This is combat
Sebastian Junger on Restrepo / He’s still best-known for his gripping book The Perfect Storm, later made into a hit film starring Mark Wahlberg, but Sebastian Junger is one of the great combat journalists of his or any generation. He’s been reporting from Afghanistan longer than US troops have been fighting there, and has been on the receiving end of Taliban fire more times than he can count. Along with Tim Hetherington, Junger has just completed an extraordinary documentary about the lives of US soldiers at a remote outpost known as Restrepo, which was for a long time the most dangerous assignment in Afghanistan. The film, Restrepo, opens in Honolulu on Friday. Junger spoke to Honolulu Weekly last week.
There is a way that this film leaves the viewer feeling emotional and very fragile. Are you hearing that from people?
It’s the first time I’ve heard that word exactly, but yeah, it’s definitely a very emotional film for a lot of people. I’ve heard people say that it was stunning to them.
Did you have a specific intent in making it?
I wanted people to know what it feels like to be a soldier. That was really it.
Well, we’re curious what it feels like. And I felt like that was part of the emotional spectrum that people back home were, oddly enough, not focused on.
People have reflexive responses to the soldiers’ experience. The right wing is very comfortable with the idea that these guys are proudly doing their duty, and are all heroes and that’s it. The left wing is way more conflicted about it. They’ll say, “We support the soldiers but the war is horrible,” and there’s a kind of a subtext there of some ugliness on the part of the soldiers, but they don’t really say that. So it’s all this sort of reflexive stuff, and responses that I think reveal more about the speaker than the reality.
Like, literally people see the film and say ‘I was so surprised that the guy was crying.’ What are you talking about? If your high school kid saw his best friend get hit by a car, would you be surprised if he cried? Well this is a high school kid.
You open with them as high school kids, basically, on the bus. It’s pretty jarring.
Yeah, but people think they’re something else, other than young men. They just think there’s something else. There’s not. They’re young men in a certain kind of clothing, for the most part.
That said, they have all the same emotional responses as young men, they are just very skilled at not becoming overwhelmed by those responses. Your high school kid might be incapacitated for days. A soldier will be incapacitated for minutes.
Are there ways in which this film obscures the reality of the war in Afghanistan? These guys are having an experience that virtually no one else is having.
Yeah. A fifth of the combat was in the Korengal (Valley, where the film takes place). The math obviously dictates that there must be a lot of other valleys where there’s no fighting at all. You can’t have a fifth in every valley.
But we were shooting a film that was older and bigger than Afghanistan. This is combat. This is combat in Vietnam, in World War II. So the Vietnam vets have come up and said, “Thank you for telling our story.” That’s what we were shooting for. Does this reflect the reality of Afghanistan? No it doesn’t. No more so than downtown Detroit reflects America. It’s part of America.
The presence of Afghans in the film is interesting, though. On one level, there are a lot of very old Afghans talking to a lot of very young Americans. Is that part of the communication problem there, do you think?
The biggest problem was the translators, I don’t know how good they were at translating. I know they weren’t. Capt. Keany would speak for three minutes and the translators would capture the essence, but some of those details were probably pretty important.
There’s a feeling that the Afghans are just waiting for the Americans to go away.
In the Korengal, yes. The Korengal is such a backward place that they’re going to wait for anyone to leave. Kabul is not waiting for the Americans to go away. The party’s over if that happens. The major cities have been radically transformed by the presence of the NATO troops and all the money that comes from that. The Korengal is like a little valley in the Appalachians when the Feds showed up, and then eventually they’re gonna go away.
The climactic scene, the firefight during the Rock Avalanche mission, is probably the most frightening moment I’ve ever seen captured on film. (The scene was shot by Junger’s co-director, Tim Hetherington). How do you think about things like framing a shot when you have a camera and the other guy has a gun, and he’s shooting at you?
I trusted those guys completely. And so, the camera was my job, it was my gun. I didn’t feel any conflict in that. That was just my role in the platoon. The guy with the radio, his job was to work the radio, not really to return fire. Everyone has a job.
You’ve been in some pretty sketchy situations over the years. Was this the most dangerous environment you’d been in?
It’s hard to measure danger. In real terms, some of the driving I had to do in the Third World was as dangerous as any combat. People get killed all the time. Completely objectively, that was it.
In terms of being frightening, it was way less frightening than Africa, where I wasn’t with a platoon. That was scary…It’s really hard to compare these things.
You’ve been on this war a long time. Do you feel done with it yet?
I’m going over in the fall.