- By Douglas OllivantDouglas Ollivant is a managing partner of Mantid International and an ASU Future of War senior fellow at New America. He served two tours in Iraq and was a director on Iraq on the National Security Council during the administrations of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Korengal is a movie set in Afghanistan. It is not, however, a movie about Afghanistan.
This is a movie about Americans, specifically young male American combat soldiers (no American women appear in the film, save as nude pin-ups) in the Second Platoon, B Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In a brilliant act of art, Sebastian Junger (of Restrepo fame) captures the fact that American servicemen create "Little Americas" in even the most barren of their forward outposts. Within the walls of their bulletproof but rain-sodden bunkers, they play cards and Rock Band® — the latter at least whenever their generator is working. While no geographer will acknowledge it, inside the wood and earthen walls of Outpost Restrepo, it is America. The first line we hear is, appropriately, not about Afghanistan, but about growing up in Oregon.
The Afghans themselves play only cameo roles in the film. It is not about them. We see cute children, an assembly of elders (whom the soldiers clearly hate), and the occasional young man. But for the most part, the Afghans are invisible, like the armed men the soldiers fight.
This tendency to ignore the Afghans may be magnified by the Catch-22-like nature of the soldiers’ existence at Restrepo. Even the commander, in his post-war studio interview, muses: "I always wondered why I was in the Korengal." He later concludes that the purpose was to have "bad guys come to you and you kill them." That people who aren’t bad guys might also come to kill you if you set up a small fortress inside their territory either doesn’t occur to the young captain or, more likely, he has had to repress that thought.
His soldiers are a bit less charitable. "We were definitely bait," says one about their frequent patrols outside the walls of Outpost Restrepo, despite the captain’s insistence that maintaining the offensive was the best way to "keep the enemy off balance."
Junger captures conversations that bring deep insight into the interior lives of his subjects. Again, the film is not about Afghanistan. We never hear a single soldier talk about the Pashtuns and what motivates them. However, we are treated to a quite sophisticated monologue on race relations inside the U.S. Army, by Spc. Sterling Jones, the only African-American (he says "black") paratrooper at Restrepo. With a typical line soldier’s pride, he lists the other "black guys" in the company, at first including, but finally excluding the two cooks (they’re not "infantry," and therefore not really part of the team) before arriving at his final count of only four "black guys" in the company of about 100. Of course, this count includes the "First Sergeant," the senior enlisted soldier in the company, so it’s not a comment about a lack of opportunity. But only Jones has the positional right to quip that "black guys don’t jump out of planes." Though of course he and all five of the other African-Americans in the company (yes Jones, even the cooks) do just that. Jones also notes that there are a few bigots in the company who, while they wouldn’t admit it, just don’t like him. But, he adds: "I bet there’s not a one of them that wouldn’t say I’d take him in a firefight;" which is all that matters in the coin of the realm — honor among peers — inside the Little America of Outpost Restrepo.
We are treated to a similar discourse on weapon choices. Junger documents one of the paratroopers philosophizing about which heavy weapons different men prefer to fire. "Some guys are Mark guys," he says, referring to the Mark-19, an automatic-fire heavy grenade launcher. He adds that: "Some guys are fifty guys" — referring to the 50-caliber tripod-mounted heavy machine gun — noting, "I’m a fifty guy." The conversation is casual in the same way that East Coast commuters compare whether they prefer to take the Acela train or fly the Delta shuttle between Washington, D.C. and New York City. There is something basic about making a choice between two hard-to-distinguish alternatives.
A recurring theme is the boredom and tension that comes from the long isolation in the Korengal. As one soldier puts it — in a way that may shock civilians, but that his fellow combat veterans will understand — "sometimes you just want a fight so bad just to pass the time. I mean, the only thing you have to do is read a book or get into a firefight." The film validates the commonplace notion that combat is long periods of utter boredom punctuated by moments of absolute terror.
An interesting observation about this film — one could say that it and its predecessor should have their names reversed. Junger’s award-winning Restrepo took place primarily out of the outpost, in the Korengal. The soon-to-be released Korengal takes place primarily in Outpost Restrepo, and even the bulk of the few scenes that are outside it take place a stone’s throw from its gates. As one soldier puts it, you take fire right when you walk in or walk out. Again, this is about the Americans and the Little America they create when given the chance.
One might say this is an inevitable American trait — we import America wherever we go — and that Restrepo differs only in geography and luxury from, say, the compounds for American expats in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps only in time from 18th century forts in the wilds of New York or 19th century garrisons in Nebraska or California. Certainly Restrepo looks just like a host of outposts I visited during my time in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought particularly of the small forts that my own battalion used to garrison the road north of Fallujah, during the second battle of that name. I also was reminded of Combat Outpost Spera in Paktia province — another lonely mountainous outpost of incredible beauty and dubious utility (and like Restrepo, eventually abandoned).
As with almost any project filmed in the magnificent mountains of Kunar province, the cinematography is breathtaking. As one of the soldiers notes, the terrain more closely resembles Colorado Springs than the deserts of Iraq. And on the brilliant photography, one cannot help but note that Junger credits leading combat photographer Tim Hetherington, who was later killed during the civil war in Libya, as the co-cinematographer.
In this sequel to Restrepo, Junger turns his cameras inside to look less at the interaction between the American soldiers and the Afghans and more — through this sampling of middle class America — at ourselves. While transplanted to the remote wilderness of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, these soldiers remain deeply, unalterably American. The stripping away of many layers of veneer — through isolation, boredom, terror, and loss — help us better understand them. And, by extension, us.
Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner at Mantid International, LLC., and a Senior National Security Fellow at New America.