Journalist Sebastian Junger

Award-winning investigative journalist discusses the killing of Osama bin Laden, NATO’s future in Afghanistan and the death of his friend, colleague and Restrepo collaborator Tim Hetherington.

Investigative journalist Sebastian Junger is drawn to stories of adventure. He won a National Magazine Award for his world travels covering life on the edge and is credited with reviving a new genre of storytelling—the true-life disaster tale. His debut book, The Perfect Storm, was a publishing phenom and adapted for the big screen. His latest text, War—and the companion documentary Restrepo—is his first-hand account of the reality of combat. A native of Belmont, MA, Junger writes for numerous magazines, including Vanity Fair and Men's Journal.


Tavis: Sebastian Junger is back on our program tonight. The best-selling author and noted journalist is now added Oscar-nominated filmmaker to his resume, thanks to his documentary, “Restrepo.” The acclaim around that project has been bittersweet, however, following the death of his friend and collaborator who was killed by covering the conflict in Libya.

Sebastian’s latest “New York Times” best seller, “War,” is out now in paperback. Sebastian, good to have you back on the program.

Sebastian Junger: Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking, given what the subject matter here is, what you make of the conversation now about Afghanistan. I raise that in part because, since you were last here, bin Laden has been found and killed obviously. So your thoughts on this side of the bin Laden issue?

Junger: Well, it was a watershed moment. You know, obviously, we would not have been able to find him and kill him had we not been in Afghanistan. I mean, you’re not gonna fly Seal Team Six from Virginia. You need the forward operating bases, the intelligence gathering in Afghanistan to even do that.

Bin Laden, you know, was the point man on al Qaeda, but he’s not all of it. Just a few days ago, they killed another guy, Kashmiri, with a drone flown out of Afghanistan. It’s a complex organization. It’s very dangerous and I think if, as a nation, we choose to continue pursuing them, we’re probably gonna have to do that from a platform in Afghanistan.

Tavis: You say as a nation, if we choose to continue pursuing them, your thoughts on whether or not we should in fact continue pursuing them at this point and especially inside of Afghanistan where the word is their numbers are miniscule.

Junger: Well, exactly. I mean, they’re not in Afghanistan because we’re there. They’re across the border in Pakistan precisely because we’re there in force.

There are two costs, two down sides, to leaving Afghanistan. One cost possibly is our own security. The attacks of 9/11 came out of Afghanistan. It was a failed state, a rogue nation. That’s why al Qaeda was there in the first place. I’m not saying this will for sure happen, but, obviously, it’s possible that that cycle could renew itself if we leave.

The other cost would be borne by the Afghan people themselves. 400,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the chaos and civil war of the 1990s. That era ended – I mean, our tragedy was their good fortune. In some ways, that era ended with international forces in their country. The civilian deaths in the decade that NATO’s been there are something around 30,000. So you’ve gone from 400,000 civilians in Afghanistan to 30,000 deaths.

If NATO leaves – say we could leave tomorrow. We can’t, but suppose we just pulled out tomorrow. There would be a terrible civil war for sure, just about for sure, and the deaths would probably rise up to that 400,000 level again. So those are the down sides to pulling out too abruptly.

Tavis: That said, take your logic or your argument at least to its extreme, one is left with the impression – you tell me whether I’m right or wrong here, given your argument – that we should stay in Afghanistan forever because if the price to pay for pulling out is that a rogue nation will arise again, that we will be attacked again, why ever leave?

Junger: No, exactly. I’m definitely not saying that. It’s not realistic and probably isn’t wise. I mean, the Afghans would rather not be an occupied country either.

Tavis: They’ve been pretty vocal about that lately. Certainly Mr. Karzai has been.

Junger: I mean, he says very political things. I mean, here’s the thing. We’re fighting the Pashtuns, a part of the Pashtun population. The other ethnic groups, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras, the Turkmen, we’re not fighting them. They’re not the Taliban.

You know, I think really what has to happen is that the Afghan people are very good fighters – they defeated the Soviets – when they have something good to fight for. Their own government is corrupt. It’s a criminal syndicate. We in some way facilitated that. The Afghan people are not gonna undertake their own security to protect a government that they don’t respect.

I think really the tactical military problems, we’re really started to figure them out, but there’s no permanent solution until there’s a government in place which serves the people of Afghanistan. It’s not there yet and the new work we need to do is to twist Karzai’s arm so hard that he actually confronts the corruption of his own government.

Tavis: So your thoughts then, having said all that, about the debate in Washington right now about the troop draw-down.

Junger: Well, there was a 30,000 soldier surge. It had tremendous effect on, I guess, the Taliban. I mean, they really hit the Taliban very, very hard. So now, you know, if you hurt an enemy like that, it’s actually a pretty good point to start negotiating because they are hurting. They killed a lot of mid-level commanders.

So I think the surge needs to be reversed along with negotiations with the Afghan part of the Taliban, not the Taliban commanders under the sway of the Pakistani government, but the true Afghan Taliban who do have some voice in their country. Of course, now is the time to start negotiating and pressuring Karzai in terms of corruption.

If you do all those things together and keep up military pressure, I think you can get to a place where we can start too tiptoe out of there hopefully faster rather than slower.

Tavis: We’re hearing more and more. I certainly am on this program and on my radio show as I talk to people inside of Pakistan, for that matter. We’re hearing more and more that the Pakistanis were humiliated. They were humiliated, they were embarrassed, by the way we went and killed bin Laden.

We come in under cover of darkness, we killed him, we take him out, we bury him at sea and we tell them after the fact what we have done. I mean, try to imagine someone from another country coming into America, killing someone who they wanted to kill, taking them out and then telling us after the fact what they’ve done on our soil.

What’s your sense of whether or not Pakistanis have a right to feel humiliated and embarrassed by another nation coming in and doing whatever they want to do inside their sovereign nation?

Junger: Well, you got to remember, bin Laden killed 3,000 Americans and, in some ways, he and his ideology killed tens of thousands of his fellow Muslims, including Pakistanis. I understand that that was provocative and complicated for Pakistan, but only if you accept the idea that he was an acceptable member of Pakistani society. I mean, someone knew he was there.

The United States is not harboring Mladic or Milosevic. I mean, there are war criminals, if they were harbored in the United States and we refused to admit it, refused to deal with it and someone came in to get them, maybe it would be provocative, but on some level, it would be understandable thing to do because we would not be cooperating, right? The Pakistanis really on some level were not cooperating in this venture and they’ve paid more of a price than even we have.

Tavis: I hear the point and that would make sense if there were evidence that surfaced, which has not as yet, that the Pakistanis knew that they were harboring him.

Junger: Well, listen. There’s 20 years of evidence of very close cooperation between the Pakistani Intelligence Service and the Taliban and al Qaeda.

I mean, the Pakistani Intelligence Service trained Lashkar-e-Taiba which is one of the worst terrorist organizations in the world. They were the people that committed the atrocity in Mumbai, India, 182 civilians, something like that, by their operatives. So the connection between terrorism and Pakistani intelligence is absolutely ironclad. That is known.

Did the top echelon of Pakistani government know that bin Laden was in that house? Probably not. You know, Iran Contra. Plenty of the U.S. government did not know about the Iran Contra deal, but someone knew about it, obviously, because it happened.

Tavis: Beyond bin Laden being captured and killed, what has most changed significantly for you since this book came out in hardcover?

Junger: Well, primarily, personally, my colleague and friend, Tim Hetherington, lost his life in Libya.

Tavis: Right.

Junger: He was covering the humanitarian disaster in the city of Misrata, a city that was being just outrageously attacked by Kadafi’s military, shelled. I was in Sarajevo in the early ’90s. A three-week NATO operation stopped that genocide in the ’90s.

Tim was in Misrata and he was killed by a mortar shell fired by a military unit. That, you know, just absolutely gutted me and it’s made this entire project all of a sudden look a little different actually.

Tavis: When you say it’s made the project look differently, you mean by that what exactly?

Junger: Well, it was this thing we did together, you know. We had this incredibly close collaboration. “Restrepo” was our movie and suddenly now he’s gone and it’s my movie.

One of the things I worry about is will I be able to make the decisions for the future of this movie and that material in the best possible way because I no longer have my friend to consult with. You know, we talked to each other all the time, what do we do about this, what should we do about that?

Now I’m on my own with it and it’s actually kind of intimidating, like how can I do justice to his memory with this project that I now have inherited?

Tavis: Does his death say anything different to you about war?

Junger: Absolutely, absolutely. After his death, I got an email from a Vietnam vet who I’d met a year earlier and he said, “I’m so sorry about Tim.” That afternoon, I got it. He said, “I’m so sorry about Tim, but I got to tell you this. You know, I hope it doesn’t sound callous. You guys with your books and your movie, you came very close to understanding what war is about, but you didn’t get all the way.”

He said, “The ultimate reality about war isn’t that you might die if you go to war. The ultimate reality, the central truth about war, is that you will lose your brothers. That’s guaranteed. You will lose your brothers.” He said, “Before today, in some ways, you didn’t understand the first thing about war and now you know everything you need to know about it.”

Tavis: And does that reality change your view about war and its worth or value or how we get into it or why we shouldn’t be. Does it change your thoughts at all about the nature of war?

Junger: I think, unfortunately, we live in a world where people attack other people and I think a legitimate rationale for war is the saving of human life, the saving of lives of people who cannot defend themselves.

Tavis: So you believe in just war?

Junger: Yeah. I mean, for the same reason that police carry guns. I mean, to put it on a personal level. In Bosnia in the ’90s, 100,000 civilians, people just like me and your viewers, were killed in a genocide. That was stopped by the use of war. It was stopped by NATO forces, and thank God. You know, the idea that we didn’t do that in Rwanda and that, to me, is a moral outrage.

So, yes, there is a place for the use of force and, again, that’s why the police carry guns because sometimes it’s necessary.

Tavis: His book is out now in paperback now. It’s called “War.” His name, of course, Sebastian Junger, “New York Times” perennial best-selling author. Sebastian, congrats on the paperback and on the success of “Restrepo.” Good to have you back on the program.

Junger: Thank you.

Tavis: It’s my pleasure.

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Last modified: May 15, 2014 at 12:34 am