There are few journalists left like Sebastian Junger; willing to put their life on the line to articulate the complexities of war and its impact on the human condition. His 2010 award-winning documentary film Restrepo examined the realities of a war being waged in Afghanistan. While embedded with the troops of Battle Company 2/503, he experienced the unique bond that only soldiers can forge while fighting for their lives and defending their brothers-in-arms.
It was this brotherhood that brought Junger back into the editing room to begin work on his latest documentary film Korengal after the death of his partner and dear friend Tim Heatherington. The 2014 film documents the long-term impact of the war on the soldiers of Battle Company as they struggle with a confusing desire to return to the same valley in Afghanistan that traumatized them.
Download the Korengal Bundle to get clips and stills from the film and a TED Talk from Sebastian Junger. Enter your email to unlock exclusive letters and notes from Junger and "The Sal Giunta Story", a 12-min short created by Junger and Heatherington, chronicling the story of Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War who was first featured in Restrepo.
We were able to sit down with Junger to discuss the making of Korengal and what fans can expect from the Korengal Bundle. Read up.
BitTorrent: Can you describe the process of how you came to putting together Korengal after Restrepo? Did you feel like there was another element of this story that you needed to tell?
Sebastian Junger: When we made Restrepo, the nation was not particularly focused on the fact that there was an absolutely outrageous war going on in Afghanistan. And by outrageous, I mean Americans fighting very, very hard, on foot, in the mountains. in ways that Americans don’t think we need to fight anymore. It was all going on in Afghanistan and nobody knew it. Restrepo was to bring the attention to bring the attention of the American public to that. Not from a pro-war or anti-war position, just as a reality. This is happening.
"The film is really a complimentary piece to "Restrepo" as opposed to a sequel. This is what war look likes, and this is what’s going on inside of people when they fight like this."
The war started to wind down and I really started to see the emotional consequences for me personally, of having been in all that combat, and for other guys I knew, and really for the whole nation. There are real consequences for combat and I just thought those soldiers are coming back with those changes in them, they’re coming back home very changed, and I wondered that if I went back to the material that Tim and I shot and the interviews we did, if there’s somethings that we weren’t focused on when we made Restrepo that might illuminate those changes and what those implications are for these soldiers and for the country. Why do soldiers miss war? What are they missing, you know? Why do they find combat exciting? All this stuff that’s so incredibly politically incorrect but it’s all true.
BitTorrent: Was there a specific moment when you identified that this was a whole other film here and another idea that needed to be addressed?
Junger: After Tim was killed, I decided to not cover war anymore. War went from being very intense, and very compelling and at times, very exciting. It went from those things to just being heartbreaking and depressing. Those feelings were always there somewhere in the mix for me, but it’s hard to get to when you’re all jacked up on the excitement and intensity of it. And all of a sudden, that’s when I lost Tim. All I could think about was how freaking sad the whole thing is. It’s not an anti-war thing, I’m just talking about how it affected me. I do think sometimes there are wars that need to be fought.
"It’s like, ok, am I done with war? Well, war’s not done with you yet. It would be be a real shame if this just died on a hard drive."
I had no interest in going back into that material as I had no interest in way in any form at all, ever again. I was allergic to it emotionally. Nick, our producer and a good friend of Tim’s, said to me “You should go back into that material, there’s some important film in there. Go back in and see what’s there.” And quite reluctantly, I did. I was amazed. He was absolutely right. It’s like, ok, am I done with war? Well, war’s not done with you yet. There’s something of real value for the soldiers that I know and maybe for many vets, and civilians and citizens in this country. It would be be a real shame if this just died on a hard drive.
BitTorrent: How did you first come about embedding with the troops in the Korengal Valley?
Junger: I’ve been a war reporter since the early 90’s, and started going to Afghanistan in 1996, with multiple trips there over the next few years. By 2005, I was embedded with US forces in Zabul province. I refused to cover Iraq - I thought it was a mistake and an outrage. But I thought in Afghanistan, we could do some real good. For the Afghans and also, it was important for our security, as well.
I was so amazed by those Battle Company guys, and I thought if they were to deploy to Afghanistan again, I would want to follow a platoon for a year. So I started that project in Spring ‘07 and brought Tim in to shoot video that Fall. I came to that just because I was a war reporter and I cared about Afghanistan. I was placed rather randomly with Battle Company in ‘05 and just kind of fell in love with them. They wound up in the Korengal - it was all happened from there sort of randomly. I had no idea what the Korengal was when I was told they were going there, and therefore I was going there.
BitTorrent: There are quite a few moments in these films that are quite emotionally overwhelming. How did you process those moments as they were happening, as you’re filming? What kind of emotional toll did creating these film take on you?
Junger: Well...anytime you’ve been in combat, and my first combat experience was the early 90’s so I”ve been in quite a few wars. Any time you’re in combat, you’re traumatized. There’s no way around it. You’re traumatized by the danger to yourself, by the suffering that people are in that you’re witnessing. The whole thing is really hard on the human psyche.
And then when I was with the Second Platoon, it was the first time I was in combat and with people I really cared about it. As that year went, I became more and more part of the platoon. Even despite the age difference, those guys were my brothers. By the end, that’s really how I thought of them and how they thought of me and Tim, so it all became extremely personal. The idea of one of those guys getting hurt, particularly between trips when we weren’t there, was very, very hard to think about. Unbearably upsetting.
"I almost got killed twice out there - you know, specific things, like a few inches to the left, that kind of thing. There were guys that got killed that I knew. All kinds of upsetting stuff happened and I was extremely messed up afterwards. But just like those guys, I’d go back there in a heartbeat."
My experience out there and with the platoon, we were so close and so embedded, I mean, I was really happy out there. Closeness makes humans happy. That’s one of the reasons why they miss this, because they were all so damn close. Even the guys who didn’t like eachother very much were very close. And I was a part of that.
BitTorrent: How was your readjustment back to normal life after returning from the Korengal, just from a day-to-day standpoint?
Junger: It wasn’t that great. I had a bit of a breakdown - I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I was pretty depressed, particularly after Tim got killed. That sort of reset my odometer to zero. My marriage ended because of all this stuff. So I got a little bit rocked, I gotta say.
But I’m also older. I’m 52 now. My life at home is more complex than when you’re twenty. So those guys are comparing the intensity of life in combat to a twenty year old’s life back home. which isn’t filled with much. Think back to when you were 20 or 22. Maybe you had a girlfriend, and you were driving a third-hand car, and had a shitty job. For a lot of people that’s what it is to be 21. Or you could be in the turret of a humvee, fighting the bad guys, which makes you feel like more of a man. So that’s part of the problem, and I just have a better comparison for combat with life back home.
BitTorrent: What kind of projects are you looking to do moving forward?
Junger: I did one last film in this body of work that comes out on HBO in November, called The Last Patrol. Basically, I took a couple guys from Restrepo who were out of the army and then I took a journalist that was with my friend Tim when he died. None of us were going back to war again - done, done with war. And we were talking about why it’s so hard to give war up. So I proposed something Tim and I were going to do and didn’t get the chance.
We set out, over the course of a year on four or five different trips, we walked along the railroad lines from DC to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh - 350, or 400 miles or something. We didn’t have any tents, we got food as we went, we slept under bridges and in abandoned houses, and bathed in rivers. We were basically high speed vagrants. It was a long therapeutic 400-mile conversation about war. And there was this weird urban survival test and it was this long encounter with this country and all its freakiness, and it became a film called The Last Patrol. It’s a very interesting film. It’s due out on November 10th.
BitTorrent: Korengal is a film that will have the most social impact by reaching as many viewers as possible. Was that a reason for you to embrace BitTorrent Bundle to support the film?
Junger: Restrepo reached an awful lot of people but we were very much within the control of Nat-Geo as a distributor. We gave them a finished film - they were not in the edit room. Thank. God. But, they were the distributor so they kind of called the shots. They put out a certain amount of money and bought the film. We made absolutely nothing on initial purchase and eventually made some money on the DVD, but it was much. We had to audit them because there were problems with record-keeping and we ultimately thought we don’t need the public relations machine of a company like that, we’re already well known.
"This is ours, not theirs, and there’s this brave new world online, that’s sort of the great equalizer. The filmmaker can go straight to the audience and just skip everybody else."
Tim and I risked our lives to get this footage. We don’t need someone else making decision on the material for us. Let’s raise the money and take this project away from the corporations. Not to sound like an Occupy Wall St. person, but there was a bit of that. This is ours, not theirs, and there’s this brave new world online, that’s sort of the great equalizer. The filmmaker can go straight to the audience and just skip everybody else.
So Nick and I just thought, “Hey let’s believe in ourselves and just cut out these people who are feeding off our work.”
BitTorrent: Social networking plays a different role in these environments than it does it in the US - it’s an opportunity for free speech in countries where that might not be possible. How important do you think preserving a free and open internet and increasing internet access is to aid the development of more democratic and free states in the Middle East?
Junger: I think any form of unfettered communication is essential to a free and open democratic society. The Internet is just one form of that, but it’s a very important form because it’s so egalitarian. Everyone has access to the Internet, just about. Except the very poorest people in the world, and hopefully that’s changing. So now if someone goes on Facebook and announcing something, they have access to other human beings that President Truman would have envied just a generation ago. It’s incredible.
"I think any form of unfettered communication is essential to a free and open democratic society. The Internet is just one form of that, but it’s a very important form because it’s so egalitarian."
It’s absolutely vital. It’s way for people to organize and communicate that governments can’t control and I’m sure it drives them absolutely crazy. Anything that drives governments absolutely crazy is probably a good thing.