Director Sebastien Junger returns to the subjects, and the unused footage, of his previous documentary, the Oscar-nominated "Restrepo," to assemble a companion piece named after one of the most beautiful, but dangerous, valleys in Afghanistan: "Korengal."
In the follow-up, the men of Company B or the 173rd Airborne -- now back on American soil -- talk about the impact their tour of duty had on them. These reflections play off the film taken while they were still serving in the Korengal valley, a major thoroughfare for Taliban activity. In the field, the men speak about fear, courage, duty, and adrenaline; back home, they long for the company of their brothers in arms, and one gets the feeling that they're also missing the concrete priorities of battle -- shoot or be shot; stay vigilant; make sure you have each other's backs, even if you don't necessarily like one another.
Junger has said in interviews that the focus of "Korengal" is on this very subject, of how soldiers become nostalgic for combat when the immediate experience is so terrifying and stressful. The easy answer is that ordinary life pales in comparison, but there are deeper possibilities; after all, existential dread is less nebulous and gnawing when one's fear has a form, and that form is another fighting force of men. At least in that instance there's something to fight back against, and some sense of victory (however temporary) to surviving a skirmish.
But "Korengal" has more going on. This revisitation is also, in part, a meditation on the cost of war, and the losses that survivors carry with them. One soldier refuses to buy into martial simplicities: He relates how much he hates hearing people tell him he "did what he had to do." It's a phrase that pricks, rather than assuages, his conscience. Another explains how Restrepo came to be called what it was -- Restrepo was named for an American serviceman who was killed there. The soldier relating this has to pause, overcome with grief in mid-telling. One wonders how much these themes tie back to Junger's own state of mind; Junger co-directed "Restrepo" with Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya a year after they made that film.
The film feels simultaneously timely and outdated. With insurgent forces taking over in Iraq, there's a feeling of unfinished business in the air, and of anxiety around how, and whether, America will step in once again to intervene in the hornet's nest our invasion of that country stirred up. It would be easy to transfer some of that anxiety to Afghanistan.
On the other hand, "Korengal" does carry a tinge of rehash about it, and a sense that it's a document about yesterday's battles with current events rapidly overshadowing the past. If we're attentive, we may glean useful tidbits for whatever's yet to come -- if we can force ourselves to examine recent history with an eye to making a better future. The question, of course, is whether we can, or should, try to bring such a better future to other nations, or finally learn the lesson that we do as much, if not more, harm than good when we embroil ourselves in conflicts elsewhere.