|'Perfect Storm' author Sebastian Junger was embedded with the U.S. Army's Battle Company during five separate trips in 2007 and 2008. He chronicles his experience in his latest book, War.
TORONTO – Before becoming a household name, bestselling author Sebastian Junger cut his journalistic teeth covering the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.
“I was in my early 30s and that’s how I got my start,” he says over lunch at a Yorkville hotel. “There were lots of guys like me, though.”
Even after Hollywood turned his 1997 non-fiction juggernaut “The Perfect Storm” into a hit movie starring George Clooney, Junger avoided cushy assignments, opting to cover conflicts in lawless countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
For his latest work, “War,” he spent a year embedded with the U.S. Army’s Battle Company in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – a secluded, mountainous region he describes as “a bad-ass place…too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.”
After covering conflicts in Africa – many of his stories appeared in Vanity Fair – Junger wanted to understand the emotional world of combat.
“That’s not something I have access to in a war being fought by child soldiers in Liberia,” he says. “I’m just not going to plug into their emotional state.”
He was hoping to catch a glimpse of what men in war zones go through. And though he admits he was completely unprepared for the level of violence he experienced in Afghanistan, other things, like the soldiers’ lack of concern for the politics behind the war, didn’t surprise him.
Junger spoke to QMI Agency about what reporting is like in such intense combat situations and why the politics of the Afghan war don’t seem to matter. Here are snippets from that interview.
QMI Agency: You’ve been going to Afghanistan for many years. What was the biggest change you noticed when you returned in 2007 to research ‘War’?
Sebastian Junger: There was a lot more infrastructure; there were modern buildings, cell phones. Jalilabad was built up. But the Afghans were increasingly worried about where this was going; why the Americans didn’t send more troops over; what their level of commitment was to staying in the country and stabilizing it. There was a whole anxiety that didn’t exist before. After 9/11, I don’t think they could imagine that the U.S. would not spend a lot of money trying to stabilize Afghanistan.
I was with the Northern Alliance when they took Kabul [in December 2001] and there was rejoicing in the streets. Several times I was hugged by strangers. They really saw the Americans as having liberated them from the Taliban. But then America left 15,000 troops there and moved on to Iraq.
The Bush administration made a terrible decision and they didn’t forget that.
QMI Agency: One of the first things that surprised me about the book was how politics have almost no bearing on the soldiers’ lives. Did that surprise you?
Junger: It didn’t surprise me that much. I wasn’t very political when I was 19 either. Soldiers are like policemen; they’re very focused on their job because it’s dangerous. The politics behind the crime rate is something I don’t think police officers think about very much. I don’t think they sit around talking about the relationship between poverty and crime. It doesn’t matter what it’s from, they’re out fighting it. What matters to them is that they deal with it effectively. Soldiers are the same way.
QMI Agency: Did the soldiers ever talk about the fact that the Bush administration might have given the Taliban an edge in Afghanistan by launching a war in Iraq?
Junger: Some of the guys were quite loyal to the idea that Iraq was a necessary war. They’d served in Iraq and they believed in it. Others thought it was bull---- and argued that that was why the war in Afghanistan was going so badly. They thought the war in Afghanistan might have progressed differently if [America] didn’t have air assets and men in Iraq. There were guys who were quite bitter about that.
QMI Agency: Unlike the soldiers you write about in ‘War,’ you were free to rotate in and out of the Korengal Valley. Did you ever consider that it might be too dangerous a place for you?
Junger: No. This is real war. Journalists go their whole life curious about what real war is like and they only catch little bits and pieces of it. I didn’t think it would be like that, but neither did the soldiers. Their biggest worry was that they’d get there and wouldn’t see action for a year. As soon as we filed our reports word got out that if you want to experience combat go to the Korengal.
QMI Agency: One thing that stuck out for me was the fact that the Afghans seem to be partial to the U.S. when the Americans are doing stuff for them and then loyal to the Taliban when they think it’ll serve them better. What did that tell you about the people of Afghanistan?
Junger: That they’re very pragmatic people. They don’t have to like the people that they cooperate with; they just have to think it will lead to better lives and more security than they have at the moment. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they didn’t do it by fighting their way across Afghanistan because most Afghans thought, ‘There’s a civil war going on. If we cooperate with these people at least the war will stop and it will stop the corruption and degradation of Afghan society.’
The Afghans made a practical choice and accepted people that they didn’t like very much. The same thing happened with the Americans; they made a practical choice and accepted people they don’t like very much. If they think that siding with the Taliban can offer them more security than siding with the Americans, they’ll side with the Taliban. I think anyone would do that.
Part of the problem was, they looked at the American effort and the 15,000 troops they sent over in the first few years and said, ‘This is pathetic. It’ll never work.’ It’s amazing that the Afghans sided with us as much as they did.
QMI Agency: ‘War’ details America’s fight for control of the Korengal Valley and a few months ago the U.S. announced it was abandoning its position there. What did the soldiers think of that?
Junger: Every war is filled with decisions to leave former battlefields and move on to new ones. That’s what war is. I think it was an emotional thing for some of the guys, but they understand it. No one thought that they would be in the Korengal forever.
In terms of what I think, I believe they don’t have enough men [in Afghanistan] and they’ve decided the men they have are better used elsewhere. The battleship has moved on. Either it was a mistake to go in there, or the fight shifted and it isn’t important anymore.
QMI Agency: You made a documentary film ‘Restrepo’ to accompany the book. What are your thoughts on how Hollywood has treated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Junger: Hollywood is so good at making terrible movies about war. They’re written by people who’ve not gone to war…That’s like writing about marriage if you’ve never been married or writing about children if you don’t have kids.
QMI Agency: Are there plans to turn ‘War’ into a feature film?
Junger: I’m talking to people, but my rule is the screenwriter has to spend a month in a remote outpost. I’ll take them over there and hold their hand, but I don’t want them writing this if they’re not willing to go because their reference points will be Hollywood movies like ‘The Hurt Locker.’
QMI Agency: How did being in Afghanistan to write ‘War’ compare to some of the other war reporting you’ve done in Africa and Bosnia?
Junger: I was way more connected with the men I was with in Afghanistan. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, it was hard to connect with people from a different culture, different people. I was really connected to these guys so my levels of fear and isolation were way lower than they were in Liberia.
But I wanted to understand the emotional world of combat. I’ve been covering war my whole life and I wanted to know, in the most profound possible state, what that feels like. And I thought I could I understand it if I was with Americans.
QMI Agency: What do you hope readers, whatever their political stripe, take away from the book?
Junger: I think society in its political correctness doesn’t understand war very well. We are quite reluctant to understand that you can put young men on a hilltop and deprive them of everything they enjoy for a year and when they come back from combat they miss being out there. I think if society is going to solve the human problem of war they have to figure out what it is [about combat] that attracts young men so much that they’re willing to risk their lives to go back out there to get it.
It’s not adrenaline; that’s a way of dismissing them. You don’t know who you are when you’re 19 or 20. But if you are in a platoon you have to know who you are. That rock solid identity is something young men long for. They can’t find it in society and I think that’s one of the reasons young men return to combat.
It’s the worst experience of their life and they find themselves missing it.