‘Korengal’ Tells Soldiers’ Stories—Even the Unpleasant Parts
New documentary looks at war through warriors’ eyes
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s 2010 documentary Restrepo follows a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade as it deploys in Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008.
Restrepo is intense and honest—and the best entry in the overpopulated genre of gritty War on Terror documentaries.
Now there’s a sequel—Korengal.
The same valley. The same soldiers. The same time period. I was skeptical as I sat down to watch. Why rehash same material? What could Junger and Hetherington—who died while reporting in Libya in 2011 but whose footage comprises much of Korengal—possibly say here that they didn’t say in the first film?
A lot, it turns out.
Restrepo is an excellent film but Korengal is better. Restrepo depicts the minutiae of soldiers’ daily lives—the tedium of waiting and the thrill of combat—but the mission is the main subject.
Korengal explores something deeper. What does it feel like to be an American soldier?
The docu’s basic structure is exactly like Restrepo’s. Junger intersperses footage of the soldiers in Afghanistan with post-deployment personal interviews and recovered Taliban footage. But the tone of Korengal is different.
Where Restrepo has a plot—the establishment of Outpost Restrepo and the ensuing Operation Rock Avalanche—Korengal does not.
Restrepo is about the valley and the mission. Korengal is about the soldiers. We watch their daily struggles … and the emotional effects of life in a war zone.
There’s not a lot of story. And that’s a good thing.
Junger filmed Korengal’s interviews close up. We see the soldiers’ every blemish, scar and twitch. The camera’s close, penetrating gaze captures the emotional and sometimes disturbing nature of the conversations.
The interviews are raw. Junger asks hard questions. The men of Battle Company answer, often looking more uncomfortable than in the scenes where they’re under attack.
Many of the soldiers say they wished they could return to the Korengal Valley—that they would go back right now if they could. One soldier describes of the thrill of combat, the adrenaline high that comes from surviving.
The audio from this interview plays over a picture of the same soldier holding the ruined remains of his helmet. A bullet had struck him in the head. The helmet saved his life. He’s grinning in the picture.
Another soldier explains how much he hated it when, returning home, his friends and family told him he “didn’t have a choice” but to fight. It was their stock response to his war stories. “I always had a choice,” he says.
He wonders aloud if a God he doesn’t believe in would forgive him. “You do terrible things,” he says. “And then you have to live with them afterwards.”
There’s plenty of combat in the film, but Junger also takes the time to depict the prolonged boredom of war. In one scene, the men kill time by throwing rocks at each other while giggling like children. In another, the soldiers—tense from months of firefights—sit in a circle staring into space and not saying a word.
“This is what war feels like,” Korengal’s trailer declares. Most of us will never know what that’s like, but films like this help us to empathize.
Korengal is playing in select theaters. It moves to various video-on-demand services this fall.