Investigative journalist talks about his new book, War, detailing the months he spent embedded with an Army troop in Afghanistan.
Tavis: Sebastian Junger is a best-selling author and contributing editor at Vanity Fair whose latest text is the result of five trips he took to Afghanistan for the magazine. The new book is called War.
He’s also out next month with a companion documentary called Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sebastian, good to have you back on the program, sir.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you. Good to be here.
Tavis: Good to have you here again. I assume – the first thing that got my attention about the book was – and I want to talk about the cover in just a second here – but the title. I assume that there was a deliberate reason or reasons why you chose to call the book very simply War.
Junger: Yes, there was, absolutely. I wanted to write about the experience of being in combat which I think hasn’t changed much war to war, century to century, what it’s like for young men in combat. My goal was not to write about the Afghan war per se. I didn’t want to write about the George Bush administration. It was about what it’s like to be in a platoon in combat for 15 months at a remote outpost.
Tavis: And the value of that for the everyday Americans’ understanding is what?
Junger: Well, there’s a lot of coverage of the political dimensions of this war and a lot of debate about it as there should be. But in all that debate, what drops out is the experience of the soldiers themselves.
They’re volunteers, they’ve chosen to serve this country and I feel that, when these guys come home – it was all men in the Korengal Valley where I was. It was all men. When they come home, if the public can understand what they went through just simply on an emotional level rather than seeing it politically, it will really help in their return.
Tavis: If your earlier point is correct that not much has changed when it comes to war in terms of fighting at least, the hand-to-hand combat on a daily basis, then what is it about the experience of these soldiers that you think we’re going to be more sensitive to than we’ve been sensitive to about soldiers coming home in the past because, frankly, we ain’t done a good job of being sensitive to veterans?
What is it about this war that’s gonna make us all of a sudden wake up and become more sensitive to their plight when they come back?
Junger: Well, I think war becomes very politicized and I think there’s very little reporting in any war about what the men themselves go through. I mean, had they sat around talking about the politics of the war, those discussions would have been in the book, but they really didn’t.
I think that’s been true of most wars and I think what I really wanted to do was write a book that concentrated on their reality and that reality did not include the big questions. It really didn’t.
Tavis: So what do they sit around and talk about? While we’re talking about back home, the politics of the war, they’re talking about what?
Junger: They’re talking about how to survive out there. They talk about girls. They talk about the car they’re going to buy when they get home. They’re all still in the Army. All except for one guy in the platoon, they’re still in the military. They’re based in Vicenza, Italy. But the job right in front of them is very narrow. I mean, they’re in a six-mile long valley.
We were at a 15 to 20-man outpost on this hilltop. There’s no running water. They couldn’t bathe for a month at a time. There was no internet, no phone, no communication with the outside world and the outpost was attacked sometimes three or four times a day. So what they talked about was how to survive in that situation and not get killed.
Tavis: As political as this war is and has been, you didn’t get any sense of their feelings about the politics of the war or whether or not they should be there in the first place?
Junger: They understood that 9/11, 2000 people dead in New York, propelled the United States into Afghanistan. They had some sense that the Afghans were, at least early on, quite grateful, that the civil war that was tearing that country apart was stopped by the NATO military action after 9/11. They did have a sense of that. But the rights and wrongs, should we be here or not, was really not part of the discussion.
Tavis: Young people, and I mean this from 18 down to two, young folk today are so much more aware, given the world that we live in and technology and the internet, all the things that you mentioned earlier. We just have a generation that’s much more aware of the world and its surroundings than they were, you know, 50 years ago.
I raise that to ask whether or not you sensed anything unusual, different or striking about these particular people? Because they’re still young. The one thing that hasn’t changed is they were young boys back in the day, they’re young boys today. Talk to me about the youth of these guys.
Junger: The youngest guy there was 11 years old on 9/11. He was from Georgia.
Tavis: He was 11 when 9/11 happened.
Junger: Yeah, so he was 18 out at this outpost. I asked him why he joined and he said, “Well, I remember in fifth grade my teacher came into the classroom in the morning and told us what happened in New York City and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I was 11 years old and I thought I’m gonna join the Army as soon as I can because we need to do something.” I was just sort of amazed.
I mean, I wasn’t thinking that way when I was 11. I wasn’t thinking that way when I was 25, for that matter, you know. Now I do because I’m a journalist and it’s my job to think on those terms. But when I was 11 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about my country at all. I don’t know if that’s a new thing, probably not, but I was really impressed by that.
Tavis: I’m glad you said impressed. I was about to ask whether or not you took that as naiveté or courage, bravery.
Junger: I don’t think it was either. I think it was just a sense of duty. I remember when I was – my father came from Europe and he was old enough to see, you know, what the Germans did to Europe and how the United States came in, sort of, to the rescue. When I was a teenager, there was no more draft, but you had to register for the draft.
I was sort of like, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” My father said, “It’s not ridiculous. If you live in a country, you owe that country something. If your country needs you, they’ll call upon you and, if it’s the wrong war, you can go to Canada. But you should register now because this isn’t a free ride. You’re an American citizen. It’s not a free ride.” That really stuck with me.
Tavis: You said earlier that the guys weren’t sitting around talking politics as we are back here in the country. They were talking more, to your point, about how they’re going to survive. Did you get any sense at all that they felt that they were surviving something that was worthless or unwinnable?
Junger: No, I didn’t. Their perspective was very narrow. They were in a very small valley and, throughout their deployment, their control of the valley increased greatly. The connection with the locals improved greatly and their casualties dropped dramatically.
So in their narrow little window, the war was going quite well and they really were not aware of or particularly interested in the bigger picture. It really was not relevant to them.
Tavis: You were imbedded for how long with these guys?
Junger: I did five one-month trips.
Tavis: Five one-month trips. There’s been great debate, at least in my circles, about what it means to have journalists who are imbedded these days. I wrote this down because I wanted to quote you accurately on this. I rarely do this, but I want to get this quote exactly right.
This is a quote from you about being imbedded. “Essentially you become a soldier. I don’t mean you carry a gun, but you live with soldiers in exactly the same circumstance they’re living in.”
It’s that first part I want to deconstruct, though, “Essentially you become a soldier.” Why is that not dangerous for us American citizens when we’re reading what you guys are reporting if you essentially become a soldier when you’re imbedded?
Junger: I think that was a quote in an interview. What I meant was that the circumstances of your life are not removed from the circumstances of the soldiers. You eat what they eat, you sleep where they sleep, you run the same risks that they run.
If you’re in a dangerous situation and you have to remain quiet and immobile in hiding on a hillside or you’ll get shot at, it doesn’t matter that you’re a civilian. You can’t stand up and start shouting. In that sense, you have to become a soldier.
Intellectually, mentally, your job is to not become a soldier. You can’t start sort of cheering when, you know, they kill the enemy and that kind of thing. It’s not a football game. It’s a tricky balance, but it is doable.
Tavis: To your point now, you believe it is doable. You believe it’s doable, number one, and you believe that our media has done a fair – pardon the pun – a fair and balanced job of covering the war in Afghanistan even though they’ve been imbedded?
Junger: I don’t think you can get the whole story if you’re imbedded. Listen, there are good reporters and bad reporters like in anything. It’s hard to talk collectively about the media, but it’s very important that journalists spend a lot of time with the local populace.
I started going to Afghanistan in 1996 to write about the terrorist training camps outside of Jalalabad. Afghans there would say to me like there’s foreigners in the hills training and we can’t even go up there and we’re Afghan. They’ll shoot at us.
So my first three trips to Afghanistan were with the local populace. That’s very, very important. If you never cover the soldiers – the soldiers are having a huge impact on that country. If you never cover the soldiers, that’s a gap, that’s a hole in the coverage which can be very dangerous because then the military thinks there’s no oversight at all, there’s no scrutiny, maybe no accountability.
My partner and I shot 150 hours of video during our trips. We have video of fire fights, of American casualties, of civilian casualties. We have video of everything and it’s that video and this reporting that ultimately makes the U.S. military very aware of its actions and I think quite careful.
Tavis: I’m glad you raised that because the last question for me, I think, is how it is that you write a book about war and properly situated?
Put another way, how do you write a book about war when you’re imbedded with American soldiers and make sure that, when you come out at the end with the book and the documentary, it’s been properly contextualized because war always has two sides to it?
Junger: Absolutely. You know, I wasn’t even trying to do that. The point of my book was to give readers an understanding of what it’s like to be a soldier. Soldiers don’t really contextualize what they’re doing. They really don’t.
There are so many great reporters out there and, for proper context, you do need to read The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times. You do need to have conversations and watch news reports about the war in general, but that wasn’t what I was doing.
Tavis: I want to close by this photograph on the back here, if we can zoom in on this, and have you explain to me what this – explain this photo.
Junger: This is out at Opi Restrepo, this tiny outpost on this hill where I spent one year. This is a squad rumble.
Tavis: A squad rumble.
Junger: It’s first squad versus second squad. It’s friendly. You know, it’s rough play basically. There was a lot of combat and, when things died down and there was no combat, the guys got kind of bored. Eventually after a few days, the tension would erupt in a kind of big fight basically.
Tavis: (Laughter) That’s fascinating. I wanted you to explain that because I was trying to get what that was. The new book from Sebastian Junger is called simply War. Sebastian, good to have you on the program.
Junger: It’s a pleasure.
Tavis: My pleasure to have you.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm