Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Into the Korengal Valley

With Authors/Directors Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington


Directors Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington at OP Restrepo in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

This evening, I was among a fortunate group of WVU students and faculty to attend a conversation with war correspondents Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington in conjunction with the university's ongoing Festival of Ideas. Junger is an award-winning journalist who is also the author of bestsellers such as The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont, and Fire. Hetherington is an acclaimed photojournalist whose newest book is Infidel, a collection of photos from his recent journeys to Afghanistan. These two men are most famous, however, for their new and compelling war documentary entitled Restrepo. In the short time since its release, it has been hailed as possibly one of the best and most honest chronicles of warfare. To top that off, the film has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. But, the directors, although nearly killed themselves of several occasions, insist the kudos go to the men of Battle Company - not them.

Junger and Hetherington embedded themselves with the Second Platoon, B ("Battle") Company, 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry unit. The filmmakers' quest was not to delve into the heated and highly contested politics or strategy of the Afghanistan situation, but to place viewers and readers into the mindset of what war is. The heart of the story rests in their chronicles at a secluded outpost (OP) called Restrepo (named in honor of the unit's medic, "Doc" Juan Restrepo, who was shot through the throat and died while desperately trying to tell his comrades how to save him). The outpost sat on perhaps the most contested piece of ground in all of Afghanistan. With no electricity or running water, the fifteen man garrison was rotated once per month. Junger reported this evening that the men encountered over 400 firefights within their first year alone, while their company (consisting of 150 men) casualty rate accounted for
twenty percent of the entire United Nations casualty totals. Needless to say, this was one of the most dangerous places in the entire world. Over forty U. S. servicemen perished in the Korengal (nicknamed "The Valley of Death") before American bases there closed in April 2010.


OP Restrepo: Dug out and built by hand with nothing more than picks, plywood, and Hesco barriers.

In this hostile environment, American forces faced two equally daunting battles. The first: to seek and destroy insurgents living within and around the valley located west of the province capital of Asadabad. The second task was winning the hearts and minds of local villagers so they would not support or shelter Al-Qaeda. Junger insists that America indeed "won" the Afghans over in 2001 and 2002 but subsequently lost them in 2003 when military focus was shifted to Iraq. 18,000 American troops were left in Afghanistan at this time. He contextualized this by stating, "I live in New York City. There are 40,000 police officers there." In other words, the troops were left greatly understrength. This situation is slowly reversing itself in some ways as UN and NATO forces continue to build up Afghanistan's infrastructure and educational systems. (Junger stated that 40% of Afghan students are now women.)

For the most part, however, the entire discussion this evening (much like the movie itself) was completely apolitical in nature. Bush Administration policy initiated in 2003 opened the door for correspondent participation in warfare not seen since Vietnam. This new agenda allowed for Junger and Hetherington to have wide access to Middle East battlefronts. Military transparency and cooperation was complete, they told the audience. While most reporters drift from one unit to another in their correspondent exploits, Junger and Hetherington survived with one sole unit on and off for a year's time. During that tour, the two men formed bonds with the inhabitants of Restrepo as if they themselves were combatants. The soldiers become open, honest, and even vulnerable Hetherington insisted. "Trust and brotherhood" were common virtues among the men at Restrepo. Junger's book based on these experiences, entitled
War, is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. He powerfully delves into the physical, psychological, and painful experiences entailed in all of these. Hetherington's photos serve as a backdrop to these major themes, capturing moments of violent intensity but also of innocence and camaraderie.


One of the film's first combat scenes and who OP Restrepo was named after.

I first saw this film several months ago when it became available on DVD. I was shocked, amazed, and enlightened by what I saw. From the very first scene of the film (in which I almost fell out of my chair while viewing), to the closing credits, one is left in awe and horror from the daily trials and tribulations of Battle Company. But none of these extreme scenes undercut the appreciation one gains of these men simply by watching the film. The soldiers are tattered, vulnerable, heroic, but human. (The most heartbreaking of these instances occurs during Operation Rock Avalanche. Here, a soldier is killed and we see his best friend break down in emotional hysteria on camera as a blood-soaked comrade consoles him.) The filmmakers succeed in making this film not about the politics or "big picture," but the human condition as it undergoes the most tumultuous of all circumstances. The tale depicted was simply extraordinary and powerful. For this reason and many more, scores of reporters asked the military for permission to embed themselves in the Korengal as word of Junger and Hetherington's exploits reached the press corps.

When I had the opportunity to pose a question to Junger and Hetherington, I noted how their style of reporting was very reminiscent to that of WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle in the manner that they connect the reader/viewer to the combatants at a highly intimate level. That said, I asked if a person or particular notion prompted them to embark on their journeys of depicting this level of warfare. Junger replied that we as Americans have never truly experienced warfare unless we've actually been there. While films like
Saving Private Ryan offer a visceral experience, it is still not the real thing. Few filmmakers had truly combined reality and emotion in conveying war. "I wanted to do both," he stated. And that he did. He continued that few phrases are more evocative than, "Our nation is in a state of war." It reverberates in almost all spheres of society. "I wanted to experience that war" for the sake of making people better understand it and the men who fight in it. I sat in my seat and thought, "That was one damn good answer."

Their discussion went back and forth with the audience. Among us were two veterans who expressed extreme gratitude for the work the two men have done in sharing the soldier's story. The directors agreed that the soldiers, in many ways, serve as both protectors and ambassadors to the people of these mountains. Several months after filming their initial footage, Junger and Hetherington interviewed the men in Italy before their next deployment to the Mid-East (all but one of the original soldiers depicted re-enlisted). Of these men, all expressed their willingness to return to Restrepo if asked to do so. This response is not simply about duty or obligation to country; its about the common, brotherly bonds one forms with their comrades in the face of psychological and physical destruction on the field of battle. And it is this which
Restrepo conveys best.

When Junger and Hetherington signed my copy of
War, I asked them to date it as well. "I want proof I met you only five days before you win your Oscars," I stated. Tune in this Sunday to see for yourself.

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