal with a sort of ongoing low-level crisis of survival in a hostile environment. That's what we're neurologically and hormonally prepared for.

But we're no longer living in that reality. And I think that soldiers who've been exposed to that, you know, in some ways it's extremely gratifying to be fully utilized as the human animals that we are. They also, I think, get used to the tremendously strong bond of a platoon in combat. And by comparison, life in this alienated, fractured society feels very lonely.

Through your journalism and filmmaking, you've witnessed more conflict and tragedy than most people could even imagine. How has going through all that affected your view of human nature?

Well, I think the common person is a lot braver and more generous than people realize. In war, people really help each other. They're prepared to sacrifice a lot for other people in their community who are in danger, whether that community is a platoon or a village in Liberia.

In war, one of the things you notice is that some of the very best human traits emerge in a way that everyday American life doesn't necessarily require.

And so, unless there's a crisis like Hurricane Sandy or 9/11, most people don't get to really experience how courageous and generous they are willing to be for other people. They don't get that experience, so they don't know that about themselves. But it's in most people, and it's quite moving.

So if you hadn't gone through it, do you think you would have felt differently about war? Would you have imagined it being more like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

Well, I mean, if I hadn't gone to war, all my ideas about war would have come from Hollywood.

Jesus.

Yeah. And that's sort of just mythmaking. I mean, no Hollywood directors have been to war. So the war movies that they make are really flawed and usually reliant on the myths that preceded them in previous war movies.

So you know, I think I'd have this whole Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter kind of understanding. They're great films — I mean, just as a piece of filmmaking, fantastic. And in terms of mythmaking and storytelling, they're also fantastic, The Hurt Locker and all that stuff. But they just don't have much to do with actual war.

What about Oliver Stone's take on it, which seems especially romanticized? Do his films have any relationship to what you've experienced?

You know, I haven't watched his films in an awfully long time. I saw Full Metal Jacket. That was Oliver Stone, right?

I think that was [Stanley] Kubrick.

Oh, Kubrick — right, yeah, of course. See, I don't even know my directors. [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, they sort of have flashes of it, but having been to war with American soldiers, I have yet to see a film about American soldiers at war that looks anything like what I recognize. I mean, imagine a director who'd never been married making a film about a 30-year marriage.

I'm sure it's been done.

I'm sure it has been done, but it's not realistic. You know, it's not a realistic expectation that someone with no experience in something that intense is gonna get it right. It's absurd.

Tell me about your next project, The Last Patrol.

Well, we walked from D.C. to Pittsburgh to Philly along the railroad lines, me and two combat vets from Restrepo, and a photojournalist named Guillermo Cervera, who was with my friend Tim when he died, and who I'm very close to now. I thought of it as a kind of high-speed vagrancy, up the East Coast, and then we took a left and headed west.

And we slept under bridge and in abandoned buildings, and bathed in rivers when we could. We would prepare food on an open fire, and just try to dodge the police for 400 miles. And we had a long conversation about war and why it's hard to give it up, why it's hard to come home from war. And we talked to people along the way about America, how America is doing right now.

Why did you choose that particular route?

Well, it's one of the most densely populated and varied parts of the country. You can walk 400 miles from Wyoming to Montana and it's very beautiful, but the demographic variety is not there. And so, you know, we walked through ghettos, and wealthy suburbs, and farms, and industry. I mean, those railroad tracks go straight through the middle of everything.

Chris Hedges, the author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, has become more and more outspoken in his judgments on war and the politics behind it. Is that something you've never done, not even in an interview?

You know, I think that the definition of journalism is revealing information to the public without expressing your personal opinion. I mean, advocacy is a different matter. And advocacy is fine, but I would say that Mister Hedges has stepped out of journalism into advocacy. And I'm not judging that decision, but I think we should be clear what he's doing.

We can't call that journalism, for the same reason we can't call FOX News journalism. It's advocacy on the left instead of on the right. FOX News and Hedges and these things are all the same departure from journalism. And I'm not interested in that.

I'd like to finish up with kind of an unusual question ...

Sure.

A colleague of mine, who covered Nicaragua back in the late '80s, told me how combatants would want him to pick up a gun and, as they put it, "make yourself useful." Have you ever encountered that kind of situation yourself, and if you have, how did you deal with it?

Not in Africa. But with American soldiers, yeah, I did. It wasn't a matter of making myself useful. They don't really need someone who doesn't know what he's doing, operating a 50-cal. But the weapons are really fun to shoot. And they're like, "Are you sure you don't want to try it? The next time we get an attack, if you wanna jump on the 50, you're welcome to."

But I always declined. There's a very clear line in journalism, where you do not participate in an event in that way. So the only thing I ever had in my hand was a camera.

bill@csindy.com

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