Sebastian Junger on war reporting, friendship, loss and the movies
Sebastian Junger grew up in a comfortable suburb of Boston. As a young man, he worked as a waiter at restaurants, he was paid to climb trees for trimming companies.
If you go
WHAT: An evening with Sebastian Junger
WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Nov. 13 (6 p.m. VIP cocktail reception)
WHERE: Rivers Green, behind Addlestone Library, 205 Calhoun St.
COST: $45 for lecture only; $125 for lecture and VIP reception
MORE INFO:alumni.cofc.edu/events/evening-with-sebastian-junger; or contact Stephanie Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 953-6526.
He was not satisfied.
So he went to Bosnia in 1993, the year after Serbians, under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic, lay siege to Sarajevo and began persecuting, then killing, Muslims and Croats. Junger, then 31 years old, had decided to become a war correspondent.
“I went for the same reason a lot of young men go as journalists or soldiers,” he said. “I think I wanted to test myself. War has been a place to do that. ... I wanted to be a war reporter; it seemed like an intense, interesting job.”
He freelanced, filing radio stories mostly, and a few newspaper articles. He was charting a course, launching a career as a writer, seeking to satisfy his curiosity about the world, flirting with danger.
“War has a random element that’s pretty unnerving,” Junger said. “It is unpleasant to be subject to it. But the experience of war would change me in ways that I wanted to be changed. And the work itself, communicating information to the world, seemed like noble work.”
Junger will be in town Nov. 13, a guest of the College of Charleston’s Friends of the Library, to share his wartime experiences and more.
The event, part of the Addlestone Authors’ Series, starts at 6 p.m. with a VIP reception at Rivers Green (behind the library), followed by a 7:15 p.m. keynote address by Junger. Access to the lecture costs $45; tickets for the lecture and reception cost $125.
‘Anybody can do it’
Junger’s experience in Bosnia stoked his interest, he said. But he wouldn’t return to war for a couple of years. First there was that not-so-small matter of the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter and the Andrea Gail fishing vessel that was consumed by it.
‘Anybody can do it’
The war correspondent was soon to become famous as the author of “The Perfect Storm,” in which he described the Northeast’s fishing industry and chronicled the last days of the boat’s six-man crew.
“Literally the day after I was done (writing the book), I flew to Delhi, then to Afghanistan,” he said. It was 1996. He was reporting from the Tora Bora mountains. A year later, the book came out and Junger did those things that authors of best-sellers do, including, in his case, negotiate with Hollywood. Soon after, he was in Kosovo, and then, in 2000, back to Afghanistan.
“After 9/11, my work in Afghanistan gained new importance,” he said.
People go to war — soldiers, diplomats, journalists — for personal reasons, Junger said. For him, it was an important thing to do, a noble venture that would result in the dissemination of critical information that could help policy makers and citizens of the world understand better what was happening and, consequently, make better decisions about what ideas and which politicians to support.
“But anybody can do it,” Junger quickly added, dispensing with any suggestion of pretense.
Maybe anybody could do it, but few make the attempt. And even fewer embed themselves with a platoon of fighters in the remote and dangerous Korangal Valley of Afghanistan.
But that’s what Junger did, beginning in May 2007. He was joined by his friend and colleague, the photojournalist and videographer Tim Hetherington. Together they made the documentary “Restrepo” (2009) and produced the book “War” (2010). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and the book landed hard on the best-seller list.
In unvarnished terms, they described a year at war with 15 soldiers from the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based at the austere outpost called Restrepo, named after a soldier who was killed earlier.
Junger said he experienced moments of fear and doubt, moments when the horror and violence he was witnessing penetrated his awareness as something more than mere observation.
It occurred to him that the dry valley could be the last landscape he sees.
But then another thought intruded: “If I’m not here, and others aren’t here to see this, the world won’t know about it.”
The roadside bombing that opens “Restrepo” didn’t dissuade him. The bullets that whizzed inches from his head, penetrating a nearby sandbag, didn’t chase him away.
“A miss by an inch is as good as a mile,” he said. Either you live or you die.
Loss and regret
Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston, said Junger’s visit could not be more timely.
Loss and regret
“One of the reasons we’re so excited is a lot of his work relates to major policy and political issues of the day,” Knotts said. “Students today know nothing else in our country but being at war. It’s really shaped them. I suspect many of the students know someone who’s been deployed. It’s definitely affected a lot of people, raises a lot of questions about the 21st century world we live in and how the U.S. can engage in a pretty complicated international environment.”
Knotts said he’s glad for Junger’s visit also for personal reasons.
“ ‘The Perfect Storm’ came out as I started my academic career,” he said. “The stuff he did relates most to what I do for a living,” which is study American politics and public policy.
Junger helps us remember the sacrifices of many Americans and the value of living in a democratic society where opinions can be freely expressed, Knotts said. And he reminds us that freedom requires vigilance and cooperation, that “we come together and work across the aisle for the betterment of something bigger. That seems to be missing from today’s political discourse.”
In 2011, as the U.S. prepared for its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the conflict in Libya flared, and Tim Hetherington, traveling with rebel fighters, went to the besieged town of Misrata that April, capturing images of the civil war at the front lines.
A mortar or rocket propelled grenade attack by Moammar Gadhafi forces killed him and fellow photographer Chris Hondros, and it gravely wounded photographer Guy Martin.
Junger was badly shaken by Hetherington’s death.
“I immediately decided to stop war reporting,” he said, “within an hour.”
And he endured “some unavoidable regrets,” that he wasn’t there with his friend, that he could not save him, help him, comfort him.
“I felt responsible even though I was 4,000 miles away,” Junger said. “So it gave me insight into how soldiers feel when they’re four feet away.”
So he is done with covering such conflicts, even if sometimes he wishes he had spent more time in the bunkers, at the outposts and on the front lines.
Now he is observing the Afghanistan conflict from a distance, wondering how the Afghans will figure out what to do once U.S. fighters are gone, wondering what might have happened in that war-torn country had George W. Bush not taken his eye off the ball.
“Bush made a massive mistake putting 90 percent of our resources in Iraq,” Junger said. “The Afghans wanted us there originally. Even the Pashtuns were tired of the Taliban, and happy to see someone come in a restore order.”
He said he boycotted the Iraq war, refused to cover it.
“I thought it was a mistake,” he said. “I thought Afghanistan was justified.”
Now Junger is turning his journalistic eye to another sort of conflict, the one caused by poverty and vagrancy.
He is making a new documentary and writing a companion book about a series of long walks he took with returning veterans, 300 miles along the railroad tracks between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.
The effort, four walks in 2012, one per season, gave him a different perspective on America, its treatment of vets and vagrants, its attitudes about politics, religion and class, he said.
With him on this latest adventure was a small video crew and his dog, Daisey. On each of the four walks, he carried more than 60 pounds of equipment, he interviewed dozens of people, he tried to avoid arrest.
“All of them were brutal in their own way,” he said of the segments of his journey.
The film, called “The Last Patrol,” will be broadcast by HBO.
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