Photograph by Tim Hetherington
From May 2007 to July 2008, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed in the remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan—considered one of the most dangerous postings of the war. The soldiers of Second Platoon built and manned a remote and strategic outpost that they named Restrepo in honor of their medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action. This is their story, in their words, of a group of men who came be considered the “tip of the spear” for America's efforts in that area.
In the last five years the Korengal Valley—a rugged valley six miles long near the border with Pakistan—has become an epicenter of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was considered to be a crucial relay point for Taliban fighters moving from Pakistan toward Kabul, and several top al Qaeda leaders were thought to have used it as a base of operations. In 2005, Taliban fighters cornered a four-man Navy SEAL team in the Korengal and killed three of them, then shot down a helicopter that was sent to save them. All 16 American commandos onboard died.
By the end of 2007, almost one-fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan was taking place in the Korengal. The fighting was on foot and it was deadly, and the zone of American control moved hilltop by hilltop, ridge by ridge, a hundred yards at a time. There was literally no safe place in the Korengal; men have been shot while asleep in their barracks. To date, close to 50 American soldiers have lost their lives there.
Recording Combat, Boredom, Terror
Starting in June 2007, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger dug in with the men of Second Platoon, making a total of ten trips to the Korengal on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News. Each trip started with a helicopter flight into the main firebase in the valley and then a two-hour foot patrol out to Restrepo. There was no running water at Restrepo, no Internet, no phone communication, and for a while, there was no electricity or heat—it was essentially just sandbags and ammo. Some days the outpost was attacked three or four times from distances as close as 50 yards.
Hetherington and Junger—sometimes working together, sometimes alone—did everything the soldiers did except pull guard duty and shoot back during firefights. They slept alongside the soldiers, ate with them, survived the boredom and the heat and the cold and the flies with them, went on patrol with them, and eventually came to be considered virtually part of the platoon. By the end of the deployment, they had shot a total of 150 hours of combat, boredom, humor, terror, and daily life at the outpost.
Conditions for filmmaking couldn’t have been harsher. The surrounding mountains rose to a height of 10,000 feet—which was traversed on foot. Long operations meant carrying enough camera batteries to last a week or more, on top of the 50 or so pounds of gear required on even ordinary patrols. Cameras got smashed into rocks, clogged with dirt, and hit with shell cartridges during firefights.
Men were killed and wounded during filming, so there was a constant issue of when it was OK to turn on the cameras and when it was not. Only the filmmakers’ close relationships with the men of the platoon allowed them to keep shooting in situations where other journalists might have been told to stop.
Three months after the end of the deployment, Hetherington and Junger traveled to Vicenza, Italy, where the unit is based. They used two VariCams, a full light and sound package, and two cameramen to conduct in-depth interviews with their main characters.
These interviews—initially considered a kind of glue for the verité and a way to avoid outside narration—wound up being some of the most powerful and affecting material of the entire project. The soldiers were able to allow themselves a level of emotion and introspection that is simply not possible in combat.
Interview With Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
How did you come across this particular assignment? What brought you there? Why did it appeal to you?
Sebastian Junger: We were on assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News. After an embed with Battle Company in 2005, I’d had the idea of following one platoon for an entire deployment and both writing a book and making a documentary about their experience.
We hear the initial reactions of the soldiers upon learning that they’ve been assigned to the Korengal Valley. What was your first impression of Korengal?
SJ: When I stepped off the helicopter in June ’07 I was stunned by the ruggedness of the terrain—and the beauty. Then again, I didn’t have to spend a year there, and I assumed the fighting would be minimal, which of course it wasn’t.
What kind of advice or protection did the soldiers offer you while you were shooting? Did you receive any training or safety guidelines prior to shipping out?
SJ: They knew Tim and I had been in plenty of wars before this, so they didn’t really offer any advice. Once or twice during combat I was advised where good cover was (it depends on what direction they’re shooting from).
Did you take turns with the camera?
Tim Hetherington: We each had a camera and filmed more or less of our own volition. If I was busy taking stills, Sebastian would make sure to cover the camerawork. There were scenes where we were both shooting, and we would divide things up in a crude manner—I’d take the wides, he’d take the tights, or I’d shoot the Afghans while he shot the Americans.
What limits were placed on your access?
TH: No limits at all on access—none. There was a stated agreement that we would not shoot wounded American soldiers—or would get their OK later—and I think there was an understanding that we would be very sensitive about filming the dead. The Army asks to review a rough cut later for security and privacy concerns, but they had no issues.
Did you stay the entire duration of their deployment?
TH: No, we did five trips each, sometimes together, sometimes not. Each trip lasted around a month.
How much footage was shot? Did you ship footage back as you went along?
SJ: We shot 150 hours of footage, and we’d bring our footage back on each trip and copy it and log it. We also shot around 40 hours of interviews at the soldiers’ base in Italy about three months after the deployment.
Who are these soldiers? Did you get any distinct impressions of them, where they came from, why they were there?
TH: No one had followed a platoon for an entire duration of [its] deployment, so we became incredibly close to many of the soldiers. They came from a variety of backgrounds and had joined the Army for a myriad of competing reasons. Some said they needed to get out of their parents’ home and saw the Army as offering them independence; others [said] that they were seeking a rite of passage and new experiences. Many didn't think they had many options open to them and saw the Army as the best opportunity on offer. They came from all over the U.S.—many from Texas and California, others from faraway places like Guam.
What kind of dynamic did you have with your subjects?
SJ: Each trip the dynamic got more and more relaxed and comfortable. It became clear to the soldiers that we were not doing a political story and that we were comfortable in that environment—and that we were willing to take the same risks they were and endure the same discomforts. Tim broke his leg in combat; I ripped my Achilles tendon. Then I got blown up, but none of those things kept us from going back out there.
After being under fire for a sustained period, how would you describe the effect it has on you? Did you notice any change in the soldiers over the course of your time with them?
SJ: Both of us have been war reporters for some time now, so this was not our first experience being shot at. Being in a combat zone can be both exhilarating and terrifying, combined with long stretches of boredom. Things appear very simple in a war zone as the clutter of daily living recedes with the larger equation of being killed or staying alive. Mix this with being drip-fed adrenalin, and inevitably it's going to make “coming back” incredibly difficult. I think this is something that the soldiers experienced, and to a lesser extent we also.
In one scene, we see a soldier making small talk during serious acts of war. It’s quite affecting. Why did you choose to include it? Were there other moments like this that struck you?
TH: There's a great emphasis in war reporting on capturing the actual “bang-bang” fighting of war—and many reporters feel that any work would be incomplete without a sense of this “action.” We were no different, but because there was an incredible amount of fighting going on in the Korengal Valley, recording the actual firefights got quite boring. What was infinitely more interesting and revealing was how the soldiers carried on in these situations. People who haven't experienced war inevitably base their understanding of it [on] the mediated versions of news or Hollywood. These representations are often limited and can't quite reveal the humor, boredom, and confusion inherent in combat. It's something we felt was important to represent.
The film shows how multifaceted the role of the captain is with respect to his team and the village—being able not only to advance the military goal but also having to communicate the humanitarian aspects too. Were there any dynamics that you hadn’t anticipated that you were especially glad to have captured?
SJ: I was unprepared for just how smart and dedicated the officers were, and many of the enlisted men as well. I was also amazed by how open and welcoming they were with us, the press. It was not what I had anticipated.
Were there any interactions with the village people or elders that you wish you could have included in the film?
TH: There were many, many scenes of all types that we were heartbroken not to include in the film. There were very funny moments in the shuras—the meetings with the elders—and also very intense moments when someone was very angry. There were several scenes of locals saying how much they hated the Taliban and gave up information on them, and other scenes where they clearly hated the Americans and wanted them to leave. All of it shows the complexity of this kind of war, but we couldn’t put everything into the movie.
The film is very balanced and doesn’t lead the viewer but rather shows it how it is. Did you have any guiding principles about how and what you shot as well as how you edited and shaped the film ultimately?
SJ: We were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well … and prevented us from using an outside narrator.
TH: It was a conscious choice. We are journalists, and as such, we are not supposed to “lead” people to a certain opinion. That is called advocacy, and it certainly has its special place in the media world, but as journalists, it’s not something we wanted to engage in.
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