Sebastian Junger: The way we treat our vets is insane

The Academy Award nominee and Sundance winner talks Afghanistan, PTSD and his film "Restrepo"

By James Stafford
Published June 16, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)
Director Sebastian Junger  (Todd Williamson/invision/ap)
Director Sebastian Junger (Todd Williamson/invision/ap)

This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

The Good Men Project Back in 2010 filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington released Restrepo, perhaps the most honest view of war ever committed to film. Embedded with the 173 Airborne in an out of the way Afghanistan valley, Junger and his partner witnessed it all: the fear, boredom, anger, adrenaline. The film went on to earn an Academy Award nomination and a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but it wasn’t all good news: Tim Hetherington was killed the following year while covering the civil war in Libya. Junger later returned to the hundreds of hours of footage that he and his partner shot to tell another story, Korengal.

The result is as arresting as its predecessor, this time focusing on the psychology of the soldiers. Junger and I talked while he made his way down a busy New York street, moving from one promotional event to the next. He was accommodating, cordial, and insightful, shifting between topics without ever missing a beat.


Good Men Project:  Why don’t we start by just locating us in place and time. Tell us about the Korengal Valley and what was going on at that time.

Sebastian Junger:   Tim [Hetherington] and I shot a couple of hundred hours of footage in combat at a small outpost called Restrepo in 2007-08, with 2nd Platoon Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne. I wound up in the Korengal because I was following that unit and they just happened to be stuck there. I’d been with them in Kabul in ’05 and I decided that if they went back to Afghanistan I wanted to follow that platoon for deployment.

They were  going to go to Iraq and I refused to cover Iraq, but at the last minute they went to Afghanistan, so I went with them. They wound up in the Korengal.

GMP: What were they sent to do?

SJ: It was the focus of the U.S. Military because it was a huge insurgent base and Taliban base of operations and they were using it to attack projects in the Pech River Valley, which was a very, very important valley. Korengal wasn’t, but the Pech was.  It’s a major thoroughfare in Kunar Province, which is a really crucial province. The U.S. military were building roads and schools and medical clinics and all that, and the Taliban were attacking these projects.  So the U.S.  just put a cork in the bottle —they just stoppered it up for a few years while they were building all that stuff, and then when they were done they pulled out.

GMP: How did the civilian population feel about that: the roads and the hospitals? Obviously here in the States we assume they were very appreciative but it’s really hard to tell in Restrepo the film. Sometimes the locals look so damn friendly and sometimes they don’t.

SJ:  It’s like Americans with the police. Sometimes Americans are friendly with the police, and sometimes they’re not so friendly. It’s the same thing. Authorities would go out on security details, but it’s also authority, you know? Any population has a very ambivalent relationship with [authorities].

GMP:  Were those improvements welcome though?

SJ:  Yeah. I mean, look, the Afghans weren’t probably in love with the Americans. If we were going to build a medical center, they were thrilled. They’d bring their children there.  Most of them had never had any medical attention at all; high mortality rates. Of course they were grateful. Likewise when the Red Cross came in. I don’t think they made much distinction between the two.

Since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, the number of children in school has gone up sevenfold. That’s the future of the country right there, and it wouldn’t be happening without international forces.

GMP: Sevenfold. That’s impressive.

SJ: A third of them are girls— just complete revolution, completely changing Afghan society within half a generation. It’s extraordinary.

GMP: In the film Restrepo one of the soldiers mentions that building Restrepo is the single most important event for the Korengal. Why was that the most important event, in his opinion?

SJ: I don’t think he phrased that very well in some ways. He meant during their deployment, during those fifteen months, from the perspective of an American soldier building Restrepo completely changed the combat dynamics in the valley.

GMP:  Is that because it gave them a more forward position, or—

SJ: The forward position. They could see into areas of the Valley that until then had been obscured from view. They used to use Restrepo to attack the company headquarters from. Now they’ve got soldiers up there and able to launch attacks from that position deep down into the Valley. It was a really crucial chess move in the whole thing.

GMP: And yet just a couple of years later the military pulled out. What became of that region after that?

SJ:  It went back to being what it was before, which was a real cultural and economic backwater. It’s the equivalent of  a sort of remote Appalachian valley in Tennessee; I mean, it’s the Afghan equivalent of that. The Korengal itself didn’t have inherent value: it had strategic importance because the Taliban was using it for a launchpad for attacks. The Valley itself is not tremendously important.

GMP: So did the Taliban pull out after that also?

SJ: I’m sure they have some presence there, but I don’t think it’s a dominant one. They do have a dominant presence in Nuristan but they have a very hard time, apparently, penetrating southwards from Nuristan across the Pech River Valley, the Valley that was developed in the last years—mainly because of U.S. drone strikes and because the Afghan National Army Unit in the Pech are extremely good. They just put really, really high quality units in there, so the Taliban really have a tough time pushing down from Nuristan towards Jalalabad and Kabul.

GMP:  You’ve mentioned that the new movie, Korengal, tries to understand the inner psychology of a soldier. Can you talk a little bit more about that? You’re pulling from the same footage that you and Tim shot for Restrepo, right?

SJ: It’s all the same mass of material, yeah. The central question I’m trying to ask [with Korengal]  is why soldiers would miss war, because it’s such a common thing.

GMP: It is.

SJ: Very common. What is it they’re missing, and is that a healthy response to combat? The things they miss: Are those healthy things that most humans would miss, or have the soldiers been so altered by combat that they’re a psychologically unhealthy and missing bad things?

GMP: Right. Right.

SJ: The answer, I think, is tremendously healthy. They’re missing the closeness of brotherhood that they had in their unit. That kind of closeness of brotherhood has a universal human value, which makes people feel very, very good. Sadly, and ironically at the very heart, you find it’s really exciting, and so they wind up missing the one place that they were exposed to it.

GMP: That really came through in the first film in some really subtle ways, like the spontaneous dance party in the barracks or all of the wrestling and fighting.  It’s almost disturbing to watch because at some points it’s almost like kids on a camping trip, and then fire fights break out.

SJ: That’s right.

GMP: I can’t even imagine being in combat, and that actually makes me wonder about you as a journalist. How do you deal with it? Do you guys experience kind of the same issues to some extent: the PTSD, the lack of camaraderie,  wanting to go back for the adrenaline rush, all of those kinds of things that we hear about from soldiers?

SJ: Yeah, completely.  I mean,  we weren’t fighting, but we were very much, very much part of that unit, and Tim and I missed it. I think Tim did, I know I missed it tremendously afterwards. There’s something particularly to being part of the group defense though. As close as we were to those guys we were not carrying guns, we were not participating in group defense. I think that’s a very ancient male experience, and a very particular component of that kind of closeness.

We were very close to those guys. We couldn’t have been closer to them, but we weren’t doing that, and so we weren’t entirely in the brotherhood, and couldn’t have been because we were different. We were not carrying weapons. We were running the same risks they were, but we were not carrying weapons, we weren’t pulling guard duty. They didn’t have to trust us the same way they had to trust each other.

GMP: Right.

SJ: They didn’t have to trust us to not fall asleep on guard duty or to return fire. We were close, but that element of “I’m trusting you with my life” was not there. It couldn’t have been there, and it makes it slightly different, but different in very important ways.

GMP: So with this new film, Korengal, you went completely with independent funding so that you could make the movie that you wanted to make. Why did you feel like you needed to stay independent?

SJ: Broadcast and distributors try to tell you how to make your film, and then they take most of the money.

GMP: (Laughter). Good point.

SJ:  And if you’re a first time film maker and they’re willing to actually distribute your film, that’s actually not a bad deal  but it makes you feel a little bit like you’re just in a very high level internship.

We had a huge amount of support after Restrepo. We had 200,000 Facebook fans on the Restrepo page. A lot of loyalty, trust in the military community, including the wives and families, and I just thought that we can finance this ourselves. We put in our own money; we had a Kickstarter campaign; we used some outside financing, when we sort of pre-sold the UK broadcast for a little bit of money. We combined all that, and we were able to pull it off.

It made us completely independent, and it also means that the film’s entirely ours commercially, which considering how poorly paid documentary film is—it’s pretty thrilling that this is a business model that can actually work for film makers.

GMP: I was looking for whether you had any concerns with controversy or political bias or anything like that, but it sounds more like it was a question of really wanting that final cut, and being justly compensated for the work that you’ve done.

SJ:  Absolutely, it’s entirely that. Absolutely.

GMP: Both your film and this interview are coming out right around the time that we’re seeing the V.A. scandal starting to really blow up. I’m wondering what your thoughts are there, and whether you’ve had any contact with the guys from the 503rd in the intervening years. Are the having issues with the V.A.?

SJ:  Yeah, totally. I’m really good friends with Brendan [O'Byrne]. I talk to him if not every day, every other day. He’s got carpal tunnel syndrome, and he wants to get an operation. He can’t get one because of bureaucratic problems with the V.A. He can’t get Obama Care because he’s a vet, but the V.A. is so incompetent that it’s going to take them three years or whatever to get the operation done. It’s just ridiculous. We have the most effective military in world history and we can’t schedule a simple surgery for one of our vets. It’s just insane.

GMP: It is insane. It’s absolutely insane. Before we go, do you have anything that you want to offer here that we may have missed?

SJ:  I need to point out that  people forget that the war does not belong to the soldiers who fight it. They were sent by us. They were sent by civilians to do something for us, and you’re not immune even if you opposed the war. You might be opposed to global warming, but you’re still driving a car and using gasoline.

This is our country. We’re making national decisions, and you own them, whether they pleased you or not. The country went to war based on a very small number of young people going to fight it for us. It’s not their war, it’s our war, and all the consequences and all the moral confusion and all the damage–and all the good, frankly all the good also—belongs to all of us. And that’s something that I just can’t repeat enough to the civilian population, because when soldiers come home and they see civilians are not owning the war, it leaves them really, really angry and confused.

GMP: How can we, as civilians, do a better job with that?

SJ: I think it’s just a matter of consciousness. I think when you talk to vets, you have to talk from a place of “Our war,” “What we sent you guys to do.” I think people just have to stop distancing from it—you know, “You did what you had to do.”  No, they volunteered. They didn’t have to, they volunteered for it, and we chose to have them do it. It’s an important distinction.


James Stafford

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Afghanistan Sebastian Junger The Good Men Project