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Author Junger Portrays Soldiers’ Reliance on Each Other in ‘War’

June 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks with author and journalist Sebastian Junger about his latest book, "War," which tells the stories of an isolated platoon of soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: an isolated mountain outpost, a small group of soldiers, and a window into the war in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In late April, American troops withdrew from the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan, a six-mile sliver of rock canyon high in the mountains bordering Pakistan.

For much of the five years Americans fought there, the Korengal was the most dangerous battleground in Afghanistan, controlled by rotating companies of U.S. troops trying to wrest control from the Taliban and other insurgents.

During 2007 and 2008, author and journalist Sebastian Junger took five one-month trips there to chart the lives of men at war, the soldiers of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne. That chronicle is now a book entitled “War” and a documentary film shot with photographer Tim Hetherington to be released next month titled “Restrepo.”

Sebastian Junger joins me now.

Welcome to you.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER, author/journalist: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What you have done here is take a big war and hone in on one very small group of soldiers in one very isolated place. Why? What were you after?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: What I wanted was to understand the sort of universal experience of combat. I had the idea that that doesn’t change very much for the soldier on the ground, war to war, century to century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wherever you are.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Wherever you are. And, so, I picked one platoon, 2nd Platoon of Battle Company. They were at a very remote out post called Restrepo, named after — after the platoon medic. And I was with them off and on for a year.

I really became incorporated into the group, and, with my video camera, I tried to document what the war was like for them, not as a political thing, but as an actual experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it was one of the most violent places in the war. And you capture that. We learn that a number of the soldiers came away damaged, but, while there, the excitement, the thrill — I mean, there’s almost no other word to use for what they are going through.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: There wasn’t much up at Restrepo. It was a two-hour walk from the main base. There was no Internet, no outside connection to the world. There was no running water. They couldn’t bathe for a month at a time, no television, obviously, no women, no alcohol. There was nothing that young men like.

And the — really, the only thing that gave their existence meaning there was combat. And there was a lot of it. They were in something like 500 firefights over the course of the year. A fifth of all the combat in all of Afghanistan was happening around them in that little valley.

And, so, when time — you know, if time went by where there was no fighting, they got very, very antsy. And, in the end, it actually made them — made it quite hard for them to return back to Italy, where they’re based.

JEFFREY BROWN: This sense that you have of — I mean, you’re describing war, but you’re also, at the same time, trying to understand it, the nature of courage, of fear, of almost the psychology of war.

Did — did you start off wanting to do that, or did that sort of come along in the process of reporting of what you were seeing?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: My initial object was to just chronicle their experience and try to understand it. Very quickly, it became clear that what civilians call courage was an essential part of what was going on out there.

There were many situations where we were taking very accurate fire, and the guys would stand up and shoot back, which really was the only way out of that situation. To shoot back, you have to expose yourself. It’s an act of courage in and of itself, guys running through gunfire to pull an injured comrade to safety.

But when you try to talk about courage with them, they sort of deny that it exists. They just say, look, that’s being a soldier. That’s being a friend. That’s not courageous. That’s the minimum you can do.

And…

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in fact, the group dynamic of friendship, of protection is what comes out the most.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes. I mean, they — afterwards, they missed being out there, which is — seems to be puzzling, considering how dangerous and hard it was. And that’s often attributed to, well, they miss the adrenaline rush. That is a part of it, but I think a small part of it.

What really is going on is that, in that place, each man there is necessary to everyone else. He has a completely secure position within that small group.

One guy said to me, “You know, some guys hate each other in this platoon, but we would all die for each other.” The security of that relationship with other human beings is so tremendous that the guys are willing to risk — risk their lives in order to — to get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, also, that dynamic — and it’s interesting, because you — you sort of put yourself in this place as well — that subsumes any sense of the larger war. I mean, they’re not — they’re not — don’t seem to be talking too much about, why are we here, what are we doing?

You weren’t interested in that — much in that yourself, right?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes. I mean, the soldiers were all volunteers. Unlike Vietnam, it was a draft army.

So, they — none of them sort of bemoaned their fate that they were in the Korengal Valley. They joined the Army. They joined the airborne infantry, and there they are. And, for a lot of them, that was what they — that was the point. It was what they wanted to experience.

The broader politics of the war, the broader strategy really wasn’t relevant to them. What was relevant was what was happening right in front of them in that valley. That was what they talked about. Had they sat around talking about the politics, it would have been in the book, but they didn’t.

And, so, the book really is a very intimate inquiry into their experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, intimate, and you become part of this story. I want to ask you about that. You’re embedded with this unit. You experience a lot of the same things they go through, including being hit — you are in a truck when it’s hit by an IED.

How do you negotiate your role as journalist, as writer, while at the same time almost being, I don’t know, almost one of the guys? I don’t want to put too much of a stress on that. But how did you see it?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It was — it was very hard to maintain any kind — anything close to neutrality or objectivity. And, very quickly, I realized it was impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: You weren’t going to worry about it?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: And I wasn’t going to worry about it. In fact, I was — it became interesting to me.

The affiliation that I experienced with these guys, the affection I had for them, the — frankly, the subjectivity that started to occur in my journalism really began to interest me, because I realized that my feelings for them roughly mirrored their feelings for each other.

And what I was seeing in my — in the — in my inclusion in that group, what I was seeing was something very important about the group dynamics in a platoon. I was starting to understand why it is that soldiers will say, you know, the worst thing that can happen is that my buddy gets killed, and I would do anything to keep that from happening.

And that just makes no sense to a civilian. But, if you’re out there with those guys, and you start to feel the tug of that connection, it starts to make some sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, this — this role of the writer goes to fitting into a long tradition of writing about war, whether in fiction or nonfiction.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It is. I mean, the — the wars that our country have — has been in, without the reporting that’s done about those wars, the public would have — really have almost no access to those events.

And, at that point, I think it’s really problematic politically, for the public to really not be aware. And the way they understand these events is through books, through film, and through the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, as I said at the top here, the U.S. military has now pulled out of the valley, which means no one is any longer at Restrepo or any of the other posts around there.

You have kept up with some of the soldiers you write about. How do they feel about that? Do they — do they sense that perhaps — I mean, do they think it was worth it?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: You know, they’re very conflicted about it. I mean, they — on the one hand, they understand that every war is — has their Restrepo, their Hamburger Hill, their Dunkirk. War is very dynamic. It changes continually, because the enemy is changing his strategy as well. And positions get abandoned. And, abstractly, they know that.

Personally, it was a very painful to them to see the withdrawal from the Korengal, to watch Restrepo be demolished with American explosives intentionally. That was very painful. And, in the end, they had — the meaning that that place had, they had to sort of carry within their own hearts, even though now it’s essentially enemy territory again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new book is called “War.” The film coming soon is “Restrepo.”

Sebastian Junger, thanks for talking to us.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.