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Uncomfortable questions with one of my favorite writers - Sebastian Junger

IMG_0414DALLAS, Texas - Sebastian Junger, known first for his best-selling book "The Perfect Storm" had retired as a veteran war reporter, but he is back on the subject he has covered for more than 20 years.

He made "Restrepo" and, armed with excess unused footage from that 2010 documentary, Junger is back with "Korengal".

Both are fascinating, but different, documentaries that chronicle U.S. troops stationed in an eastern part of the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. This particular battle is often called one of the bigger disasters of this war - virtually nothing was gained. Junger was embedded with these troops to compile interviews. 

Junger was in Dallas recently to promote this new film, which opens July 20 at the Angelika in Dallas.

He was nice enough to give me about 30 minutes recently. I am a MASSIVE homer for this man, so the chance to meet him was a thrill.  The following interview is long, and fascinating.

Why do the follow up to Restrepo? When (the late Tim Hetherington, who made the original with Junger) and I made Restrepo we kept commenting on all of the amazing scenes that didn’t fit in. There was incredible material. Our idea was to give civilians some idea of combat. 

What did it to you when a soldier admitted he enjoyed shooting at other people? War has been going on for a long time for a reason; nothing goes on for 500,000 years that someone is not getting something out of. Society after society chooses to go to war.
What is it so compelling about war? Why do young men love war so much. It’s just a distasteful thing to say, but if you are not saying it you are not talking about reality. 

Photo-mainHow do you feel after seeing war so close? I was a journalist for 20 years for a reason – it promotes a lot of complicated reactions. It’s a bundle of complex reactions. When those guys were whooping it up, that made me very uncomfortable. I grew up in Cambridge, Mass. during the Vietnam War and have a very liberal background.

When you see these guys firing a 50-cal and high-fiving after firing at a group 1,000 yards away, what does that do to you? It makes me think that this is the very complicated human race. These are good guys. I know that. These are good guys who have a reaction like this. I studied anthropology in college. The Apache did this. Gengis Khan did this. This is what part of what human beings are.
The other part is (U.S. Soldier) Brendan O’Byrne said, ‘Oh my God – we killed people.'
Equally important and equally essentially to what human beings are.  I want to undermine people’s easy assumptions.

The reader and the consumer? Yes, not the people I am interviewing. The right wing does not want to acknowledge that war does kill a lot of civilians. And that it’s morally complicated. That’s not war. The right wing does not engage in that. The left wing wants you to think that soldiers are victims who are coerced into doing this and they hate every minute of it. The fact that soldiers sign up voluntarily and with great enthusiasm who sometimes love combat – that makes liberals’ skin crawl. I wanted to get those two camps to stop thinking about those preformatted ideas and listen to the soldiers who are there.

Ap_1e408c6328150714550f6a706700c7aeAfter thinking about war ideally as a kid, and now seeing it first-hand, how much different do you see it today as a 52-year-old rather than a 15-year-old? Put it this way, during Vietnam from a very pacificist family, politically I didn’t believe that. I was from a very liberal background. And what did I do in my afternoons as a kid? I played war. War is exciting to young boys. It just is.

Is a soldier’s mentality that to be effective you have to think you are already dead? To do anything that could kill you, you have to be at peace with the fact you could die and the easiest way to do that is to say, I’m going to die. And if you don’t, you don’t. I’ve done that.
I’ve been in situations where I thought I was going to be shot. In one case, a guy said he was going to shoot me. I wasn’t convinced it was going to happen but it seemed plausible. I spent 30 minutes trying to wrap my head around that.
Another situation I was in Sierra Leone with the soldiers and we were at a check point and the best I could tell they were going to shoot us all. They didn’t. I spent about 15 minutes getting myself ready. One guy leveled his rifle to shoot, and a fellow rebel jerked it in the air.  Some of the rebels did not think it was a good idea. 
There is a point where you give up on life. And you go numb. That’s what I did. It feels awful but it feels easier than clinging to life and being scared of losing it. 

Why did you stop covering war? I just had a shift after Tim died. It wasn’t forced morality. It wasn’t something … just something turned.

Cusl48_yearinphotos0812What will be the U.S. military’s legacy in Afghanistan? We went to war in Afghanistan because of 9/11. The people who committed the 9/11 crimes had a safe harbor in Afghanistan and the Taliban would not give them up. I remember President George Bush, who I was not a big fan of, telling the Taliban, hand them over and we will come in and help your country. Don’t hand them over and we are going to get them. That’s what happened – we went in and got them.
We decimated Al Qaeda. There is no way we could have done that without being in Afghanistan. We are not killing Bin Laden by flying in Team 6 from Virginia; there is no way. We had to be in Afghanistan, and it worked. 
There were a lot of mistakes made by the Bush administration, and the Obama administration, but that piece of the puzzle destroyed Al Qaeda. We could not have done it any other way.

Why do citizens have such a disconnect with the war in Afghanistan? It’s complicated. One percent served. I am tired of that figure. We need either a huge army, or fewer people in this country. The problem is not that it’s one percent. The problem is that the one percent is not engaged with the 99 percent. That is the problem. That is the problem – they don’t want to hear the details.
Civilians don’t understand it’s their war. It’s not just the soldier’s war.
If soldiers kill civilians in Afghanistan, you killed civilians in Afghanistan. I killed civilians in Afghanistan. We as a nation did. It’s not the soldiers. They pulled the trigger, and they did what we told them to do. It’s all of us. Even people who were against it did it.

RestrepoThe movie is rather depressing in the regard of, what is the point? War is fought in small places. Every platoon is a gear in a big engine, and all that gear knows it’s under a lot of torque. 

Is it possible to really turn that failed state into a stable country? Liberia was much worse than Afghanistan.

How long ago? It was 2003. Oh God – it was a decade of civil war like you have never seen. Drugs, warlords … same thing.

So apples to apples with Afghanistan? Same thing. … The decade plus that NATO has been in Afghanistan that is the lowest level of civilian casualties in that country in 30 years by far. The civil war there in the ‘90s was a blood bath. Russia involvement was worse.
Now the majority of casualties that do happen are from the Taliban. That’s not according to NATO but human rights organizations saying that. Seven times as many children are enrolled in school, one third are in school.

Of the members of the military you interviewed for this, do they feel like they made a difference? I think the officers did. The grunts, I don't think they thought about it. It's not their job and it doesn't help their job. It's like a cop walking a beat - he doesn't need to think about the social implications of police work.

UnknownBecause you were a reporter, did it give you a feeling of security or safety? No, that's a myth. Now, in West Africa and there is a certain amount of immunity there. You feel like, 'I am not a part of this drama' and everyone knows it. In Korengal, they are shooting from 400 meters. The Taliban is not identifying individual targets - they are firing at an area. Bullets come in and they hit you or they don't.

Most uncomfortable moment with firing? I wasn't comfortable with the IED in the front of the Humvee. One time I was very scared I was trying to hide behind a sapling that was no bigger than a beer can and I can hear the bullets hit the leaves. I kept bracing for impact.

How do you see the individual member of the military today compared to when you began covering war? My impressions were formed back in the '60s.

That could not have been favorable. It wasn't.

And now? I realized that soldiers are me, they are you, they are us. They happened to be trained in a certain way. They have all of the complicated reactions to war that I would have as a soldier. It's like looking at myself as a young man.

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Rob Knight

Mack, great interview. Reminds me of reading Red Badge of Courage. I plan to share it with my Freshman Comp class tonight. It serves as a great lead in to the argumentative paper, but it also his comments about getting the right and the left to think about their presuppositions about war is what good writing is about-- making people evaluate their beliefs.

Doug Olson

"...that piece of the puzzle destroyed Al Qaeda". I would have liked to have had Junger expound more on this statement. We keep hearing Al Qaeda is "decimated", "destroyed", "defeated", "on their heels'. It appears to me we are fighting a modern hydra and absolute declarative statements should be questioned.

horns up

Good interview. A real departure from your normal crap.

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