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Legendary Journalist Sebastian Junger Is (Almost) Done Covering Wars

Sebastian Junger, who rose to fame with his best-selling book The Perfect Storm, spent months in Afghanistan’s hostile Korengal valley in 2007 and 2008. Four years after Restrepo, his film about the experience, Junger is releasing more of...

by Michael Zelenko
May 29 2014, 4:09pm

Sebastian Junger in Korengal. Photo by Tim Hetherington

Sebastian Junger knows what war is. The journalist, who rose to fame in 1997 with his best-selling book The Perfect Storm, spent months in Afghanistan’s hostile Korengal valley in 2007 and 2008. There, with photojournalist Tim Hetherington, Junger chronicled a platoon’s efforts to defend an embattled and isolated outpost in what was commonly referred to as the "deadliest place on earth." Toward the end of 2007, a fifth of all combat in Afghanistan was taking place here—50 American soldiers died in this valley. Time magazine named War, Junger’s book about the experience, one of the best nonfiction books of 2010; Restrepo, the film he directed and produced with Hetherington about their experience, was nominated for an Academy Award.

He also knows war’s costs. In 2011, Hetherington was killed in a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya, while covering the revolution. Last year, Junger made a film to memorialize the life and work of his friend, called Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?

I spoke to Junger on the eve of that film’s premiere. "Within about an hour of getting news that Tim was killed," Junger told me, "I decided to stop covering wars." The cost was too high, the risk was too extreme, and he had a family to think of.

But with Korengal, premiering this Friday, Junger revisits the horror, angst, and boredom of war one last time. Not exactly a sequel to Restrepo so much as an alternate cut, Korengal explores the psychic impact of war on those who wage it, using hours of previously unseen on-the-ground footage and interviews. Soldiers wrestle with the morality of murder and while away the dull, disappointing hours between firefights. Korengal Valley is hell, but as one soldier put it after his return from deployment, "I’d rather be there than here. I’d go back right now to Korengal."

Earlier this week I sat down with Junger at the Half King, a New York pub of which he’s part owner. Junger ordered gazpacho and a quesadilla; we both drank coffee. Over lunch, we talked about why it’s safer not to have a gun in a firefight, why he’s been bumming around train tracks, and why it’s so hard to finally walk away from war, for soldiers and journalists alike.

VICE: How did Korengal come about so many years after Restrepo?
Sebastian Junger: When Tim and I finished Restrepo, there was just an enormous amount of great material left over. Every filmmaker has that particular pain, you know, like, Oh my God, there are all these amazing scenes that we couldn’t put in the film. We tried to sell it as a three-part TV series to Nat Geo, but they didn’t go for it.  So we dropped the idea, and then Tim died. 

In January 2013 we got together with the editor from Restrepo, Michael Levine, and started talking about it in completely different terms. Michael said, "Why don’t we structure it loosely the way [War] is structured?" My book is divided into three sections: fear, killing, and love. I said, "As long as we don’t have cards that say that, it’s actually kind of an interesting way to divide the material."

It’s been seven or eight years since you filmed that footage. Were there any moments that you ran across that you’d forgotten about?
There was a very funny scene that Tim had filmed of me.  We didn’t turn the cameras on each other very often. It was before patrol, and we were all geared up, waiting to go out. It was towards the end of they year, and I knew the guys extremely well at that point.

I can hear Tim’s voice laughing, and I’m joking with the guys. They were giving me shit because I didn’t have a weapon. I was like, "Well, I’m actually so badass I don’t need a weapon. The journalist thing is just a cover—I’m actually CIA, and they sent me out here to babysit you guys, make sure you didn’t get in trouble."

And the guys were really laughing. Tim was laughing. It was just a wonderful moment, you know? It brought back a lot of good memories. I really miss that time. It was an amazing experience, and I miss those guys. I miss who I was out there. I miss the whole damn things in a lot of ways. So do a lot of them.

You hear Tim’s voice a couple of times in this film. I wonder if putting this together was a means of continuing to work with him.
I think that was a sort of unintended result more than a motivation. Frankly, I can't wait to get clear of the whole war thing. I really am done with it. 

Watching both Korengal and Restrepo, you can’t help thinking about the danger that both Tim and you put yourselves in. VICE recently had a reporter detained in Ukraine. Where should journalists draw the line when putting themselves in harm’s way?
Every society depends on, among other things, great press and free access to information. Someone’s got to do it somewhere. Or we’ll slide into a kind of Dark Age of oppression. The free press is one of the only things keeping us from that. Wars that go unreported—like Rwanda—tend to be way, way worse than the wars that get very reported. Someone has to do it.

In the 1860s, when the only way to get mail across the country was the Pony Express, they had posters advertising work with the Pony Express. You had to be an expert rider, an expert shot, etc. And you had to be an orphan, or orphans were preferred. The risks were enormous, and if an orphan got killed, it affected other people less than if a guy with three kids and a family got killed. It’s some equivalent of that. It’s like, you're 24, not married, and you don’t have kids. I mean, it’s going to suck for your parents if you get killed, but at least that’s all. By the time you’ve got a family and stuff, the calculation starts to change about what risks you're willing to run. And the more people you're going to affect with your death, the smaller the risk should be.

So does the motivation behind throwing yourself into something like Korengal come from a journalistic duty, or from a personal urge to get into the thick of it, to be part of the action?
I think it’s both. Firemen love being firemen, right? I think they also have some sense that someone’s got to do this and that it’s an honorable job, but they also fucking love it. I think it’s a little bit the same. There's not a journalist out there who’s doing war reporting strictly out of a sense of duty to humanity and who doesn’t love it. I’m sorry. It’s just not happening. They're all getting something out of it, as well they should.

Being a journalist in a wa rzone without a weapon—are you in more peril than the soldiers you’re embedded with?
You have to understand how combat works: The risk isn’t individual. They're shooting from 500 meters at a group of men. It’s not a gunfight in a room where if you're the only guy without a gun, you're fucked. They're shooting automatic weapons at a quarter mile in your general direction.

If I jumped on to the field during an NFL game, I wouldn’t add much to the team that’s running the play. I’m five foot eight, and I don’t know how to play football. Combat is a lot like football—it’s very formulaic. If you don’t know the plays, with or without a gun, you're not going to help much.

Whether you're carrying a gun or not doesn’t affect whether a bullet hits you. Now, the only difference I can say is that if you have a gun, you really are morally obligated to fire in defense of the group. You can't fire a gun without exposing yourself to the guy that’s firing at you. I mean, if we’re behind a boulder, you have to at least peak out from behind the boulder to shoot effectively at the guy shooting at you, and you're now exposed. If you don’t have a gun, you don’t have to do that. In that sense, having a gun actually puts you in more risk. 

The release of your film comes a week after Memorial Day, and it also happens to coincide with the VA scandal that’s unfolding. You’re close with a lot of the veterans you covered in this film—what is it about American society that we treat veterans as though they’re completely disposable?
Our society has a big problem with that. Low-wage earners are seen as disposable in this society. Coal miners, oil-rig workers, fishermen—you know what I mean? All the people we depend on for society to function are seen as disposable. And soldiers are part of that. Like, the more essential and necessary a person’s job is, the less their value, you know?

We actually don’t need hedge-fund managers. We would survive fine without them, or celebrities—and those people are admired. It’s this inverse relationship between the people we need the most, we value the least, and the people we need the least, we value the most. I don’t know why this society does that. It’s insane. Healthy societies don’t do that, but we do.

I studied anthropology in college. If you're a Cheyenne fighter in the 1850s fighting white encroachment into Colorado and Wyoming, your tribe values you. They get it. They understand what you're doing, they value your courage, and they honor your death. It’s been like that for 50,000 years for human beings. Now all of a sudden, the people that this society depends on to survive get very, very little respect and appreciation. Societies that operate that way aren’t going to survive very long.

Photo courtesy of Outpost Films

Now that you’ve left war behind, what’s next?
I just finished another film called The Last Patrol. I noticed going down to DC with Tim once that almost for the entire Amtrak line down to DC, there's a way to walk along the tracks: service roads, dirt bike trails, corn fields. The tracks themselves went right through the ghetto in Baltimore, right through the farms, right through the swamps, the woods, and the suburbs. You're really seeing America from the inside out.  I said to Tim, "Listen, we should walk that sometime—DC to New York, along the railroad lines, carrying everything we need; do a sort of high-speed vagrancy up the East Coast from DC to New York."

And then Tim got killed. So I got two combat vets from Restrepo and my new friend, Guillermo Cervera—who was with Tim when he died—and the four of us set out from DC. We did it over the course of a year. We bought our food as we went; we swam in rivers and got our water out of creeks; we slept in the woods, or under bridges, or in abandoned buildings. We cooked over fires. I brought my dog, Daisy. It was 15 degrees in the winter, and 100 degrees in the summer. We walked through everything. We asked people as we went what they thought of America. Like, How’s America doing? What do you like best about this country? What do you dislike the most? We had long conversations around campfires.

One of the takeaways from Korengal, as well as Restrepo, is how hard it is for veterans to reenter everyday life, how hard it is to function in a mundane environment after you’ve been in life-or-death scenarios. It seems like that’s as true for soldiers as it is for conflict reporters. It sounds like The Last Patrol was a way to inject some adventure into the dullness of life.
Normal life is dull; you just don’t realize it. It’s not without its merits, but it’s dull. I mean, the opposite of dull is something happening that has huge consequences, right? There's consequences on the one side, and dullness on the other side. And the more consequences there are, the less dull things become. And the ultimate consequences are life and death, right? That really gets your attention—it’s the opposite of dull.  We’ve made society in such a way that consequences are kept to a minimum for almost everything.

So how do you find pleasure and excitement in a life that’s admittedly dull?
I think it’s very hard. Young men really seek excitement—I think they're neurologically wired for it. They seek closeness, and they seek excitement, and they get both in combat. And then they come back, and there's no excitement, and there's no closeness. It’s a very alienating, isolating society we live in. And there's no danger, right? So they're dosed up on adrenaline and closeness for a year, and they come back here, and they flat-line, because there isn’t any of either. It’s tremendously hard for them. I think there are little tricks, like The Last Patrol, that give you some of that feeling of closeness.

Now that you’ve left war reporting behind, do you see yourself reporting on veteran issues?
No, I don’t think so. After The Last Patrol comes out, I’ll have moved on to other things. 

So The Last Patrol is a farewell to war for you as well as the veterans that you walked with.
Yeah. I mean, we’re still doing it—still walking the rail lines—we’re just not filming it anymore. We just like it. All of us at the beginning said that we were never going back to war again. Now Guillermo’s in Ukraine, and Dave went back to Afghanistan. Two out of four relapsed. Our casualty rate was 50 percent—half of the group failed to stay away from it.

Why take the train tracks and not a hiking trail?
Woods are easy to figure out—I could live in the woods indefinitely. No problem. What’s hard to figure out is navigating through ghettos, and suburbs, and dealing with society. You're not in the wilderness; you're in the margins of society. You need just enough woods for concealment and cover, so people don’t spot you when you're asleep. But you also need access—you have to buy food as you go. You need to get water. It’s a very complicated problem. You're dodging the police, the Amtrak police. Anyone can hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s easy, and you're supposed to do it.

You encounter people on the tracks. Last time I was out there with a couple friends, we saw this guy walking along the track by himself. There's, like, five of us, and he saw us coming. He stopped, got a pistol out of his bag, and put it in his back pocket. That made us think, you know? He was cool, but he didn’t know if we were cool. There was this very edgy conversation, and then we kept going. Everything was all right. The Appalachian Trail is lovely, but it’s been preserved and set aside for people to do one thing, which is appreciate nature. We’re trying to understand our own society. You're not going to do that on the Appalachian Trail.

So you skirt society.
We’re making ourselves intentionally marginal. When you do that, you understand yourself better, and you understand the things that you're marginal to better. If you want to be marginal, all you have to do is leave your home and not go home that night. Walk out the door, don’t go home that night, and you're marginal.

It’s amazing. It’s incredible how fast you feel that way. You're not part of society anymore. If you're walking around looking for a place to sleep, you're marginal. Wondering where you can get water? You're marginal. Am I safe here, under this bridge? Are there local guys who are going to roll up in a pickup truck and beat me up? You're marginal. And all you have to do is not come home, and you're there.  

So where will the last patrol end?
The Pacific. A couple hundred miles a year. I figure I’ll be at the Pacific in my 70s.

It’ll take a while.
It’ll take a while, I know. But I have a while, hopefully.

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