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Sebastian Junger on War, and the Edge

Exploring combative relationship of press and military tomorrow

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Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Photo courtesy of Tim Hetherington

Sebastian Junger likes to hang on the edge.

That was literally true, when he worked cutting and pruning trees for a living, thrilling to the rush from dangerous heights. And it’s true creatively; from his blockbuster book The Perfect Storm to annals of death-defying jobs and repeated forays to war’s front lines, he has put himself in harm’s way to write about what it means to be in harm’s way.

For his latest project, Junger and photojournalist colleague Tim Hetherington embedded with an American platoon in a remote outpost of Afghanistan. His journalistic mission, he says, was to get beyond vicarious, and that took some time; he was there five months out of a year, on and off. The professional result is twofold: an upcoming book called, simply, War (Hachette Book Group, 2010), and a 96-minute documentary that will air on National Geographic and move to theatrical release next year.

All that makes Junger a fitting keynote speaker for a daylong symposium on Friday, December 4, sponsored by the College of Communication, the College of Arts & Sciences, and BU ROTC. The Press and the Military: Best Friends or Natural Enemies? brings together journalists and military officers to explore a question that since Vietnam has bedeviled American journalists.

Junger, one of the most successful and best-known nonfiction writers of the post-Vietnam generation, offers what might be a surprising perspective: less cynical than many of his older counterparts and more sympathetic to the military — at least those on the front lines.

BU Today: You embedded in Afghanistan longer and more intensely than anybody I’ve heard of. How’d that come about?
Junger:
It’s a very simple process to embed in the U.S. military, and there is very little vetting. If you have a press card and are certified as a reporter, they have to take you. They don’t really examine your politics.

Essentially you become a solider. I don’t mean you carry a gun, but you live with soldiers in exactly the same circumstance they’re living in. You eat the same food, sleep in the same places, get shot at just as they do. There’s no journalistic bubble around you, which for some reason people imagine.

My idea was to follow one platoon, about 30 to 35 guys, for an entire deployment. The platoon I was with was in a very remote area called the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. They were in an outpost that was attacked daily, if not more often. So there was a lot of combat, a lot of casualties. I did five trips into the valley, each lasting up to a month. And my partner in this, Tim Hetherington, also did five trips. So between the two of us we really saturated the platoon. By the end, I think I can say we became part of the platoon. The stiffness and formality that characterizes relations between the press and solders was completely gone.

So you feel you got past a journalist’s sense that by being an observer, you change the reality you observe?
Soldiers are distrustful of the press, very polite and perfectly friendly and not very outspoken. So you get a lot of, “Yes, sir, no, sir, I joined the army to fight for my country, sir,” and it’s not very interesting.

But after trip number two, well, a lot of bad things happened. I got blown up by a roadside bomb. Tim broke his leg in combat and had to walk on it all night. We sort of earned our stripes, so the soldiers stopped talking to us as reporters and started talking to us as friends. We had very honest statements about their lives and the war and were witness to some very raw emotions. It really was quite an experience.

When you conceive stories, do you think of risk and say to yourself, I want to get as far out there as I can and report back?
To some degree. A small platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan is emotionally and geographically as far out as you can get. But that’s slightly different than risk. The times I’ve been scared — that’s a horrible feeling. It feels like I’ve been injected with some kind of poison in my blood, completely toxic. I like being out there on the story, but I don’t like being scared. I try to keep one at a minimum and the other at a maximum.

Your work is set strictly in-country, with the platoon — no outside interviews, no broader picture, no overviews from generals or policy-makers.
Our idea was to give viewers, or readers, in case of the book, the experience of being in combat. Soldiers do not have access to generals; they can’t ask, “Why are we here, sir? What are we doing?” They don’t even think about those questions very much. So our decision was to make a movie that never left the sides of the soldiers, that never left the Korengal valley, zero big picture, zero politics. It’s simply an experiential film about what it means to be in combat, and my book is very much the same.

The most gratifying thing was I got to see the dynamics within a small group of men in a very remote place. It made me think that this is what I would have observed if I were on a whaling ship in the 1800s, or an Artic expedition in the early 1900s. I feel that throughout history small groups of people, usually men, have been in isolated places and interacted in pretty much the same way.

Did the experience lead you to draw any conclusions about whether we should be in Afghanistan?
No. I was looking at the war through a tiny keyhole. Things could be going terribly in the Korengal Valley and perfectly well elsewhere. Or the other way around. So I refrained from drawing conclusions, except this: there aren’t nearly enough troops in the valley to do what the army is trying to do. If Korengal is Afghanistan in microcosm, then I’d say that if we’re going to be there at all, we should be there with a lot more troops.

We saw a lot of images of war in Vietnam, but we haven’t seen many from Afghanistan.
The thing about Afghanistan, compared to Vietnam, is there’s so little combat. In Vietnam they were fighting in an organized conventional force of hundreds of thousands of men, tanks, even air force. That’s a very different thing from fighting the insurgency. In Afghanistan you could easily be embedded with a unit for months at a time and never see combat. So one reason you’re not seeing much footage of combat in Afghanistan is that it’s quite hard to find, ironically.

For anyone old enough to be part of the Vietnam era, the book’s name, War, conjures the great Edwin Starr funk protest anthem of that name, with the lyric “War — hunh, good God / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing. / Say it again …” Did you do that on purpose?
No, I don’t know that song.

Sebastian, that’s hard to believe.
No, I really don’t. And I have very conflicted feelings about war. I was in Bosnia, which was just unspeakable carnage, until the West went to war and put a stop to it. Serbia, the same thing. In all the wars I’ve covered, it was either military force or the threat of military force that brought awful genocides to an end. So I don’t think you can evaluate war in simplistic terms. That’s not even bringing up World War II — obviously if we hadn’t entered, a lot of bad things would have happened.

I chose that title because I did not want people to think my book is about Afghanistan. It is not. It is about the emotional experience of combat, end of sentence.

The title of the conference you’re keynoting is The Press and the Military: Best Friends or Natural Enemies? Where do you come down on that?
There’s a hangover from Vietnam, where the press assumes the military is lying to them, which is really unfair. And the military assumes that the press is out there to paint the worst, most bleak picture, which is also an unfair assumption.

In my opinion it’s a leftover paradigm that needs to change. The journalists I’ve known who embedded have been amazed by the quality of the soldiers and how unprogrammed their thinking is. The variety of philosophies and experiences I found even in one platoon was stunning. So embed by embed, that relationship is changing.

And the two need each other. The army can’t operate in a vacuum. And at some point the press has to understand that war is a reality of history and they’re going to have to figure out how to process it in a neutral way.

The daylong conference The Press and the Military: Best Friends or Natural Enemies? starts at 10 a.m. on Friday, December 4, at the Photonics Center, 8 St. Mary’s St. A morning session features Kevin Sites, who has pioneered small-form “backpack” video production and recorded graphic images from battlefields around the world. A panel discussion follows with H. D. S. Greenway, Boston Globe columnist and Vietnam war correspondent, Stephen Kinzer (CAS’73), a College of Arts & Sciences visiting professor of international relations and former New York Times correspondent, who has covered wars in Central America and the former Yugoslavia, and Colonel Paul Smith from the Massachusetts National Guard. Junger gives the afternoon session keynote, beginning at 2 p.m. Panelists include Doug Struck, Washington Post overseas correspondent, Gary Knight, celebrated combat photographer, and Lt. Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, an Army public affairs officer in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. Sponsored by the College of Communication, the College of Arts & Sciences, and BU ROTC, the event is free and open to the public.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Sebastian Junger on War, and the Edge

  • Anonymous on 12.03.2009 at 9:19 pm

    At least Obama has the guts to stand in front of the very sons and daughters of American’s that he’s sending out to be shot at.

  • F. B. Dove , M. D., Major, USAF, Ret. on 06.14.2010 at 8:14 pm

    respond to Mr. Junger's comments on MSNBC

    Dear Mr. Junger:

    On MSNBC tonight you said that you did not know how to respond to a soldier who wanted to know if anyone at home knew they were fighting this war. We know. I feel it every time one of our soldiers is killed or injured. I suppose because I wore the uniform, I feel as if the soldier is/was my brother/sister. It hurts. Some times I wish we would get out, but then I realize that the people we are fighting through acid on girls who want to go to school and execute women who are raped. They make suicide bombers believe that the way to salvation is to kill innocent people.

    Why don’t we pull out and let the Taliban have Karzai. We station our cruisers off the coast and and attack the Taliban from the air with UABs if they misbehave (public executions of women, drug running, public executions, etc).

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