On the Radar
The psychological experience of combat is so unique that it can only be fully understood by those who have endured it. But a new documentary offers its audience a more intimate understanding of the complicated mix of emotions – ranging from fear to an adrenaline rush – that soldiers face on the front lines.
In the new documentary “Korengal,” a sequel to the Oscar-nominated film “Restrepo,” veteran war filmmaker Sebastian Junger takes his audience to the front lines of the war in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a platoon of U.S. infantry soldiers in the Korengal Valley.
In his exploration into the psychological impact of deployment, Junger finds that fear is the most pervasive emotion the soldiers confront.
“They're all scared in combat. I was, everyone was,” Junger said. “The question is: Can you overcome that fear and function?”
While most outsiders view death as the ultimate fear in war, it was fear of failing fellow soldiers in the line of duty that weighed most heavily on the platoon serving in the Korengal Valley.
“Foremost in their minds, I think for most of them, was that they would let their buddies down and that somehow inadvertently or through a mistake or a failure of nerve…that someone else would get killed and they'd have to live with that guilt for the rest of their lives,” Junger said.
While most of the soldiers were able to overcome the fear to perform in combat, Junger recalled one soldier telling him that some are paralyzed by the powerful emotion and are rendered useless.
Producing the documentary took Junger and his filmmaking partner Tim Hetherington, who later died while covering the civil war in Libya, to the front lines of combat in the Korengal Valley off and on for a year. Junger confided that while in Afghanistan he faced his own battle against fear.
“I've learned that I'm very susceptible to fear,” Junger said. “People say, ‘Oh you know, you're a risk taker, you're an adrenaline junkie,’ and … actually the feeling of being scared for your life, it's like having poison injected in your vein. It's absolutely a terrible feeling and I hate it.”
And he also got a taste of the intense emotional bond that grows between soldiers.
“You get very, very close to those guys and something about that experience, being in danger with guys I really cared about … when I came out of there, it just opened me up emotionally. I just became a very emotional person.”
It turns out, Junger discovered, that his newfound emotional side was not a unique side effect of war.
“I talked to some of the soldiers about it and they were all like, ‘Oh my god, that's happening to us too.’” Junger said. “And one of them actually said, ‘You know, we're worried we're turning into girls,’ is how they put it. But I think it's a good thing, because there is sort of a deepening, an emotional deepening that comes from that kind of experience that I think is very, very good.”
In coming back from war, Junger said one of the biggest challenges soldiers face in their transition is the disconnect that exists between the all-volunteer force and civilians at home, who don’t feel any ownership over the war.
“The big obstacle is the sense soldiers get that civilians feel that the war … was the soldiers' war,” Junger said. “And it couldn't be more incorrect. I mean, we chose it, we paid for it, we okayed it, we voted in the government that carried out these wars. … The wars belong to the entire nation.”
Another complicated element of the transition back to civilian life, he said, is the “alienating” experience of being separated from the very soldiers with whom they’ve developed a brotherhood.
“They come home, and suddenly they are not in a group anymore, and I think that's very, very alienating, even though they're safer at home physically, they feel more in danger because they are not in a group,” he said. “They'd rather be back out there in this group that they cared about even though they're getting shot at.”
For more of the interview with Junger, including how he says psychological awareness of the challenges soldiers face has improved in recent years, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”
ABC News’ Tom Thornton, Jim Martin and Gary Rosenberg contributed to this episode.