Journalist strives for 'experiential' look at Afghan war with doc 'Restrepo'

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Sebastien Junger looks inside a deployed U.S. Platoon

Politics didn't belong in Sebastian Junger's intimate portrait of a U.S. platoon's harrowing tour of duty in northeast Afghanistan.

The hardened war correspondent says he was after a purely "experiential" account of the deadly Korengal Valley and headed into its stark, war-ravaged mountains to capture an unflinching look at a soldier's life.

The result is the hard-hitting, and sometimes heartbreaking, documentary "Restrepo." It was culled from roughly 10 months of material that he and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington gathered two years ago while embedded with a U.S. Army platoon near the Pakistan border.

TORONTO -

Politics didn't belong in Sebastian Junger's intimate portrait of a U.S. platoon's harrowing tour of duty in northeast Afghanistan.

The hardened war correspondent says he was after a purely "experiential" account of the deadly Korengal Valley and headed into its stark, war-ravaged mountains to capture an unflinching look at a soldier's life.

The result is the hard-hitting, and sometimes heartbreaking, documentary "Restrepo." It was culled from roughly 10 months of material that he and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington gathered two years ago while embedded with a U.S. Army platoon near the Pakistan border.

"The press has had access to the U.S. military, to the frontline units since 2003 with the embed program, but for the most part those reports that were done were part of broader pieces that try to evaluate how the war was going," says Junger, whose other war coverage includes visits to Bosnia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"But what Tim and I wanted to do was go into the experience of the soldiers, I thought that hadn't really been done.

"It's not an instructive, informative and evaluative film. It's an experiential film - this is what it feels like to be in combat. ... So we didn't interview any generals or diplomats or talk to the families because that's not what's happening in the Korengal Valley."

The film captures innumerable ambushes from hidden snipers, gruelling patrols under the weight of 68-kilogram packs, a devastating outpouring of grief over the death of a comrade, and more light-hearted moments of horseplay and even boredom.

The film takes its name from a remote outpost the soldiers carved into the mountain in a bid to gain upper ground while trying to build a road through the valley. The outpost was named after a platoon medic who was killed two months into the deployment.

Junger says he lost count of the number of times he came under fire during the five months he spent in the region. A bomb went off under the Humvee in which he was travelling during his third trip to the valley, in January 2008. Another day during patrol, he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Fear was part of life in the Korengal, he admits.

"The worst feelings were before big operations where you thought it might not go very well and certainly the night before, trying to fall asleep and not being able to," says Junger, whose books include bestseller "The Perfect Storm."

"There were these thoughts in your head. There was one guy out there who said, 'Some of the scariest stuff was stuff that never happens but that we worry about."'

Junger notes Hetherington broke his leg in combat while coming down a ridge where soldiers took a lot of casualties. The photographer was forced to walk all night so as not to endanger the rest of the platoon.

"Tim and I were very, very conscious to not do anything that jeopardized anybody," says Junger.

"Which meant not slowing down on patrols - God forbid that you can't keep up - not asking them to do anything that they weren't doing anyway. You would never say, 'Hey, can you take us up to that hilltop right there so we can get a better shot of the valley?' No, you can't do that because you don't know what's going to happen. And if you get attacked and someone gets hit and someone gets killed, it's your fault."

Junger's experiences were also turned into a book, "War," and he says there's talk of turning the more-detailed chronicle into a feature film.

"Restrepo" won the top documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Shortly afterwards, the U.S. military withdrew from the Korengal Valley after spending roughly five years in the region. Junger notes the military blew up the soldier's hard-won outpost Restrepo on their way out and says the soldiers were very upset to see the footage on YouTube.

While the film assumes an impassive tone in its look at the military operation, Junger is blunt in criticizing the former Bush administration for failing to dedicate more resources to the region.

"The Korengal is not important. The U.S. could win the war and never tame the Korengal Valley or conversely they could tame the Korengal and lose the war," says Junger.

"We had a country that was very grateful to be rid of the Taliban and we were deaf to that. ... We just walked away."

Junger likened the most recent partial U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to the 1989 decision to abruptly stop supporting the local mujahedeen, when the Soviets ended their 10-year occupation. Many critics consider that decision to be the one that fostered years of civil war in Afghanistan and eventually gave rise to the Taliban.

"We pulled out of Afghanistan twice now - after the Soviets left, we withdrew our support ... and let that country implode on itself. And in the aftermath, in that implosion was created the Taliban, and al-Qaida found a save haven in Afghanistan and we did it all over again. We defeated those people and then we walked away again."

"Restrepo" came out in Toronto Friday, and is expected to be screened in other Canadian cities.

Organizations: U.S. Army, Taliban, Al-Qaida

Geographic location: U.S., Afghanistan, Korengal Valley TORONTO Pakistan Bosnia Liberia Sierra Leone

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