Writer turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Sebastian Junger – Published in The Listener
George Orwell once said “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”. In his new book simply titled ‘War’, Sebastian Junger sets out to show us what these ‘rough men’ go through in the process of protecting us.
The Korengal Valley was known as the ‘tip of the spear’ to the American military. For five years it was the most deadly place on the planet for an American serviceman to be. 25 miles from the Pakistan border and just 6 miles long, featuring a rugged topography reminiscent of Central Otago, the Valley has been the graveyard for 42 American soldiers, and many times that number of Taliban fighters. As Junger puts it in ‘War’, it’s “too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate and too autonomous to buy off”.
He should know. Over the course of 18 months in 2006 and 2007, Junger travelled to the remote valley 5 times, usually accompanied by veteran war photographer Tim Hetherington, on assignment to produce a series of articles for Vanity Fair magazine. They lived alongside the young soldiers of Battle Company’s Second Platoon for up to a month at a time, documenting the course of their 18 month deployment in the valley. During this time Junger and Hetherington also shot over 150 hours of footage which has become the breakout documentary hit of the US summer, ‘Restrepo’ and Junger gathered the material that became ‘War’.
Junger is perhaps best known for his first book, ‘The Perfect Storm’, the story of the fishing boat Andrea Gail that went down off the coast of Massachussetts in 1991. The book debuted in 1997 and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 3 years then was turned into a major Hollywood film starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. However his stock in trade for over 17 years has been covering conflicts around the world. Beginning in 1993 when he travelled to Bosnia as an impressionable young freelancer, Junger has spent most of the intervening years as a correspondent for some of the top publications in the world travelling to trouble zones and hotspots. From Liberia to Eastern Europe he’s written about conflict, winning a National Magazine Award in the process for his 1999 Vanity Fair article ‘The Forensics of War’.
Since 1996 Junger has travelled to Afghanistan many times covering the rise of the Taliban, their overthrow in 2001, and the subsequent era since US forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on October 7, 1991 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks. In 2001 he was one of the last journalists to interview Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary ‘Lion of Panjshir’ who played a key role in driving the Soviet soldiers out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Widely acknowledged as a genius guerrilla fighter, Massoud was killed by 2 suicide bombers masquerading as Arab journalists on September 9, 2001, just a few short months after Junger had spent 8 weeks shadowing him for a profile of the leader he wrote for National Geographic Adventure.
While he’s covered plenty of wars, his time with Battle Company in the Korengal was the first time Junger had focused on conflict from the military perspective. “Usually I’ve covered conflicts from the perspective of the populace, often on my own in some pretty chaotic and frightening situations, such as being with child soldiers in Liberia. I had no interest in covering the war in Iraq because I felt it was a mistake on many levels but what has been going on in Afghanistan has major implications for the Western world. I’d travelled with Battle Company in Zabul in 2005 and I liked the guys, so when I heard they were being deployed to the Korengal I decided to document their experience.”
The results are striking. ‘War’ presents a completely apolitical view of the soldiers’ experience. Its raw, muscular style paints a warts-and-all picture of young men from heartland America thrust into a dangerous and very foreign environment. As Junger points out, going to war in Afghanistan is very different to going to war in Iraq, where soldiers generally live on large bases complete with wi-fi, air-conditioning and Starbucks. In the Korengal it’s more like World War One. The men of Second Platoon patrol the rugged mountains laden with heavy packs, big guns and as much ammunition as they can carry. They freeze in winter and sweat in summer. They live in foxholes they can barely stand up in behind HESCO walls, collapsible mesh containers the men fill with rocks and dirt to protect them from incoming bullets. And they come under fire almost every day. Sometimes several times a day.
But ‘War’ also captures the moments in between. The brutal boredom. The smack- talking of young men thrown together for 18 months with no women. The somewhat clumsy attempts to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of locals. And most of all, the incredible bond that develops between young men whose lives literally depend on each other.
Thematically Junger has divided the book into 3 sections; fear, killing and love. Each section describes the ongoing combat but drills down on its specific theme, examining in turn how the soldiers are affected by fear, killing and love. The last section is perhaps the most interesting. In it Junger deconstructs the relationship that grows between soldiers – a brotherhood that enables a young man in the prime of his life to willingly jump on a grenade, sacrificing his life for his comrades.
The thematic structure makes for fascinating reading, and Junger has done a lot of research on the subject of war and how it affects men, but it also makes the book slightly confusing as it jumps between characters and different chronological periods. But it’s a minor complaint. Overall ‘War’ is a timely and vital book that should be required reading for any politician responsible for sending people into combat – and for anyone else who wants to learn what war is really like. To capture the experience, Junger also went through the same experiences and hardships as the soldiers. While he didn’t have to carry ammunition or a weapon, at the age of 45 he spent months hiking hillsides on patrols with men half his age. It comes through in his prose but it comes through far more graphically in ‘Restrepo’. Watching the film you realise that Junger and Hetherington were right there with the soldiers filming in
firefights as bullets visibly slam into the ground at their feet. They were with them on the nerve-wracking patrols where intelligence indicated they might be ambushed at any moment. Junger even captures a particularly visceral scene where the armoured Humvee he’s riding in is blown up by an IED or roadside bomb. Fortunately the bomb detonates under the Humvee’s engine block. Had the Taliban solider who triggered the bomb pushed the button a split later earlier Junger and the others riding in the Humvee would probably have been killed. It’s the ultimate example of laying it all on the line for the story.
“It was tough but a lot of physical adversity is in the mind and having been a long distance runner I am used to getting through that sort of adversity. Plus I still keep myself pretty fit.” How about the experience of being under fire? “It’s undeniable, it is a huge buzz. But the reality is that the vast majority of the time war is just incredibly hot and mind-numbingly boring. After days of that, combat is almost a relief.”
The film is not only a graphic depiction of the soldiers’ daily experience, it also brings home how young the soldiers are. On the big screen you can’t help but notice how unlined their faces are. Most of them are in their early 20’s. Indeed the film’s name comes from the firebase the platoon lived in, which the men had named in honor of their comrade Private Juan Restrepo, a well-liked medic who was killed in the Korengal not long after the company arrived in 2007 at the age of 20.
During the months he spent there, Junger developed a close bond with the men. “Many of them I now consider good friends but it took a while to build up a rapport with the guys and to develop the level of trust we needed to really tell their story. Once the guys got a copy of the first article Vanity Fair published they realized what we were trying to do and after that they were incredibly supportive.” As Junger points out, while the soldiers hate the ‘warmongering’ image the left leaning media often tarnish them with, they equally they object to the tub-thumping Fox News style. “They just appreciated that we were trying to tell their story without putting a spin on it.”
Indeed both the book and film have been embraced by not just the men of Battle Company but the military as a whole. At screenings and book signings, Junger has been overwhelmed with gratitude from soldiers and their families for presenting their experience to the world. “The guys have really responded positively to both ‘War’ and ‘Restrepo’. But it’s been their wives and girlfriends who have really loved it – especially the film. It is the first time they have had access to the world their men live in. And it’s a world the guys often aren’t able to talk about easily with them. Many of these guys are coming home with serious psychological issues and find the transition to civilian life a very difficult one to make.” Critically both book and film are also garnering accolades. ‘Restrepo’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and ‘War’ has been on the New York Times bestseller list since it came out.
So is Junger trying to shine a light on the futility of war, like reknowned war photography, James Nachtwey, who aims to bring attention to the horror of war through his hauntingly beautiful yet brutal images? “Jim has done an incredible job of bringing
attention to forgotten or ignored wars around the world and that is a very important thing to do. By contrast, most people are aware of what is going on in Afghanistan, they just don’t know what the troops actually go through. I wanted to document that with no political commentary. I strongly believe as a journalist that as soon as you try and lead the reader or viewer to a particular viewpoint, your work loses its value.”
Junger, who admits to growing up in a liberal family and having liberal sensibilities himself, feels most liberals have a very hard time reconciling the use of armed forces to protect civilians. “I’ve been in many war zones where sending the armed forces in has had a positive result, if you measure that by stopping the deaths of innocent civilians. The press tends to focus on the mistakes. Look, whether you think the war is ‘right’ or not, I look at the situation in it’s totality and the fact is civilian casualties in Afghanistan have gone from something like 400,000 during the 5 years of Taliban rule in the late 1990s to an estimated 16,000 civilian deaths since the NATO forces went into the country in 2001, with at least half of those having been killed by the Taliban. But it’s tough, dangerous work and I wanted to highlight what the soldiers go through in doing it.”
Tough work and the men who do it is a theme that has defined much of Junger’s work. ‘The Perfect Storm’ took the reader into the dangerous world of swordfishermen. Junger has written about smoke jumpers in the American west, the blood diamond trade in Africa in addition to his coverage of wars around the world. “Society has always used young men for dangerous work. It used to be hunting and war. Now it is more typically to do dangerous industrial work, like the guys who died on the BP rig in the Gulf. And in those situations, groups of men do dramatic things. It’s an ancient human narrative and it’s something I’ve always been interested in.”
In person Junger personifies the image of a war correspondent. Square jawed with intense piercing eyes, he wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside Clooney and Walhberg in the cast of ‘The Perfect Storm’. He fell into writing after university where he studied anthropology, doing his thesis on the Navajo tradition of long distance running. “After college I did some construction work while I figure out what I wanted to do. I’d loved the process of doing my theses. The research and writing process really lit a fire in me so I started freelancing.”
‘The Perfect Storm’, which Junger developed from an article he wrote for Outside Magazine, was a dream start and earned him plaudits as the new Hemmingway. “I never expected a story about the sinking of a fishing boat to be so popular or to be turned into a Hollywood film. My main concern was to do justice to the story and the people who lost their lives in that tragedy, because it wasn’t my story. I just reported on what happened. To be honest I didn’t engage with the film too much as I was away much of that time reporting in Africa.”
These days Junger and his wife split their time between Cape Cod and New York, where he owns a bar called The Half King with fellow war correspondent, Scott Anderson and documentary maker, Nanette Burnstein. But much of the last year has been taken
up both with writing ‘War’ and the new process of editing a film. “It’s been a fantastic process, primarily because both Tim and I weren’t relying on the film for our living. We self-financed it on the back of our Vanity Fair assignement so we were able to keep complete control of it. It’s been a very pure project in that way.” National Geographic subsequently bought the film and are releasing it in theatres before they air it on their television network.
It’s also been a very timely project, with the film premiering in the US the same week that General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command after his critical comments about the Obama administration were published in a Rolling Stone article. “Americans are very concerned about what is going on over there and I think the response the book and the film are getting speaks to that concern.” After spending so much time there, what does Junger think is the likelihood that US forces will be able to get out of Afghanistan anytime soon? “I think they are going to have to be there for a long time. Al Qaeda moved in to Afghanistan in the 1990s because under the Taliban rule it was virtually a rogue state. There were no extradition treaties. There was a drug economy. There were airfields they could use and there was a supportive government. They don’t have that in Pakistan and if the US forces pull out of Afghanistan, I think they’ll just flood back across the border and it will be chaos again. Unfortunately there is no easy exit strategy and the civilian population will be the real losers if things go back to the chaotic days of warfare between the warlords and the Taliban.”
And what of Firebase Restrepo? The US Army pulled out of the Korengal in 2009 and Restrepo was surrendered to the insurgents. And the men of the Second Platoon who are the central characters of his book and film? “Most of them are back in Afghanistan now. For them the war goes on and all of them just want to get out of there alive.”