July 9, 2014

War is still hell (and heaven) in ‘Korengal’

Documentary follow-up to “Restrepo” takes a more philosophic look at U.S. soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan.

As wars against terrorists drag on from the Dead Sea to Afghanistan, the combat seems literally endless: Every person now on Earth may die before those conflicts end, if they ever do.

That sense of futility and cyclic violence runs through “Korengal,” director Sebastian Junger’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary “Restrepo.” U.S. soldiers play cards and argue and have firefights and occasionally die, while the Afghan Taliban patiently move arms through the Korengal Valley below.

You get the impression Americans could stay until the Messiah comes without changing the pattern of life. After living there for a year, the troops get the same frustrating impression.

Most of the cast comes from “Restrepo,” which made more impact because it was fresher. The first film showed what life was like for men in the Restrepo outpost above the Korengal Valley. (It took its name from medic Juan Restrepo, who died there. Junger’s co-director, Tim Hetherington, was killed in Libya the year after the film came out.)

We learned, perhaps better than we have from any other film, what the alternation of boredom and bravery is like. The men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (to give their full title) took Junger and Hetherington into their confidences, and the result had unerring honesty.

The sequel, if we can call it that, shows the same men getting ready to go home and articulating their feelings. If the first film was made more for civilians who have never experienced war, the second seems to be aimed at veterans who want to reflect on their experiences.

Most enjoy combat, if not the long intervals between. “I like things that go boom,” says one simply. Another observes that “Until you hear the snap of a bullet go by your head – or hit your head – there’s nothing like it.” Says a third, “Sometimes you wanna fight so bad just to pass the time.”

Their captain succinctly explains their mission: “You’re not in the Korengal to hunt the bad guys. You’re there so the bad guys can come to you, and you can kill them.” That philosophy makes anyone an enemy, from the armed Taliban to the village elders lining up for school supplies.

Soldiers speak frankly, admiring Taliban determination – “they are ruthless, awesome fighters” – and acknowledging that civilian treachery remains inevitable: Non-combatants in the valley take aid and orders from both sides and try not to get their families killed.

As in “Restrepo,” we never have the sense that Junger makes judgments. Near the end, soldiers in their 20s say their bonds with other servicemen run immeasurably deep, and they never expect to have relationships this meaningful with anyone else again. You may find that touching, sad, even disturbing as you contemplate their re-integration into “normal” life. But you won’t doubt that it’s true.

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