Deploying with Sebastian Junger: ‘Restrepo’ and the Soldiers’ Perspective on Afghanistan

By Gregory

Jun 25, 2010 2:47pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: Questions of leadership in Afghanistan have been at the forefront this week, with a Rolling Stone article featuring Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s too-frank assessment of civilian commanders leading President Obama to replace him with Gen. David Petraeus.

Against this backdrop comes a remarkable new film about one Army platoon in Afghanistan: “Restrepo,” co-directed by author Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Junger, the author of “The Perfect Storm” and “War,” and Hetherington spent a year embedded with the Second Platoon in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley.

Junger and one of the officers featured in the documentary, Major Daniel Kearney, joined us on ABC News/Washington Post’s “Top Line” to talk about the film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and more widely next month.

“What we wanted to do was show what it’s like to be a soldier in combat in the US Army in Afghanistan,” Junger told me and ABC’s Jonathan Karl. “I wanted to understand what it was like for our soldiers, so our idea was that we don’t have access to anything the soldiers don’t have access to. They can’t ask a general, ‘Why are we in the Korengal?’ So we never interviewed a general or a politician. The camera literally never leaves their sides. It’s like a 90-minute deployment.”

The result is not your typical war documentary. The tragedies and frustrations of the on-the-ground troops come into harsh display; “Restrepo” takes its title from the remote outpost established by the troops and named after Juan Restrepo, an Army private who was killed at age 20 in a firefight in Afghanistan, in June 2007.

The outpost, like many similar temporary installments, has since been abandoned. The road that Kearney talks about in the film as critical to the mission will probably never be completed, Kearney told us.

“I don’t think that the road will ever be finished,” Kearney said on “Top Line.” “While we were there, we were able to make some significant headway. But it definitely did not reach my end state, which was being able to get to the actual Korengal outpost itself. But it was — I mean, the fight down there was much like I would compare to the Pacific campaign. It was a small chunk of land here and there, like the island hopping, and we made probably about 800 meters to 1,000 meters of headway while we were there, at the cost of eight lives.”

The film also raises intriguing questions about the relationship between the military and the media, particularly in light of the Rolling Stone article, where a reporter shadowed McChrystal and his senior staff for a month to deliver a piece that was devastating to its subjects.

Junger said he and his co-director used discretion in the filmmaking process, to look out for the soldiers they put on camera.

“There were a few things that happened that required some understanding, and so instead of holding back, I would ask them about it. There was a situation where they killed a Taliban fighter — it was just a very intense situation. I asked them about it because I wanted to understand their reaction. I was out there to understand. And the only thing I had any doubts about were — there were personal details about some of these lives of the soldiers, and some of those details were painful to them, personally painful to them. But they would talk about it, and so in those cases, it had nothing to do with military strategy or anything like that. It was about their personal lives, and I would ask them, like, ‘Listen. You know, you mentioned this when we were talking. How do you feel about me writing about that?’ ”

“So I always gave them a second chance to veto that — I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s life,” Junger said.

Kearney said he and his fellow troops treated Junger and Hetherington as equals.

“My mind is — is that they went out there and they lived and did the same things that I did. They got shot at more times than many generals and many colonials out there. They’ve kind of earned that right,” he said.

“But at the same time, I think we’ve earned the right from them where they kind of come back at us and give us a chance to recall what we might have said under the circumstances that we were under. We gave them carte blanche — I mean, it was unfettered access, and you guys take it for what it is, because I have nothing to hide.”

Watch the full discussion with Sebastian Junger and Major Daniel Kearney HERE.

For our “Post Politics” segment, we checked in with The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. on the passage of financial regulatory reform, the stalling of unemployment insurance extensions, plus the double-edged sword that is a Sarah Palin endorsement these days.

Watch that portion of today’s “Top Line” HERE.

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