Interview with Sebastian Junger: part one


Yesterday flights of F-16s buzzed my neighborhood twice - just before the Red Sox game and at the start of the Esplanade concert -  the earsplitting roar giving Bostonians a slight taste of business as usual for our troops serving in Afghanistan. For more of the same take a look at  journalist/author Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington's documentary "Restrepo,"  an account of some 14 months they spent with a unite of elite airbourne troops on the title base high in the Korengal mountains on the Pakistan border, perhaps the deadliest piece of real estate on the planet.

I got a chance to talk with Junger on the phone a couple of weeks ago. You might recall him as the author of the 1997 bestseller "The Perfect Storm" about the loss of a Gloucester tuna boat during the title blow, later made into a Wolfgang Petersen movie in 2000 starring George Clooney, who might well play the part when the biopic of Junger's own life is finally put together. The guy has a Hemingwayesque drive for confronting extreme experiences and writing about them.

In the past decade he's put in time in various war zones and killing fields from Bosnia to Liberia to Sierra Leone as well as Afghanistan and written articles in "Vanity Fair" and other publications about it. This is his first movie, and you can gain an insight into the advantages and limitations of prose versus cinema by comparing "Restrepo" with Junger's book on the same subject, "War." (What an interesting idea! Maybe I should ask about that, he says pedantically.)

PK: The whole [General] McChrystal [interview and resignation] thing must seem a little serendipitous. Do you think that the film will have a special relevance now with this controversy?

SB: I don't know if it's special relevance. I mean definitely focusing the media on Afghanistan, I mean McChrystal wasn't even in yet when I was over there. In that sense it's not relevant. But it's definitely bringing the war into the public conversation. I think it had been absorbed by the BP disaster for a while, and now it's back on Afghanistan. It's such a critical, critical story. And it can play out in so many bad ways. And it's probably good that whatever it took, McChrystal or whatever, it's good that it's back on the center of the table again.

PK: It never really was since 2001. Then it was off to Iraq for the next 7 years. It was really the war that nobody cared to talk about.

SJ: Yeah. I've been traveling to Afghanistan since 1996 to report, and in 2001 I was with the Northern Alliance, and the people in Kabul were just overjoyed. Apparently 90% of Afghans in 2002 approved of the American military actions in Afghanistan. They saw it as a way out from under the oppression of the Taliban. They hated the Taliban. It was completely squandered because we left a few thousand troops there. [By comparison] There's 40,000 cops in NYC. It wasn't going to work; the Afghans knew it wasn't going to work. I think a lot of their ambivalence about partnering with us, it didn't stem so much from an ambivalence about us, it was they couldn't believe the low level of focus in the wake of 9/11 that merited [only] 15,000 troops in Afghanistan. I think that literally blew their minds. For me it's such a wasted opportunity. It's really tragic for them and for us.

PK: We're also kind of responsible for getting into that situation in the first place. But you said that you don't want any politics to detract from the immediacy of the movie. 

SJ: I mean, we would have been happy to have politics in there had the soldiers been political about it. But they're not. Our sort of self-given mandate, or focus, our assignment for this movie was to make a movie that shows what it's like to be a soldier in combat. Period. So the camera never leaves the sides of the soldiers. If there were situations where the soldiers were asking generals, "Sir, what are we doing here?" that would have been in the movie, absolutely. But they didn't do that, so we didn't do that. Likewise for the political conversation, if they sat around talking about the Bush Administration, Iraq, the wider war, the human cost of war - that kind of thing -all very legitimate conversations, had they had those kinds of conversations they would have been in the movie. But they didn't and so those topics didn't come up.

PK: Were you surprised by that?

SJ: Not really. I've covered cops, I've covered firemen, I've covered forest firefighters - people on the ground doing a hard job can't and they really don't focus on the big picture. In my mind, I'm also surprised that people apply an expectation to the soldiers that they don't for the police, like it's the same thing. And no one's surprised that the police don't sit around and don't talk about socioeconomic conditions.

PK: You had 150 hours of film and you had to reduce it to 94 minutes. What were some of your guiding principles if there was no real political thesis involved?

SJ: Our guiding principles, there were two of them. One I sort of mentioned is that the movie can't contain anything that isn't part of the soldiers' reality. No interviews with generals, because they couldn't do that. We wanted to understand what it's like to be a soldier. That's it. In some ways, for the purpose of this, I mean I've studied Afghanistan, I know more about it than I'm admitting in the film. But for the purpose of the film we didn't want to cloud the film with our understanding of the big picture, because they weren't doing that. That was our first guiding principle.

The other is in doing the edit. I mean, look, with 150 hours you can say anything. You can make those guys look like monstrous killers, you can make them look like noble patriots; you can really send any message you want. Our guiding principle was, in watching the movie, are we experiencing the same feelings, the same emotions, that we had at the time when we were out there? As long as there was an emotional concordance between the experience we had with them and what it feels like for us to watch the movie in the edit room, we felt like we were on the right track. There were scenes we attempted that were kind of clever, maybe a little cliché, but it was a familiar cliché that people respond to, or whatever, and we put these scenes together, and it would feel a little bit false, even though it was actual footage that we had shot out there, sometimes you can construct footage in different ways and it would feel false, so we would get rid of those scenes.

PK: How is this different than putting together a book? You also have a book about the same experience.

SJ: Yes, I have a book called "War."

Words and visuals are powerful in completely different ways. With words you can explore ideas. In a film you can't explore ideas really unless you are formally interviewing people outside of the topic, and you know maybe interviewing a psychologist about how fear works or something like that. Great, no problem for a documentary, it just wasn't our documentary. They compliment each other in the sense that being in a cinema, a dark cinema with a loud sound system and a big screen is a completely immersive experience. No one jumps when they read a sentence that includes, "and then the mortars exploded." People do jump when they hear a mortar go off in a movie. One is sort of attacking your nervous system at very basic, primal level. The other is engaging your mind at a much more intellectual level. That's the human brain right there. I feel that the two compliment each other in the sense that they're engaging two very separate, but very necessary parts of the human brain.

PK: For example early in the film when you're cruising around in a Humvee and all of a sudden something happens. That's the difference between the printed page and cinema. I noticed that in the book that happens later in your stay there than when it happens in the film. Is there a reason for that change in chronology?

SJ: Yeah, I mean you don't have much room in a film to explain things. You have 94 minutes. You make decisions, I mean you can't violate any timelines that are crucial to historical accuracy. But that IED was one of many that went off in Kunar Province, and it was a constant threat. And what we needed to do with the audience immediately was to engage them on a very raw, violent, emotional level. So we opened the movie with that. Initially we had it in the middle of the movie, where roughly it occurred in the timeline, and it threw the structure off so badly it didn't work. It made for this awful, clunky narrative. We were just gonna lose the footage altogether. And then I just thought, what if we start with it? And because it's disconnected from battle company anyway, it seemed like a fair enough way to open the movie.

PK: Would you say that this was one of the most harrowing experiences that you've had?

SJ: No, not even close. I was among friends out there, which is incredibly psychologically so much easier. I'm with a platoon of US infantry, I completely trusted them, we were friends. Everything that happened to me was happening to everyone around me. There was an incredible sense of group safety. Not that I didn't get scared out there, I mean everybody did. What psychologically was extremely hard to deal with is the sense of incredible vulnerability you have when you're all alone in, for example, and African civil war. But even the guys that you're with, you know they're drugged out 15-year-olds with AK-47s, and you can't really trust them. That to me is the stuff of nightmares. I really don't have the nerve for it. Compared to that, this was not that bad.

PK: So you'd go back to the base in Afghanistan, but you wouldn't go back, for example, to Liberia during a civil war?

SJ: I'd go back to Restrepo in a heartbeat. It's hard to calculate danger. I'm not saying one is more or less dangerous than the other. But psychologically it is extremely hard to be the lone white reporter in an African civil war with African soldiers, half of whom think you're an American spy. I've had so many bad situations over there. I've had people come up and poke me in the chest with a finger and say "I'm gonna kill you later." To me, that's terrifying.

PK: That's a different kind of adrenaline rush than what you experienced in Afghanistan.

SJ: That's not even adrenaline. That's like being injected with poison. You just go kind of toxic and weak in the knees. I had real trouble keeping my fight after that.

NEXT: War is a force that gives 19-year-olds' lives meaning.

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