Ain't Reporting Hell: Sebastian Junger's Afghanistan

Sebastian Junger (New York: Twelve, 2010)

Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger, dirs. (Outpost Films, USA, 2010)

War correspondent Ann Marlowe begins this discussion of Sebastian Junger’s recent book and sibling film on the war in Afghanistan. Then Iraq and Afghan veteran Major Derrick Hernandez follows up with his own take on the project.

T here are about as many American troops serving in Afghanistan as people who’ve seen the war documentary Restrepo , which has only earned $1.2 million since it opened on June 25. The gritty, close-up view of the war that Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger offer in this movie comes with the validation of a Sundance Grand Jury prize. The award is deserved. There’s no other film quite like this one: fifteen months in the lives of an Army platoon fighting in the remote Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Yet both times I saw the movie in downtown Manhattan there were only about twenty other people in the audience. The same was true when I recently saw The Tillman Story .

Maybe New Yorkers aren’t curious about the reality of small unit combat and the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan. (They’re certainly not curious enough to join the military.) Or maybe those who are chose Sebastian Junger’s companion book, War , which has sold quite well.

Most reviews of Restrepo use adjectives like “unvarnished” and “direct,” but it’s no more artless than the book. The filmmakers use soldiers’ own words to construct a narrative of fifteen months of life and combat in the Korengal Valley, shifting between close-up interviews—the camera unflinchingly focused on the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade—and pointillist episodes from their experiences in Afghanistan— shuras (or traditional council meetings) with villagers and firefights with Taliban, the maneuver commander’s visit and an operation that kills several men.

At only 94 minutes—many of which seem in memory to be filled with weapons’ fire—it is difficult to convey much about the soldiers of Battle Company as individuals or to show how they developed over the course of their time in Afghanistan. Restrepo and War could have used a list of dramatis personae at the start, if for no other reason than respect. And at the end of the movie, where the filmmakers note that fifty Americans died defending the Korengal, they might have listed the names of those killed.

Many more of the soldiers of Second Platoon appear in the book. Although there isn’t much character development there either, Junger can sketch personality vividly when he chooses to: “Jones had a kind of rangy muscularity that made him seem capable of going to the Olympics in virtually anything. He roamed Restrepo like some kind of alpha predator and if you caught his attention, you didn’t know whether he was going to jump you, look right through you, or drape an arm over your shoulder and ask how you were doing.”

But Junger’s more interested in the effects of incessant small unit combat on the soldiers and himself than in delving deeply into personalities. Probably unintentionally, this choice narrows the meaning of the Afghan war down to a platoon-level stovepipe. And this in turn makes it easy to buy Restepo ’s implicit line—made much more explicit in the book—that U.S. efforts in the Korengal were futile.


I t’s not clear that either the men of Battle Company or Junger know that the company’s area of operations—which received seventy percent of the ordnance dropped in Afghanistan during that period—was startlingly atypical of our Afghan war. The incessant shelling and sporadic small unit skirmishing War describes has little to do with most U.S. military activity in Afghanistan, which runs more to endless meetings in support of “armed social work” and patrols where the risk of death comes from IEDs rather than shootouts. (The moviemakers also seem unaware that the craggy Koren-gal is, by rural Afghan standards, a lush and prosperous place.)

The book does a better job than the movie of explaining why the men of Battle Company were sent to the Korengal in the first place in June 2007, and what they could have done there besides fire their weapons. In Restrepo , company commander Captain Dan Kearney seems coarse and inarticulate, both when he speaks alone to the camera and when he is filmed in a Korengal shura . But in the book, his goals for his mission are fleshed out:

Kearney wants to start issuing identity cards so that locals can come to the [Korengal Outpost] and pick up food and other types of humanitarian aid. Until now those supplies have been distributed through village elders who make huge profits by taking most of it for themselves. Identity cards will also enable the S-2, the intelligence officer, to conduct a crude census of the valley, and the food pickups will give locals an opportunity to tip the Americans off to upcoming attacks without the Taliban knowing about it. Kearney also wants to buy three or four jingle trucks, put benches in the back, and start running a bus service up and down the valley. ... [This] would allow commerce to start flowing more freely into and out of the valley, which would take control out of the hands of the village elders and put it into the hands of ordinary people. “The villagers are almost like indentured servants,” Kearney says.

Junger’s slant doesn’t reflect a heavy-handed antiwar or anti-military agenda. He notes that most of Afghanistan is “relatively stable” and that most soldiers “more or less respected their commanders.” As he presents them, the men of Second Platoon are an American cross section that confounds elitist stereotypes about the military: only one man is African-American, one is clearly from a rich family, and few if any are there for economic reasons. (One man seems to be there because his hippie mother forbade him from playing with toy guns.)

Junger charges the Army with becoming caught up in the fight without stepping back to assess its needfulness: “There’s so much human energy involved—so much courage, so much honor, so much blood—you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place.”

The American Army eventually agreed that the Korengal bases were a classic case of what the military calls a “self-licking ice cream cone”—a base whose main rationale becomes defending itself rather than a population or a supply route. The U.S. abandoned the valley bases in April 2010. But the enemy has pushed forward as we have stepped back, and now soldiers at nearby Combat Outpost Michigan take the punishment once dished out to the more remote bases; they spend eighty percent of their time defending the outpost.

In this part of Afghanistan, it seems that the enemy will fill in the territory we give up. The retreat strategy is just as problematic as the crude counterinsurgency mantra that we need more and more troops and time. The Korengal fight may not have had a viable goal, but as War and Restrepo both suggest, the men who fought and died there still found meaning in it. One incident of bravery in October 2007, which Junger describes, leads to Sergeant Sal Giunta receiving the first non-posthumous Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.



Junger’s Afghanistan
An Officer’s Perspective
by Derrick Hernandez

A better title for Sebastian Junger’s War would be War ... from the Sight Post of a Machine Gunner . The book never looks at the war from the larger perspective of what U.S. forces were trying to do in the Korengal Valley, but it’s a gritty and probing look at the guys doing the fighting, and it accurately re-creates the feel of combat—the staccato fire of machine guns, the unnatural sounds of helicopters beating down the floor of Korengal.

Junger captures the essence of thirty young paratroopers dug into a mountain for a year. I lived the life of an airborne ranger and easily recognize the infantry culture: “If you’re not prepared to walk for someone, you’re certainly not prepared to die for them, and that goes to the heart of whether you should even be in the platoon.” Once you have proven yourself to your platoon, you are taken into its brotherhood, as the author explores in detail—how the men react to each other while battling stress, terror, and boredom. For a reader who is interested in what the Army is trying to do in terms of its larger presence, however, Junger falls short. He does not, for instance, address our partnership with Afghan security forces, which limits his book’s usefulness as a counterinsurgency tool or even a primer on Afghanistan for new lieutenants and junior leaders—which it otherwise might have been.

Junger describes the shuras that went on at the company and battalion levels, yet doesn’t go further to describe the interaction of the Americans with the populace. My own experience was quite different. After taking part in a shura , I understood that I would have to make my men part of the community. I told them, “Like it or not, you are now a part of the populace of Mandozai. What you do every day will be talked about in every market and butcher shop, your actions will determine if the populace accepts you or rejects you—and if they reject you, no one can help you.” As my former battalion commander would often say—and as General David Petraeus now emphasizes in his new counterinsurgency guidance—“We will live our values in front of them.”

As a battle space owner, one must always assess second- and third-order effects. Sometimes these are obvious (if I detain this guy, his family will hate the coalition), other times more subtle. Junger writes: “Human terrain and physical terrain interact in such complex ways that commanders have a hard time calculating the effect of their actions more than a few moves out. You can dominate the physical terrain by putting an outpost in a village, but if the presence of foreign men means that local women can’t walk down certain paths to get to their fields in the morning, you have lost a small battle in the human terrain.” These small nuances make the difference in being successful or ceding ground to the Taliban.

While watching the documentary Restrepo —a sibling project directed by Junger and Tim Hetherington and covering the same material as War —I felt I was being led forcibly to a predetermined conclusion: that it’s a tragedy for our military to pay so much for so little. But this premise is simply not fair to Junger and Hetherington’s protagonists, Captain Dan Kearney and his paratroopers. And in his book, Junger certainly leaves this conclusion more open-ended. He also highlights the courage and bravery of many individuals, and briefly talks about some of the successes of the company.

“By the end of the summer,” Junger writes, “locals were pointing enemy positions out to the Americans.” This is the first indicator that a shift is coming. The enemy has lost the cover of the populace and shifted its tactics to IEDs and very deliberate ambushes. This is the first sign that the men are driving a wedge between the enemy and the local population—a population that seems, in Junger’s words, “to be souring on the whole concept of jihad.” I would have liked to see Junger explore why this occurred and what the men were doing to exploit the opportunity. But instead he writes, “You could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place.”

Junger portrays the Korengalis as “having never left their village” and having “almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley.” This is not an isolated phenomenon. I walked into villages in 2007 that had never seen American troops and thought we were Russians. My own interpreters (most of whom grew up in Kabul and had college degrees) had no idea why America was there. They believed we came to help because that’s what we do.

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, recently returned from covering the Afghan parliamentary elections. Major Derrick Hernandez has served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan as a planner, company commander, and batallion operations officer.

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