Yesterday flights of F-16s buzzed my neighborhood twice - just
before the Red Sox game and at the start of the Esplanade concert - the earsplitting roar giving Bostonians a
slight taste of business as usual for our troops serving in Afghanistan. For
more of the same take a look at journalist/author Sebastian Junger and
photographer Tim Hetherington's documentary
"Restrepo," an account of
some 14 months they spent with a unite of elite airbourne troops on the title
base high in the Korengal mountains on the Pakistan border, perhaps the
deadliest piece of real estate on the planet.
I got a chance to talk with Junger on the phone a couple of weeks
ago. You might recall him as the author of the 1997 bestseller "The Perfect
Storm" about the loss of a Gloucester
tuna boat during the title blow, later made into a Wolfgang Petersen movie in
2000 starring George Clooney, who might well play the part when the biopic of
Junger's own life is finally put together. The guy has a Hemingwayesque drive
for confronting extreme experiences and writing about them.
In the past decade he's put in time in various war zones and
killing fields from Bosnia
to Liberia to Sierra Leone as well as Afghanistan and
written articles in "Vanity Fair" and
other publications about it. This is his first movie, and you can gain an insight
into the advantages and limitations of prose versus cinema by comparing "Restrepo"
with Junger's book on the same subject, "War." (What an interesting idea! Maybe I should ask about that, he says pedantically.)
PK: The whole [General] McChrystal [interview and resignation] thing
must seem a little serendipitous. Do you think that the film will have a
special relevance now with this controversy?
SB: I don't know if it's special relevance. I mean definitely
focusing the media on Afghanistan,
I mean McChrystal wasn't even in yet when I was over there. In that sense it's
not relevant. But it's definitely bringing the war into the public
conversation. I think it had been absorbed by the BP disaster for a while, and
now it's back on Afghanistan.
It's such a critical, critical story. And it can play out in so many bad ways.
And it's probably good that whatever it took, McChrystal or whatever, it's good
that it's back on the center of the table again.
PK: It never really was since 2001. Then it was off to Iraq for the
next 7 years. It was really the war that nobody cared to talk about.
SJ: Yeah. I've been traveling to Afghanistan
since 1996 to report, and in 2001 I was with the Northern Alliance, and the
people in Kabul
were just overjoyed. Apparently 90% of Afghans in 2002 approved of the American
military actions in Afghanistan.
They saw it as a way out from under the oppression of the Taliban. They hated
the Taliban. It was completely squandered because we left a few thousand troops
there. [By comparison] There's 40,000 cops in NYC. It wasn't going to work; the
Afghans knew it wasn't going to work. I think a lot of their ambivalence about
partnering with us, it didn't stem so much from an ambivalence about us, it was
they couldn't believe the low level of focus in the wake of 9/11 that merited [only]
15,000 troops in Afghanistan. I think that literally blew their minds. For me
it's such a wasted opportunity. It's really tragic for them and for us.
PK: We're also kind of responsible for getting into that
situation in the first place. But you said that you don't want any politics to
detract from the immediacy of the movie.
SJ: I mean, we would have been happy to have politics in there
had the soldiers been political about it. But they're not. Our sort of
self-given mandate, or focus, our assignment for this movie was to make a movie
that shows what it's like to be a soldier in combat. Period. So the camera
never leaves the sides of the soldiers. If there were situations where the
soldiers were asking generals, "Sir, what are we doing here?" that would have
been in the movie, absolutely. But they didn't do that, so we didn't do that.
Likewise for the political conversation, if they sat around talking about the
Bush Administration, Iraq, the wider war, the human cost of war - that kind of
thing -all very legitimate conversations, had they had those kinds of
conversations they would have been in the movie. But they didn't and so those
topics didn't come up.
PK: Were you surprised by that?
SJ: Not really. I've covered cops, I've covered firemen, I've
covered forest firefighters - people on the ground doing a hard job can't and
they really don't focus on the big picture. In my mind, I'm also surprised that
people apply an expectation to the soldiers that they don't for the police,
like it's the same thing. And no one's surprised that the police don't sit
around and don't talk about socioeconomic conditions.
PK: You had 150 hours of film and you had to reduce it to 94
minutes. What were some of your guiding principles if there was no real
political thesis involved?
SJ: Our guiding principles, there were two of them. One I sort of
mentioned is that the movie can't contain anything that isn't part of the
soldiers' reality. No interviews with generals, because they couldn't do that.
We wanted to understand what it's like to be a soldier. That's it. In some
ways, for the purpose of this, I mean I've studied Afghanistan, I know more about it
than I'm admitting in the film. But for the purpose of the film we didn't want
to cloud the film with our understanding of the big picture, because they
weren't doing that. That was our first guiding principle.
The other is in doing the edit. I mean, look, with 150 hours you
can say anything. You can make those guys look like monstrous killers, you can
make them look like noble patriots; you can really send any message you want.
Our guiding principle was, in watching the movie, are we experiencing the same
feelings, the same emotions, that we had at the time when we were out there? As
long as there was an emotional concordance between the experience we had with
them and what it feels like for us to watch the movie in the edit room, we felt
like we were on the right track. There were scenes we attempted that were kind
of clever, maybe a little cliché, but it was a familiar cliché that people
respond to, or whatever, and we put these scenes together, and it would feel a
little bit false, even though it was actual footage that we had shot out there,
sometimes you can construct footage in different ways and it would feel false,
so we would get rid of those scenes.
PK: How is this different than putting together a book? You also
have a book about the same experience.
SJ: Yes, I have a book called "War."
Words and visuals are
powerful in completely different ways. With words you can explore ideas. In a
film you can't explore ideas really unless you are formally interviewing people
outside of the topic, and you know maybe interviewing a psychologist about how
fear works or something like that. Great, no problem for a documentary, it just
wasn't our documentary. They compliment each other in the sense that being in a
cinema, a dark cinema with a loud sound system and a big screen is a completely
immersive experience. No one jumps when they read a sentence that includes,
"and then the mortars exploded." People do jump when they hear a mortar go off
in a movie. One is sort of attacking your nervous system at very basic, primal
level. The other is engaging your mind at a much more intellectual level.
That's the human brain right there. I feel that the two compliment each other
in the sense that they're engaging two very separate, but very necessary parts
of the human brain.
PK: For example early in the film when you're cruising around in
a Humvee and all of a sudden something happens. That's the difference between
the printed page and cinema. I noticed that in the book that happens later in
your stay there than when it happens in the film. Is there a reason for that
change in chronology?
SJ: Yeah, I mean you don't have much room in a film to explain
things. You have 94 minutes. You make decisions, I mean you can't violate any
timelines that are crucial to historical accuracy. But that IED was one of many
that went off in Kunar
Province, and it was a
constant threat. And what we needed to do with the audience immediately was to
engage them on a very raw, violent, emotional level. So we opened the movie
with that. Initially we had it in the middle of the movie, where roughly it
occurred in the timeline, and it threw the structure off so badly it didn't
work. It made for this awful, clunky narrative. We were just gonna lose the
footage altogether. And then I just thought, what if we start with it? And
because it's disconnected from battle company anyway, it seemed like a fair
enough way to open the movie.
PK: Would you say that this was one of the most harrowing
experiences that you've had?
SJ: No, not even close. I was among friends out there, which is
incredibly psychologically so much easier. I'm with a platoon of US infantry, I
completely trusted them, we were friends. Everything that happened to me was
happening to everyone around me. There was an incredible sense of group safety.
Not that I didn't get scared out there, I mean everybody did. What
psychologically was extremely hard to deal with is the sense of incredible
vulnerability you have when you're all alone in, for example, and African civil
war. But even the guys that you're with, you know they're drugged out
15-year-olds with AK-47s, and you can't really trust them. That to me is the
stuff of nightmares. I really don't have the nerve for it. Compared to that,
this was not that bad.
PK: So you'd go back to the base in Afghanistan,
but you wouldn't go back, for example, to Liberia during a civil war?
SJ: I'd go back to Restrepo in a heartbeat. It's hard to
calculate danger. I'm not saying one is more or less dangerous than the other.
But psychologically it is extremely hard to be the lone white reporter in an
African civil war with African soldiers, half of whom think you're an American
spy. I've had so many bad situations over there. I've had people come up and
poke me in the chest with a finger and say "I'm gonna kill you later." To me,
PK: That's a different kind of adrenaline rush than what you
experienced in Afghanistan.
SJ: That's not even adrenaline. That's like being injected with
poison. You just go kind of toxic and weak in the knees. I had real trouble
keeping my fight after that.
NEXT: War is a force that gives 19-year-olds' lives meaning.