| June 6, 2014

In 1879, with War and Peace and Anna Karenina behind him, author Leo Tolstoy began suffering a spiritual and existential crisis.

Like so many before and after him, he began questioning the meaning of his life and the seemingly contradictory components of existence in general.

Chronicling this struggle in his book A Confession, Tolstoy wrote, “I, my reason, have acknowledged that life is senseless. If there is nothing higher than reason (and there is not: nothing can prove that there is), then reason is the creator of life for me. If reason did not exist there would be for me no life. How can reason deny life when it is the creator of life? Or to put it the other way: were there no life, my reason would not exist; therefore reason is life’s son. Life is all. Reason is its fruit yet reason rejects life itself!”

How do the generally unreasonable notions within an individual and society become the most reasonable of all?

Perceptions of reason and the conflicting attitudes and lasting emotional influences of combat are examined in Sebastian Junger’s latest documentary Korengal, a sequel of sorts to 2010’s Academy Award Nominated Restrepo.

Shot from May 2007 to July 2008, Korengal picks up where Restrepo left off, with Junger and his colleague Tim Hetherington following the second platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade at their outpost in the Korengal, a rugged 6 mile valley near the Afghan/Pakistan border.

By the end of 2007, almost one fifth of all combat in Afghanistan was taking place in the Korengal, and to date, close to 50 American soldiers have lost their lives there.

Considered a crucial relay point for Taliban fighters moving from Pakistan to Kabul, Junger and Hetherington joined second platoon in the remote base, sleeping and eating alongside them, and doing everything except pulling guard duty and shooting back during firefights.

After capturing nearly 150 hours of footage, Junger and Hetherington visited Vicenza, Italy where the unit is based to conduct in depth interviews as a means of reflection on the events that transpired there.

The result is a hypnotic and thought-provoking portrait of war and its complex effects on the human mind.

Although Hetherington was tragically killed while covering the civil war in Libya in April of 2011, Junger says that the project was always planned as a two-part exploration of battle, and not so much a political film, but rather a psychological examination in which civilians could experience what combat feels like.

Junger asks questions such as, “How does fear work? What do courage and guilt mean? What is it like to come home from war? Why do so many soldiers miss the war they were in?”

Because of this, the film becomes more than simply a commentary on war in the modern age, but rather a look at the strangely attractive nature of violence, and how in certain circumstances it can become the most comfortable and understandable aspect of an individual’s existence.

These instances of conflict, the need to escape and remain in combat simultaneously, provide the most thrilling psychological and philosophical moments in the film.

Frequently the revelations will be quite jarring, like when Specialist Miguel Cortez admits to not caring whether he’s alive or dead while smiling the entire time. Or when Specialist Misha Pemble Belkin wishes he was back in the Korengal right now.

This dichotomy, where expression and emotion melt into a bizarre middle ground, allows confusion and a hollow nothingness to become the dominate motivators in all actions.

The bond that war forms in the midst of its destruction is quite extraordinary as well (The outpost Restrepo itself was made in honor of the platoon’s medic, PFC Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action while on patrol in the Korengal).

You immediately get the sense that these men would do anything for one another, and as one soldier says, “You may have your family’s blood in you, but you haven’t shed it for them.”

Unlike most documentaries, and films in general for that matter, the narrative dissects the malleable nature of want and desire in many of its uncommon forms, presenting an array of emotions and attitudes that throughout their lives remain hidden in the darkened corners of the human psyche.

Junger and Hetherington manage to coax these emotions to the surface, allowing the light of passion to make them something real and unforgettable.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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