What Is Courage?: 'Korengal' Breaks Down War In Afghanistan The documentary follows up on Sebastian Junger's Oscar-nominated film Restrepo. Junger says, "I'm hoping as the soldiers understand their experience better through this film, civilians will as well."
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What Is Courage?: 'Korengal' Breaks Down War In Afghanistan

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What Is Courage?: 'Korengal' Breaks Down War In Afghanistan

What Is Courage?: 'Korengal' Breaks Down War In Afghanistan

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Earlier in the program, we discussed some important developments in Afghanistan - the release of the only American POW, the current state of the Taliban, and the planned U.S. withdrawal. Now we're going to take up close to the experience of combat and inside the heads of U.S. soldiers.


SERGEANT BRENDAN O'BYRNE: I started thinking that God hates me.

RATH: That's former Sgt Brendan O'Byrne, one of the soldiers featured in a new documentary "Korengal."


O'BYRNE: You do terrible things, and then you have to live with them afterwards. But you do them the same way if you had to go back. So what do you do?

RATH: In the film, journalist Sebastian Junger once again, takes us into Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, which was considered one of military's most dangerous postings.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: For a while, the Korengal was this scene on the fifth of all the combat in all of Afghanistan. And it was only six miles long. There was only 150 American soldiers there.

RATH: Between 2007 and 2008, Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington spent 10 months with a platoon of about 30 men at an outpost called Restrepo.

JUNGER: It was sand bags and crates of ammunition on a steep ridge. No Internet, no phone, no electricity for a while - no cooked food, no TV, no girls, no cars, no sports. None of the things that young men like. And there was an enormous amount of combat. The first time I was out there, the Taliban attacked the outpost very fiercely four times.

RATH: "Korengal" picks up where the Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Restrepo," leaves off. Sebastian Junger's co-director, Tim Hetherington, was killed in 2011 while on assignment in Libya, but the two had always talked about adding another chapter to this story.

JUNGER: We finished "Restrepo," and there was so much good material we hadn't been able to use. And it was sort of a pipe dream, like, maybe we can make another film. Tim was killed a few weeks after. We were at the Oscar's together.

And about a year after that, I sort of got serious about picking that idea up. It was hard, you know. I used the same editor we had worked with on "Restrepo." And Tim wasn't there in the edit room, but his sort of - his ghost was there, in a way. And I don't even mean that in a creepy way. I mean, it was actually kind of comforting to sense his presence a little bit. A lot of the footage in the film, obviously, was shot by Tim. And I'd watch it, and I feel kind of close to him.

RATH: "Restrepo" is a film that you made for civilians so that we could have a sense of what combat is like. With the second part, what are you going for? Who are you trying to reach with this?

JUNGER: Yeah, "Restrepo" was very particular. We - it wasn't meant to be about the war. It was supposed to allow people to step into the cinema for 90 minutes and experience something close to what combat feels like. There was no musical score. There was no interviews with generals. That kind of thing. You were just on that hilltop with those guys. What I felt was lacking was a complementary piece where we really try to examine what war is, how it affects people, what it does to people, what it does for them.

And so I went back into on the footage Tim and I had shot in '07, '08 and the interviews we'd done right after the deployment with the soldiers. And I just sort of mined it for something a little bit more examined. I asked soldiers, you know, how does fear work? Or what's the word courage mean to you? And so "Korengal" really is a sort of deconstruction of that experience and why it's meaningful. And I'm hoping as the soldier sort of understand their experience better through this film, civilians will as well.

RATH: Well, it's interesting. You talked about how you go through different concepts with them like the idea of what bravery is. This is a clip from Specialist Sterling Jones talking about bravery.


SPECIALIST STERLING JONES: I'm not doing this so that somebody goes wow, those guys are really patriotic. Those guys are really brave. Truthfully, I could give a (beep) what anybody thinks, except for those guys to my left and my right 'cause that's what it's about.

JUNGER: That's a really common sentiment that you hear from soldiers. And likewise, with courage - I mean, one guy said to me courage - there's no such thing. You're either doing your job as a soldier, or you're not doing your job. Civilians look at doing your job as a soldier is courageous, but actually, soldiers just see it as discharging your minimum duties towards your brothers. It's a completely different perspective on that. It's really interesting.

RATH: It's a very intimate view. And you see how these guys seem to be at the outer limits of human stress.


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: After sitting around, kind of being boxed up. You know, it gets to a person. And you see the guys on edge, like, when's the next round just looking.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: The tensions would come from, OK, I know they're going to start shooting at us. You know, like we haven't been shot at for two weeks so they're probably storing up all her ammunition, all their weapons right now. And they're going to hit us harder now.

JUNGER: The hardest thing for them was boredom. Frankly, they really enjoyed the combat. The losses they suffered, the occasional losses were terrible blows to them. But they really enjoyed the combat. At one point, after a week or two of no combat, the lieutenant walked by me sort of muttering to himself - on a very hot day - muttering to himself, oh, God, please someone attack us today. I mean, that's how boring it got.

RATH: And that brings up one of the other things that I think is really striking for civilians to see is that nostalgia in which they talk about the place and missing firefights.


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: I don't personally talk to astronauts or, you know, any kind of extremist, but until you hear the snap of a bullet go by your head or hit your head, there's nothing else like it.

JUNGER: Most of the guys that I talked to, they went through a rough deployment, you know, they really did. And most of the guys I talked to from the platoon afterwards, missed it. And they said they'd go back tomorrow if they could.

RATH: You were there, of course, for a limited period of time. But still having gone there and experienced the intensity of that, can you understand that feeling of missing it?

JUNGER: Oh, completely. I mean, Tim and I each did five one-month trips - sometimes together, sometimes part. So we were actually there a fair amount. Frankly, once I was on the helicopter out of there, I was relieved. But really, I never wanted to go. I mean, I really liked it out there. I like the guys.

There's something about being sort of enclosed in this very tight brotherhood that you can't duplicate back home. It's incredibly reassuring. And on some level, I think you feel safer in that brotherhood while getting shot at then you feel all alone in a society that doesn't have physical dangers.

And then you come home, and whether it is the Greek warrior's coming home from Troy to Ancient Greece or American soldiers coming home from Afghanistan, you're coming home to a civilian situation, which, frankly, can feel less meaningful, certainly more boring and much less bonded. You're not in that same group of brothers.

RATH: How are these guys doing today?

JUNGER: I'm not in touch with all the soldiers. But the ones I am an touch with, they're doing pretty good. I mean, the guys who got out did the worst for a while. The guys who stayed in the Army seemed to fare better. A couple of guys are having some problems, but they're all right.

RATH: Sebastian Junger's new documentary is "Korengal." It's out now in New York and will roll out nationally through June. Sebastian, thank you.

JUNGER: My pleasure. Thank you.

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