Three years ago, journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded in Afghanistan with a platoon of the U.S. Army, and over the course of one year filmed soldiers on patrol, under attack and during the boredom in between. Junger talks about why he risked his life to make Restrepo, which opens this weekend.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Three years ago, journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded in Afghanistan with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army. The unit was stationed in a mountainous region near the border with Pakistan called the Korengal Valley, and over the course of ten months Junger and Hetherington filmed soldiers on patrol, under attack and during the boredom in between. No snappy dialogue, no witty banter in the heat of battle, the men we see set up camp, meet local elders, trade machine gun fire with the Taliban, sit around playing guitar, get injured and die. The full fog of war was on display when the platoon learns that they may have accidentally killed and wounded Afghan civilians, including children.
[CLIP FROM RESTREPO]:
[COMMENTS IN AFGHANI LANGUAGE]
INTERPRETER: He said that there is five guys already dead and ten of — ten of the females and kids already, so they are injured, you know? Show me w - which of them is the Taliban? There is no Taliban.
[VOICES IN BACKGROUND]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film called Restrepo after a fallen platoon member, opened this week in New York and Los Angeles. Sebastian Junger who directed and produced the movie with Hetherington says the unit's mission was to help bring security to the Valley.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Korengal was being used as a base by insurgents, a sort of way point on the trail, literally a foot trail from Pakistan towards Kabul. Also, you know from the Korengal insurgents were attacking the Pech River Valley. It's a big population center, a big mobility corridor. And so, when they put these small bases into the Korengal, it stopped the attacks on the Pech, so that actually was a sort of important effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you show up with a camera. Other than that, you're basically carrying the same gear as the other soldiers. But what did it take for them to get over their natural suspicion of you?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I did 5 one-month trips and my partner Tim Hetherington also did 5 one-month trips. Sometimes we were together, sometimes not. The first trip, you know they were polite, they were a little reserved. We got into a pretty good firefight, and after that I showed them the video that I'd shot. They'd never seen themselves in combat before. That was a nice moment. By the second trip, I tore my Achilles tendon on a patrol and had to sort of crawl and limp through the next four weeks. Tim broke his leg in combat and had to walk all night on a broken leg to get down off this mountain. If he'd been a crybaby about it, he really would have endangered the platoon; there was no other way of getting him out of there. And then I got blown up in a Humvee that got blown up. None of us were injured physically but it made an impression on me. You know after all that experience together I was friends with those guys. And they really stopped thinking of me as a journalist, I think, in the negative sense, and started to think of me as kind of a sort of weird person in the platoon that wasn't carrying a gun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the first half of the movie the platoon is hunkered down on a hill overlooking the Valley, in an outpost they built themselves called Outpost Restrepo, after the name of a fallen friend, and then Operation Rock Avalanche, the low point in their 15-month deployment.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Rock Avalanche was the low point in the sense that they took a lot of casualties. They went down into a essentially enemy-held village called Yaka China, looking for weapons caches and insurgent groups, and then they moved onto the Abas Ghar Ridge, and they were attacked by enemy fighters that had crept into the American lines whispering on their radios 'cause they were so close. The Americans couldn't figure out why the Taliban were whispering on their radios, and later they realized because they were, you know 50 feet away behind some rocks. Tim was right there. He's got footage of all of this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The anguish of one soldier when he becomes aware of the death of Sergeant Larry Rougle it's, it's heartbreaking.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yeah, an American position got overrun and Sergeant Rougle was the scout leader, and one of his men realized that his scout leader was killed and just broke down sobbing.
[CLIP FROM RESTREPO]
[SEVERAL AT ONCE][SOLDIER CRYING]
SOLDIER: There was nothing we could do.
SOLDIER: Where’s everybody else?
SOLDIER: Hey, we got guys, we got friendlies here — a friendly source —
[SOLDIERS TALKING IN BACKGROUND]
SOLDIER: Two-six, two-six, two-three.
SOLDIER: [CRYING] — right man.
SOLDIER: Battle six Romeo this is two-six. Right now we have the hilltop.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: A very, very intense, traumatic, traumatic moment. But, you know these guys are really well trained, and he sobbed for a couple of minutes, and then he straightened up and became operational again and, you know he was a soldier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't see graphic images of the casualties. Is that a choice you made or, you know, part of the embedding agreement or a request from the soldiers themselves?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: The U.S. military has a very light hand in terms of what you can put in your work as a journalist. You can't compromise security, obviously, and there are issues of privacy with wounded soldiers. There's actually no mention in the contract that you have with the U.S. military of filming dead American soldiers, but graphic images of an American soldier who's identifiable by his family would be so traumatic, so painful that, at least for me, that's sort of the first thing I thought of when we tried to evaluate, okay, how do we show the violence of this scene without adding additional trauma to the people who love this guy who died.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did your personal engagement with the platoon have an impact — it had to have — on what you filmed? You know did you think maintaining any kind of level of detachment was important in the situation?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It's such complex territory. I mean, to get the film we wanted we had to become part of that platoon, so that we were not seen as outsiders by the men. But you have to remember that we were not trying to make a political film, we were not trying to evaluate the overall war morally, politically, strategically. There are other great journalists who are doing a great job doing those things. What we wanted to do was to capture what it's like to be a soldier in combat in the U.S. military. Our guiding principle was we would limit ourselves to what the soldiers had access to. We didn't interview any generals 'cause they can't. We didn't talk to the families because the families were not part of what was happening out there. We didn't even have an outside narration to explain to viewers what was happening because there was no narrator in the Korengal Valley as the story was unfolding. Our objective was extremely narrow, which is to understand their emotional experience. Their emotional experience is completely subjective. They're not stepping outside of themselves to understand the Taliban. So, you know we didn't either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One scene that struck me as stunning, weirdly, was when one soldier was setting up a very heavy gun, having this conversation with this other soldier on a radio who's asking him about the ranch he lives on. It's this — strange juxtaposition of charming dumb conversation with this awesome weapon and the prospect of death looming over them. It was crazy.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: The weapon was called a Mark 19. It's an automatic grenade launcher. And he was on a radio talking to his buddy in the next guard position, which was, you know 15 feet away.
SOLDIER: Your family has a ranch?
SOLDIER: Of course.
SOLDIER: Like cows and pigs and chickens and horses ranch?
SOLDIER: Like what kind of ranch then?
[SOUNDS OF SETTING UP LAUNCHER]
SOLDIER It's like a, a ranch just with like land, you know, with gates and stuff and trucks and what-not, you know —
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: These guys were up on that hilltop for a year. They had no television. They had no internet. They had nothing. All they had was each other and combat. So they became very good at entertaining each other, the wonderful old human tradition of conversation and humor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The soldiers talk about the ultimate high that they feel at one point and how they'll never be able to duplicate it stateside.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the adrenalin is definitely a component, and it's the most obvious component. So it gets discussed the most, even by the soldiers. But what they really missed, and this came out later in interviews with them, what they really missed wasn't so much getting shot at. Getting shot at is terrifying. The soldiers get scared just like journalists do. Adrenalin isn't really ultimately the issue. It is the sense of being necessary. These guys are 19. They're 20. Back home they're not necessary. They're another teenager walking down the street looking for a job. They're at the bottom of the food chain. Over there, they have social status, they have respect. They're part of a small unit. That sense of belonging is literally intoxicating to young men, and it can't be achieved back home, even on the football team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've actually spent more time in war zones than the soldiers you covered.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I was in more combat than those guys had been when they got there, for sure. I started in Bosnia. I was in Kosovo and Liberia, Sierra Leone. My first trip to Afghanistan was 1996. In all those wars I'd been with militias. This was the first time I'd been with a professional Army that had very clear rules of engagement. They understood the consequences of violating those rules of engagement. It was a completely different experience. I mean, it's like comparing a street gang to the police.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Herr in Dispatches — it's a memoir about covering Vietnam — and he wrote that some of the soldiers were very warm and friendly, but some of them hated him. And he imagined that they thought why would you be here, why would you treat your life so casually? We have to be here.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, the difference is that the soldiers in Afghanistan don't have to be there. They all volunteered. So they do understand the personal decision involved in sending yourself to a war zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Explain it to me.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, it depends on who you are —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm talking about you.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It's important work. You know the wars that happen in the world are tragic, often unavoidable and I think almost always stoppable. And they get stopped when the press reports on the tragedy of it sufficiently to trigger international action. No one did anything about Liberia for years and finally U.S. forces stepped in and brought the war to a stop literally without firing a shot. Sierra Leone, likewise with the British SAS, they went in. They fought for about ten days. I don't think they lost one soldier, and they brought that war to a stop. Bosnia, the same thing in '95, NATO stopped that genocide, a quarter million civilians dead. All those wars were stopped in part because of press coverage. So if you're part of that endeavor that brings these stories to light and affects some change, for me it's just an incredible honor to be able to do that. And there's a risk and there's a reward, and I very carefully monitor those two levels 'cause I don't want them to get skewed. But there is some good that comes out of this work which is worth a certain amount of risk. And every person calculates those two levels personally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many more wars are you going to cover?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: You know, you can cover wars in different ways. You can cover wars and not get shot at. Or you can be with front line troops and understand what it's like on the front line. I don't think I'm going to do that again. Every trip I did out there with those guys, something very bad almost happened to me. And I really had the feeling that I was just kind of spinning the chambers on the revolver over and over again. I didn't — I don't want to do that anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian Junger is co-director with Tim Hetherington of the documentary Restrepo, which opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide the following weekend.
SOLDIER: I want you guys to mourn, and then I want you guys to get over it and do your jobs. Okay?