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‘Korengal’ takes us inside the minds of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan

Sebastian Junger’s new documentary “Korengal” has a riveting scene that focuses on Brendan O’Byrne, a former U.S. Army sergeant in the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. As a member of the Second Platoon, O’Byrne helped man a remote outpost named Restrepo, in honor of a medic of the same name who was killed in action in the desolate Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan.

Sitting in front of a camera after returning from deployment to a base in Italy, O’Byrne makes the following confession: “I’m not religious or anything, but I felt like there was hate for me, because I did … sins. And although I would have done it the same way, everything the same way, I still feel this way. That’s the terrible thing with war. You do terrible things, then you have to live with them afterwards. But you’d do it the same way if you had to go back.”

During a recent visit to Austin to promote the movie’s opening here Friday, Junger says he thinks O’Byrne “is using God as a metaphor for how he sees himself. You’re brought up being taught that the greatest sin is to take a life. And then off we go to do exactly that, and I think it’s awfully confusing to them. Not all of them, but some of them. They all get amped up in combat, and on some level, they all question the morality of what they’ve done. But with Brendan, it spills out.”

That’s only part of the scene, however, as O’Byrne begins to let more feelings come to the surface. He goes on to discuss a litany of troubles and expresses resentment over hearing people say: “You did what you had to do.”

It’s a conversation stopper.

“Brendan feels that’s how civilians react when they decide to not take responsibility for the war they elected to have,” Junger says. “They don’t want to engage with what the soldiers did on their behalf. By saying, ‘You did what you had to do,’ they’re saying that they don’t need to think about this anymore.”

As Junger’s comments show, he doesn’t think soldiers have that luxury. And he’s trying to do something quite different in “Korengal” than he did with 2010’s “Restrepo.” Both movies are based on footage shot in 2007 and 2008, when Junger and the late photographer Tim Hetherington lived in camp with the soldiers in Afghanistan.

“‘Restrepo’ is a visceral film that lets audiences experience combat indirectly. There’s no musical score, no interviews with generals, no news footage. You’re really stuck on that hill with those guys for 90 minutes,” Junger says. “‘Korengal’ is a bit more of an inquiry into the experience of combat and its effects on young men. So there are sections about courage, what that means, what actually happens during a firefight on a patrol, fear and how it works, and why they miss war. It’s an attempt to understand the effects and consequences of combat.”

When making “Restrepo,” Junger says, “we were keenly aware of this amazing amount of material that we couldn’t put into the movie, because we weren’t making a five-hour film. And a couple of years after Tim died in Libya,” in April 2011 while on assignment, executive producer Nick Quested “urged me to go back to the material. (Junger and Hetherington had shot 150 hours of footage.) It was exactly as I remembered it, with incredible scenes and powerful interviews with the soldiers. I just thought there really is a film in here.”

And that’s how “Korengal” came about.

Junger says he’s interested to see how the general public reacts.

“With ‘Restrepo,’ people saw what they wanted to see,” Junger says. “Pacifists saw an anti-war movie. Conservatives saw a patriotic movie. Soldiers saw a nonpolitical movie about them. It was really interesting. Everyone saw what they wanted to see, which is cool. To me, that’s a compliment.”

But Junger thinks “Korengal” will get a more complicated response, “because there are a couple of scenes that make people uncomfortable.” One of those, he says, is the interview with O’Byrne, which Junger predicts might unsettle conservative attitudes toward war.

The other, he says, is a scene where “soldiers are whooping it up during a firefight,” clearly getting a thrill out of combat. “I know liberals very well, and that scene just makes their skin crawl, which is why it’s in there. One journalist in L.A. said to me, ‘What meaning are we supposed to take from that scene?’ And I said it’s that soldiers get an adrenaline rush from combat. And she was upset because she thought I was justifying or advocating it by putting that footage in the film.”

But it’s “absolutely true” that many soldiers miss war, Junger says. “I think combat soldiers get habituated to the feeling of urgency and meaningfulness. I think they become a little bit dependent on the adrenaline of combat. And I think they become habituated to the incredible level of intimacy with their fellow soldiers. They find that being in a group like that in combat is less frightening than being on their own in society back home.”

Although Junger says he’s through with covering wars after Hetherington’s death, he says he still feels somewhat like the soldiers do in “Korengal.”

“It was alarming how much I liked it out there. I mean it was hard. But I loved it for the same reasons that the soldiers did,” Junger says. “I really felt good to be part of a group like that, and there’s no email, no fights with a girlfriend, no bills to pay, nothing. None of that psychic static that you get in modern life was out there. Plus, I was very fond of those guys. They were very funny, and I miss them.”

Two of those soldiers, Michael Cunningham and Adrian Duiane, are scheduled to attend the 7:50 p.m. “Korengal” screening at the Arbor on Friday. Jeanne Arnold will moderate a Q&A.

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