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06/21/2011

A Chat With Sebastian Junger

Junger Sebastian Junger believed when he completed "The Perfect Storm" he had merely written a good book. That's it. Never could he have forecasted the massive pop-culture hit he had produced, and propel his career so that his name is well known throughout countless circles.

Since then, Junger has become one of America's more celebrated and accomplished "adventure writers". His work, "War", is recently going into paperback. And his documentary, "Restrepo" with the late Tim Hetherington is triumph of film making.

I spoke for about 30 minutes this morning with Sebastian, focusing mostly about his work in the Middle East.

Mac Engel: What did your wife think of you doing this book, "War", where you are embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan?
Sebastian Junger:
Well, at the time I was formulating the idea the war in Iraq was worse. Afghanistan was more of a stabilization effort. So for her it was less alarming. I didn't tell her the bad stuff that was went on throughout because I didn't want to alarm her.
When Tim Hetherington got killed in April, I really sort of ended doing things like this. She and I talked and agreed I would no longer be doing stories where I got shot at.

Mac Engel: When you were with Second Platoon in the Kornegal Valley, did you ever have a moment of 'What am I doing here?'
Sebastian Junger:
No. I have covered wars for a long time. We were with people we completely trusted. What can be frightening is being in a war in West Africa where you don't trust the people you are with.
I felt so privileged to be in the middle of this; it was incredible. I became very close to the guys in the platoon. That felt good journalistically, and on a human level. Not that I wasn't worried at the time, because I knew what I was doing there had the chance to be bad.

063009_afghanistan_stalemate_800 Mac Engel: Did you ever feel a part of that group, or more like a voyeur?
Sebastian Junger:
You are a voyeur until you're a part of that group, and they are emotionally invested in you as a person. It is voyeurism until the loss of someone provokes profound grief in you. Then you're emotionally participating. The reporters in 9/11 were not voyeurs; while the cameras were rolling they were in tears. I got to that point. They did, too.
When Tim got killed some of the people who grieved the most and the most emotional messages were from the guys in the platoon. And the death of any of those guys would have been the same for us. At this point, objectively has disappeared. Which is OK.

Mac Engel: When you learned of Tim's death, did think, 'That could have been me?'
Sebastian Junger:
Yeah, because we were supposed to be together in Libya. In all probability we would have been doing together what he was doing on his own. I had to pull the plug on it for personal reasons. It was very clear it could have been both of us. That was clear, and very upsetting to my wife for sure. It made me feel very guilty I wasn't there. It's survivor's guilt. People always imagine they could have affected the outcome. The journalists who were there struggled with that about Tim. It's understandable, but unreasonable.

Mac Engel: Has America's presence in Afghanistan made a positive difference?
Sebastian Junger:
Look, it's the lowest level of civilian casualties in 30 years because of our presence there. The Civil War had been unspeakable. Something like 400,000 civilians their lives during that. No one cares because it doesn't affect them.
Since NATO went in it's dropped to 30,000 civilians. It's the highest rate of growth of any country in the area. Mostly it's foreign aid, but it's still growth. Enrollment of children in schools is up 700 percent. I don't know if we can sustain militarily, but if you evaluate as it is today we have made a difference.

Images Mac Engel: Why did you fall in love with Afghanistan?
Sebastian Junger:
The people there are very dignified, and very brave. They fought off the Soviets. These are a people who have played this crazy role in world history. Every country around them wants to control it, and they have fought them all off.
It is physically an incredibly beautiful place. The American west has nothing on Afghanistan.
And they are incredibly hospitable towards their guests. That's a very moving thing. I had a 20-year-old rebel fighter throw himself on top of me when we were being shelled.

Mac Engel: President Obama has mentioned a troop draw down there; can Afghanistan move forward without a large, foreign military presence?
Sebastian Junger:
The surge consisted of Marines, which is an assault force. That's not an occupying force. The big mistakes are because George Bush didn't address this problem correctly when we won the war (in the early 2000s) and they loved Americans. He left just 15,000 troops there, went to Iraq, and the Afghans knew this wasn't going to work. 
Now? Pulling out 30,000 is probably OK. They hit the Taliban very hard the last two years. Every war ends in negotiation, and now is probably the best time to negotiate with them. 
The big problem is not a military problem, it's a political problem. They didn't like the Taliban, but we've given them a corrupt government and allowed it to grow.

Mac Engel: How can one government really be expected to stop another government's corruption?
Sebastian Junger:
Well, the vast majority of Afghans don't want corruption. They don't want the common central bank to steal hundreds of millions of dollars. There is a way to stop it, and that's by turning off the aid.
(President Hamid) Karzai doesn't want to be the guy who turned off the flow of money because he wouldn't stop the fight against corruption. That's an ender.

Mac Engel: History says a foreign occupying force does not work; why can this one?
Sebastian Junger:
That is correct in a country that is stable and not at war. Or it's not going to work very well. In 1996 and 2000, the Afghans said, 'When is the West coming?' They knew it had stopped the war in Bosnia and did nothing about Rwanda. These were countries that were in incredible pain.
Afghans had been at war not of their own choosing for 20 years. When we came in 2001, I was getting hugged because I was an American. The initial good will was great.
As awful as it is to have a foreign occupying force, the Civil War will be worse. Ten times worse.

Osama-bin-laden-1998-thumb Mac Engel: Was killing Bin Laden truly a massive strike against Al Qaeda, or good PR?
Sebastian Junger:
I just confirmed this with a Navy SEAL I just had breakfast with - there is no way we could have killed him without being in Afghanistan. All of this intel about his compound, a lot of it came from being in Afghanistan. You aren't going to do it from Northern Virginia.
It would be like killing the U.S. President; the U.S. still exists but it would be an incredible blow to morale.
The reason he had a house in Islamabad, in a civilian area, is the tribal territories were subject to drone strikes. Those strikes have killed an unbelievable number of operatives. He moved to a populated area because he didn't think he would be bombed there. And he certainly didn't think they would come in on foot. He had gone so underground. If you need to organize you need to re-appear, be audible and are going to be subject to being tracked and killed. The ops they were doing made it hard to communicate.

3466173_gal Mac Engel: Have to ask about 'The Perfect Storm'; are you surprised at the lasting effect it's had on pop culture?
Sebastian Junger:
I thought I was writing a good book. I never thought it would be a best seller for three years. Any author who believes that is delusional narcissist; it's like expecting to win the lottery. I knew I had written a good book, but when it was done I moved on pretty quickly to Kosovo and Africa.

Mac Engel: What did you think of the film? 
Sebastian Junger:
It was a big, Hollywood movie, and that's not really my taste. They were respectful to the town and the people, and the movie had it's moments.

Mac Engel: What is next for you professionally?
Sebastian Junger: Nothing where I can get shot at, but stories in the Middle East.

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The reason he had a house in Islamabad, in a civilian area, is the tribal territories were subject to drone strikes. Those strikes have killed an unbelievable number of operatives. He moved to a populated area because he didn't think he would be bombed there. And he certainly didn't think they would come in on foot. He had gone so underground. If you need to organize you need to re-appear, be audible and are going to be subject to being tracked and killed. The ops they were doing made it hard to communicate.

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The reason he had a house in Islamabad, in a civilian area, is the tribal territories were subject to drone strikes. Those strikes have killed an unbelievable number of operatives. He moved to a populated area because he didn't think he would be bombed there. And he certainly didn't think they would come in on foot. He had gone so underground. If you need to organize you need to re-appear, be audible and are going to be subject to being tracked and killed. The ops they were doing made it hard to communicate.


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