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Korengal (2014) Review

Updated on May 23, 2014

Full disclosure: I’ve been to war. I was in Bagram AB, Afghanistan for 6 months, embedded with 7th and 3rd Special Forces Groups (Airborne) as an Air Force Intel Analyst, providing mission planning and UAV support for troops under fire. Now, my deployment was nowhere near as rough or dangerous as what the men of 2nd Platoon have encountered in the deadly Korengal Valley. Certain threats, such as mortar fire, suicide bombers, base attacks, IEDs, etc., were still present on base, but I never personally left the wire. That said, I became close with men who had similar experiences to this platoon. I also became close with journalists, and witnessed the red tape they encountered in their coverage of our operations. So I have ample footing for my analysis of the nature of this documentary.

Its full title is Korengal: This Is What War Feels Like. And that’s apt, because feeling is absolutely its central focus. It’s a laudable focus, too; raw, honest emotion is difficult to capture in a war zone, and even more difficult to make an audience feel. Those among us who haven’t been to war usually have strong opinions about it, and usually either meet its realities with shock, or choose not to meet those realities at all, offering praise and platitudes instead. In other words, war can seem pretty unrelatable. This film’s power, then, lies in the fact that, once you come to understand the gravity of the situation, you go on the emotional journey of these soldiers. You sympathize with them wholeheartedly, you feel their boredom, the adrenaline of a fight, their fear, their anger, their sense of humor, all as they grapple with this extremely complex situation in whatever ways they know how. They become eminently relatable, and as a result, they and others like them can benefit from our newfound sympathy. But this intimacy is no easy task...so how was it done?

Journalist Sebastian Junger—author of The Perfect Storm and director of Restrepo and this film—and his late partner Tim Hetherington (killed in Libya in Apr 2011) embedded themselves with these men over a total of 10 trips to the Korengal Valley. In that time, through facing all the same hardships and life-threatening dangers as the platoon, they formed a bond with them that opened space for an unmatched level of personal reflection and emotional revelation.

However, this purely emotional focus also begins to raise questions. Because, for all of its humanity, there seemed to be topics that this film deliberately avoided. For me, it was curious to brush over the idea of these men thinking twice about why they are in their situation. Bravery is risking your life to save your friend…fine, but what about saving those who aren’t your friends? Your enemies? What about the bravery of refusing to participate? So you’re there only for the guys to your left and right? Is that brave, ignorant, or both? Can we detest a war and praise those who willingly choose to participate in it, repeatedly? Is that not hypocritical? A friend of mine talked about these questions in terms of politics, a topic which never comes up in this film. Yet it is one of the most hot-button issues in a war zone. It comes up in conversation. Outlooks must have been captured in all that idle footage. If not, the questions should have been raised: Where do these men stand politically on the war? Religiously? Are those opposed to it oppressed, silenced by their peers and overseers? I know for a fact they are. What about their fight? This highly emotional factor deserves fair examination.

War is complex, emotionally, yes, but in many other ways as well. These complexities are extremely challenging to confront. Yet, while this doc is emotionally honest, I would not call it challenging. Heartfelt in its humanity, but not challenging. How honest is it then, truly? Just how hard does one need to work to take the challenge out of such a challenging topic?

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    • argentiscriptor profile imageAUTHOR

      Alex Daniels 

      4 years ago from New York

      Thanks so much for your insight, Mahmoud! I absolutely agree with you: while we shouldn't arrive at value judgments about Junger's personal views based on speculation, that doesn't in any way lessen the validity of the speculation, especially when the information that would wipe away that speculation is altogether absent! What you seem to suggest is that, in effect, these unexplored factors inadvertently tell an entirely different story than the narrative itself--albeit one not yet as clear. So, while it's important to recognize the bravery in telling such stories as these, it's also important to recognize where there is room for us to grow as storytellers. It's the only way to really understand the whole story, our history, and therefore, ourselves.

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      Mahmoud Samori 

      4 years ago

      Hey Alex, another nice review here! You raise some questions which I think are very appropriate and I'd like to raise another, again on the subject of politics. I chatted with Johnny a bit more over dinner and he pointed out some things that made me think. Do you think the lack of frank political discussion in the film could be a reflection of Junger's own politics? Johnny reminded me that while in his remarks before the film Junger points out that soldiers don't pick their wars and that the wars aren't so much theirs but all of ours, he also in the Q&A indicated that he'd refused to cover the Iraq war because he personally disagreed with it and that he only chose to imbed with this platoon at the last moment when deployment plans changed and the unit was sent to the 'Ghan instead of Iraq. Now Junger disagrees with the Iraq war, as he told us, but do the men featured in the film? I wonder whether their politics and his differ on this point and whether, if that is the case, this difference contributes to the film's silence with regard to politics. Junger became quite close to these men, but if they'd gone to Iraq he wouldn't perhaps have known them at all because he doesn't cover that conflict because of his personal (or political?) feelings. All of this is, of course, hypothetical and I don't think it's necessary to make a value judgement, but what is omitted from a film of this nature can, I think, tell us as much and sometimes more about the filmmaker espcially in a case like this, in which he made himself conspicuously absent from what is to be these men's story. Storytelling is, after all, a game of showing as much as one of not-showing isn't it?

    • argentiscriptor profile imageAUTHOR

      Alex Daniels 

      4 years ago from New York

      Thank you Chris! I'm happy we can all be part of the conversation.

    • profile image

      Chris M 

      4 years ago

      Based of your previous experience and credentials in the military your review was well received on this end. I believe with war related films there exists strong sentiment about not disclosing the whole truth. I am intrigued to see this movie through your writing, drawing my own conclusion and tasting the raw work of Sebastian Junger. Mr. Daniels position on this film inspires me to take a deeper look at the happenings amongst our military and the depiction received on the viewers end.

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