Weapons, a photo from home, survival gear, fear. What soldiers carry to war can't be fully itemized.
Novelist Tim O'Brien got at this notion in his short-story collection The Things They Carried, writing from first-hand experience of the physical and psychological burdens Army grunts carted into Vietnam's jungles. For American writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger, who was an embedded journalist with a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan's isolated Korengal Valley, the things he carried were equally hard to list.
Junger and the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington co-directed the documentary Restrepo, winner of the Sundance Festival's Grand Jury Prize this year, about their time in the Korengal during five one-month stints with the platoon from May, 2007, to July, 2008. They carried more than video equipment and survival gear. They had to take with them an attitude, Junger indicates, that showed the soldiers that they knew how to handle themselves in combat and wouldn't endanger the platoon during the nearly daily firefights.
They also had to carry the trust of the soldiers when filming. Soldiers are typically cautious around journalists, even though the U.S. Army has a constant rotation of news people embedded inside military units.
Junger wanted to make the film and his recently published book based on these same experiences, War, from the perspective of the soldiers, he says. He admits to bonding with them. Some have criticized this stance as being pro-military. On the other hand, both doc and book detail the men's actions in a way that's arguably far from a positive view, from the scenes of the hazing the soldiers inflict on each other to the pained interviews conducted after the troops finished their tours. (A photo by Hetherington, taken during filming, of an utterly depleted and dazed soldier in one of the outposts in the valley won the World Press Photo of the Year Award in 2007.)
Junger has spent a career covering wars as a journalist. The author of best-selling book The Perfect Storm, his telephone conversation has the same detail-laced matter-of-factness as his journalism when he describes items he carried in the Korengal.
He wore a ballistic vest and a Camelbak water backpack. He also had a combat pack with food, more water, an extra shirt, maybe some warm clothes if his patrol got caught out at night. He held a Sony V1 video camera, weighing less than two kilograms. He kept the video tapes and spare batteries on him.
"That stuff - the batteries and the tapes - were usually inside my ballistic vest, because you can lose your pack, but you never lose your vest because it's always on you. So I had everything I absolutely needed to work and to survive on my person at all times," Junger says.
He also carried the fear every soldier packs: "There were a couple of firefights which got pretty intense. A couple of times rounds landed right next to me. If you stop and begin to think about the math involved in you getting hit or not hit, it's pretty scary. I learned not to run that math in my head.
"Maybe the single worse thing was - although no one got hurt - I was in a Humvee that got blown up by a roadside bomb. It went off under the engine block, instead of under us, so we were not harmed. In the moment, it was fine. I was very calm, everyone was. Afterwards, I gave it a lot of thought." The roadside bomb blast became the opening scene in Restrepo.
Junger also carried his preconceived ideas of the U.S. Army, which he kept tucked away: "I grew up in the wake of Vietnam, and the civilian public was very divided and very conflicted about the American military and about Vietnam. So that's what I grew up with."
But he argues, "It's a very different military now. They are incredibly professional. They are really well trained, incredibly dedicated. The officers are very, very smart guys. It's not that I thought they wouldn't be. But again, my context was Vietnam."
The most elusive challenge was winning the trust of the soldiers. Junger says the filmmakers had to show they weren't out to make a documentary from a preconceived political stance, but to get in there and attempt to represent the soldiers' point of view.
"They just demonstrated [their dedication]with the physical demands put on them. They never quit," said Major Dan Kearney in a recent telephone interview from a U.S. military base in Georgia. (He was a captain and base commander in the Korengal Valley when Restrepo was being filmed.) "They knew what they were getting into before coming into the project.
"The biggest indicator was that they weren't smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. They weren't out of shape and fat. They were in-shape young men. And they already had the credentials that went with it. Both of them had done war-correspondence work before. So they knew what they were getting themselves into.…
"Then when Sebastian's article [in Vanity Fair magazine]and Sebastian and Tim's Nightline special came out [in which the ABC news program showed clips of the footage] I think the boys connected with them even more. Because then they didn't have to feel like Sebastian and Tim were going to put some kind of spin on whatever it was that they saw," Kearney argues.
Whether or not Junger and Hetherington have succeeded in their mission as filmmakers remains up to the viewer, of course. And for some documentary makers, not taking one side or another on the war might be a burden too heavy to carry.