Korengal (2014) Review
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?