“Afghanistan will not be a perfect place and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
“Pretty much every day, we got in a firefight, every single day somebody was trying to kill us, our friends were getting shot next to us, people lost their arms, lost their legs. We had our friends get killed,” says Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin. “And then you’re thinking in your head, ‘I got another ten fucking months to go.’ Like pretty much, I never thought I was going to make it out of the Valley alive.”
The Valley is Korengal, also known as the “Valley of Death” in Afghanistan, site of a US outpost established in 2006 and abandoned in 2010. Sebastian Junger’s film Korengal revisits the location and the men who appeared in the documentary he made with Tim Hetherington, Restrepo. While he was there, Misha says, he tried to think of someplace else, someplace peaceful. And now that he’s home, he thinks about the Valley, the men he knew, their shared traumas and losses.
“I’d rather be there than here,” he says. As you may remember from the first film, Misha has an especially youthful face, round and pink, his cheeks shiny and his eyes blue. And so his yearning to return to war, his nostalgia for the sense of connection and purpose he felt in Afghanistan, is at least a little distressing.
It’s also understandable, as Korengal goes on to illustrate. Revisiting interviews and footage shot for the first film, Junger here selects pieces that speak to the ordeal of coming home. Some of the in country imagery is as familiar as it is harrowing, young men under fire, pointing out or embodying the stress of combat, their faces strained and their weapons at the ready or in use.
Most of the men recall or describe their situations, the extreme shifts between boredom and overexcitement, the essential paradox of their environment. Kyle Steiner recalls getting off the helicopter the first time and immediately being shot at: “From a distance, beautiful” he says, “The bullets came in, fuck this place. I want to go home.” Or again, as Brendan O’Byrne puts it, “This place could be the lord’s heaven if they’d just stop shooting at us, you know”). Long shots of the mountains and the mist, the rocky steppes, reinforce these descriptions, alongside close shots of men ducking gunfire or setting up their own sniper positions. “You learn to love your weapon,” offer Misha.
Along with their material world, their survival moment to moment, the men think about what’s at stake. Some respond to questions concerning definitions of abstractions, like “bravery” (“Someone who goes out of their way despite the very likely potential of dying”) or a “biggest fear” (“Getting someone else killed”). Dan Kearney contemplates the difficult balance they have to strike between befriending and not trusting locals. “The more people hate you,” he says, “the greater chance you’re not coming out of this thing alive.” Thus, he reasons, kicking down villagers’ doors in search of ordinance or enemies can be counterproductive.
One sequences shows Kearney meeting with village elders, men who express their outrage. “What happens when the Americans leave?” asks one. And while they troops are here, how can anyone know which is the greater threat, the Americans or the Taliban? “Can these children defend themselves against two countries?”
Other interviews bring up other sorts of balance, other sorts of reasoning. “I get plenty of shit over here being the only black dude,” says Sterling Jones as he’s waiting with his gun ready, serving as sentry for his fellows. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, it’s all in good fun. You run across some guys out here, they might not admit it to my face, they may not say it if they think anybody’s listening, but they’ll tell you they don’t like me, I guarangoddamntee it. But at the same time, I bet there’s not a one of them that would say, ‘I wouldn’t take him in a firefight.’”
But if war makes for strong bonding and assertions of loyalty, it can also make for troubled aftermath, and that’s the complicated focus of Korengal. For, following the images from Afghanistan and the memories, reflections on how they came to be soldiers or what it might mean to them now that they’re here and not there. Here Brendan O’Byrne’s reflection is especially sobering. In a lingering, no-distractions close-up, the format of all the post-tour interviews, he wonders how to live with what he’s done.
“For a while there, I started re-thinking, ‘God hates me.’ I’m not religious, but I did sins. Although I would have done it the same way, everything the same exact way, I still would feel this way. That’s the terrible thing of war, you know, you do terrible things, then you have to live with them afterwards, but you’ d do ‘em the same way if you have to go back.”
He’s bothered when people at home tell him he did what he “had to do.” For O’Byrne, that’s no absolution, much less resolution. “It’s like a fucking evil, evil thing inside your body,” he says, “That’s the hardest thing to deal with, you know, I didn’t have to do shit. I didn’t have to go in the Army, I didn’t have to become Airborne Infantry, I didn’t have to do any of that.”
This is the “hardest thing,” and the absolutely unavoidable thing of war. Young people make choices, and sometimes don’t, or don’t see all options, or make uninformed or necessary choices, out of financial or emotional need or social or political pressures. The choices to go to war are made elsewhere, by people who don’t share the stakes of these soldiers. And then they live with consequences.
For all the respect and homage that Korengal pays to its subjects, none can avoid this end. “What’s God going to say? ” O’Byrne asks, “You did what you had to do? Good job? Punch you on the fucking shoulder and say ‘Welcome to heaven’? I don’t think so.” He lives with this. Forever.