From Hollywood to Afghanistan and back, Sebastian Junger has written through storms, war, and violent crime. He saw his seminal account of a doomed fishing boat, “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea,” become a movie starring George Clooney. His 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Restrepo” grew out of his time embedded with a U.S. platoon during heavy fighting in the Afghan war.
Junger spoke with Fusion’s Jorge Ramos about his latest documentary, “Korengal,” a sequel to “Restrepo” that Junger says is focused on “the experience of war and how it affects people.”
These themes surfaced during the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl over the weekend. Bergdahl was the only known U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan. He had been captured by insurgents and held for nearly five years before his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for brokering such a deal, arguing that it flies in the face of a long-held U.S. stance against negotiating with terrorists. White House officials countered that Bergdahl’s health may have been deteriorating and that his value as the only American P.O.W. from the Afghan war made the swap timely and worthwhile.
“Every war ends with a negotiation. Every war ends with a conversation,” Junger told Ramos from Los Angeles. He said that he is sure the U.S. has been talking to insurgents and Taliban leaders for years about how to move on from years of violent conflict.
Junger observed that, just like winning the war on crime is a false goal, it doesn’t make sense to consider whether the U.S. has won the war in Afghanistan, though Osama bin Laden and his network have been “decimated” by U.S. military operations since 9/11. Junger also pointed to the condition of Afghanistan before the war. “[Afghanistan] really no longer is a rogue state or failed nation,” he said, adding that considerable challenges certainly remain. “Al Qaeda are the only ones not in better shape.”
Junger knows the experiences of war all too well. His “Restrepo” co-director Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 covering the Libyan civil war, and “Korengal” is cut from leftover footage that Junger had been reluctant to revisit after his collaborator’s death. Convinced that the extra tape could tell a story of war’s human impact and that it could help former soldiers reacclimate and civilians help them cope, Junger decided to confront his emotions in the hope of alleviating others’ pain. This film trades the combat-focused, first-person viewpoint of “Restrepo” for a lens on war and humanity.
“War expands your capacity for compassion and understanding,” Junger said. “I never really knew what human suffering was until I went to war. It doesn’t really harden you. It breaks you open.”
Junger discussed what makes the transition for soldiers and their communities so difficult. On why soldiers could ever miss war, Junger described “two very powerful drugs” that war offers – adrenaline and human connection. In addition to the “bureaucratic issue” of properly caring for soldiers, laid bare by the recent Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, Junger said that a more “metaphysical, existential” transition must be made to “go from sleeping with twenty guys on a small patch of ground to sleeping in an air-conditioned room.”
“Korengal” just opened in New York, and HBO will air Junger’s next film “The Last Patrol” this fall. After that, don’t look for Junger to continue his war journalism, if he can help it. As he told the New York Times, “There’s every reason for a 30-year-old man to be intrigued and stimulated by war. But I’m 52, and war has cost me a certain amount at this point.”