Sebastian Junger on Why Soldiers Miss War

Brian Ross, Megan Chuchmach and Mary-Rose Abraham
Sebastian Junger on Why Soldiers Miss War

“The soldier’s experience in war is inherently powerful.”

It was to capture that experience that journalist Sebastian Junger embedded for a year with a platoon of U.S. soldiers in one of the most remote and dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. Together with the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington, Junger directed the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Restrepo with the intention of giving viewers a firsthand look at the war. The follow-up is Korengal, releasing on May 30, a film which goes even deeper into the war experience, capturing the psychology of the soldiers, especially why they would miss war.

“They come home, and of course they don't miss getting shot at, they don't miss having to shoot at people,” Junger explained. “But what they do miss is that brotherhood of combat. It's not replaceable back home and I think that's the sort of secret to understanding why soldiers can miss something as terrible as war is.”

While he and Hetherington were embedded with the soldiers in the Korengal Valley, Junger found that combat is both very intoxicating and exciting, but also profoundly disturbing. He said he felt the same fear and the adrenaline rush which the soldiers felt. It was this shared experience of becoming part of the platoon, including injuries – Hetherington broke his leg; Junger was injured by an IED – that Junger believed is why the soldiers were so open and honest with him.

“The toughest guys had to fight their tears out there, had to fight their feelings,” Junger said. “The toughest guys. And they were all, we were all, scared. Everyone out there was grieving the loss of somebody. And I feel really honored that they didn't just put up a front with me. I'd like to think we earned it but I'm really honored they trusted us with their feelings.”

Junger felt loss especially hard when Hetherington was killed in 2011 while covering the fighting in Libya. Junger was 5,000 miles away but said he somehow believed it was his fault that his friend died.

“I twisted it around in my head, like I should've been there to help him save his life or protect him,” Junger said. “It's not even rational. An enormous component of PTSD is survivor guilt. And you can have survivor guilt and not be anywhere near the tragedy. That's the weird thing.”

It helped him to understand why many of the soldiers he was interviewing would feel guilty when another was killed. Within an hour of Hetherington’s death, Junger decided he would no longer cover combat.

“It made me a much more emotional person and some men have trouble being emotional and I was one of them,” Junger said. “Trauma also deepens you emotionally and that's a good thing and there's a real growth there. And so with the trauma you also get the growth. And that to me was a really profound experience actually.”

Watch a special Memorial Day broadcast of ABC News Nightline to see more of Brian Ross’ interview with filmmaker Sebastian Junger about Korengal.