Hotseat: Sebastian Junger

The filmmaker and bestselling author talks Afghanistan, building trust with soldiers and why he's done covering war.

EMBEDDED: Sebastian Junger on location in Afghanistan.

In the early '90s, Sebastian Junger was an aspiring fiction writer, living in Cape Cod and waiting tables to pay the bills. Then he decided to "actually do something real": report on the war in Bosnia. It was, he says, "an accelerated journalism-school experience." Junger, 52, has gone on to become one of the foremost American writers on the topic of war, particularly when it comes to conveying the experiences of U.S. combat veterans.

For his newest film, Junger delved even deeper. In 2007, Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded with an American platoon in one of the most remote and dangerous regions of Afghanistan. Over the course of the company's 15-month tour in the Korengal Valley, they documented the soldiers' lives. Their 2010 documentary Restrepo, which was nominated for an Oscar, was the first product of those trips, and now Junger has produced Korengal, an intimate look into the psyche of these American infantrymen during and after their harrowing tour of duty. (See a review of Korengal here.)

Junger sat down with WW to discuss his new film, Hetherington's death, the so-called military-civilian divide, and why he misses war but will never go back.

WW: How does Korengal differ from Restrepo? 

Sebastian Junger: With Restrepo, we wanted to make a film that allowed audiences—indirectly, of course—to experience what combat's like. You go into a dark room for 90 minutes and you're on that hilltop with those guys. There are no interviews with generals, no musical scores, no narration. You're just stuck there on that hilltop experiencing combat. That's a powerful thing to do, but it has its limitations. You can't really talk about things, because it's a visceral film. 

Korengal I thought of more as an inquiry into how combat affects young men and what the consequences are for them as they come home. I didn't reshoot anything. I just went back into the original body of material that Tim and I shot, and the interviews we did shortly after the deployment, and found these incredible discussions and scenes that really illuminated combat in a way Restrepo didn't. I thought of Korengal in some ways as being for the soldiers themselves to more fully understand their experience. With understanding comes healing, and a lot of those guys really need to heal. And in some ways the nation needs to heal, too. That's not even an anti-war statement. It's a matter of reality. If you're engaged in war, you need to heal afterward.

How did you build trust with these soldiers? 

There are two things going on there. There are the preconceptions journalists have. Then there are the preconceptions soldiers have about journalists. Those are both problems. A friend of mine said: "Journalists shouldn't tell people what to think. They should tell them what to think about." That's a very good guideline. If you're going to be a journalist, you must play prosecution and defense at the same time. Tim and I were very clearly not implementing an agenda in our work, and after the first Vanity Fair article came out, that was clear to the soldiers.

The other part of the problem is a more general human problem. It's hard to become part of a group that's already formed and self-sufficient, where everyone is necessary in that group, and you're an outsider. They don't need you, and they don't have any reason to want you. It's like being the new kid in school. Where do you sit at lunch in the cafeteria? And that breaks down over time. If you show that you're invested in the same common goal—that you're willing to sacrifice or endure things like they are—eventually they're like, "All right, you're one of us."

Hetherington was your filmmaking partner in the Korengal Valley, and he was killed in 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. Can you talk about your relationship with him? 

We got really close while making the film. We'd been through a lot together, not just on the battlefield. We really trusted each other, and his loss was an incredible blow and reverberated through my life in all kinds of ways, including an almost instantaneous decision to stop covering war. We were on assignment together, and almost at the last minute, I had to back out for personal reasons. He went on his own anyway and got killed. I felt incredibly guilty about it and responsible and awful, and I just immediately decided I wasn't going to cover combat anymore. I was done.

What ethical decisions did you face with these films?

The Army has a rule that you can't show the face of a dead American soldier, and you can only show a wounded soldier with permission from that soldier. Both of these are very good rules. It's the same reason you don't show the faces of people killed in car accidents. There's a certain propriety in this society that I think is ethical. There are a lot of strong feelings about losing someone in combat, and I'd imagine the family does not want to feel their dead son is simply a politically charged, titillating photo in the nightly news. The feelings of those families should be absolutely respected.

Some people argue that America has a cultural divide between civilians and those who've served in the military. What's your take on that?

The key thing is ownership. I own a car, for example, so on some level, I have to own global warming. I also have to own the fact that people die on oil rigs. Yes, they volunteered for the job, but they're dying nonetheless. This society doesn't own the stuff it requires. I don't think soldiers expect citizens to fully understand war, but they have the right to expect that we all own our national decision. It's not the soldiers' war, it's our war. Even if some of us disagree with it, it's still our war. That's what soldiers have a problem with: They want us to take ownership.

What's your next project? 

I just finished a documentary for HBO called The Last Patrol. I took two of the soldiers from Korengal, and Guillermo Cervera, who was holding Tim's hand when Tim died, and we made five different trips over a year, walking in every season along the railroad lines from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. We slept under bridges and in abandoned houses and negotiated our way through ghettos, suburbs, everything. It was kind of high-speed vagrancy with my dog and a cameraman, and we made this incredible journey, talking about why war is so hard to let go of and come home from. It's about the process of coming home for four guys and our encounter with America.

Many veterans feel combat will always be the most extraordinary thing they've done. Do you feel that way?

In terms of adrenaline and meaningfulness and consequence, combat's hard to beat. But that's not all there is to life. And I think you can find tremendous meaning in things that are a little quieter and more contemplative. I don't have kids, but I imagine a walk in Central Park with your kid is pretty fucking meaningful in ways that combat isn't. And as you get older, the things that feel meaningful shift from the dramatic to the quieter. I don't know quite where I am on that scale. Combat is definitely very dramatic, and I understand why I was drawn to it, but I'm really glad I'm not messing around with that right now. I'm really glad, but I miss it.

What do you hope people take away from your work?

War is a very politically charged topic, and I think it's really helpful if civilians try to drop their preconceptions and try to understand what the soldiers went through for us. It's not their war, it's our war. I hope my film allows civilians a chance to do that. The right wing doesn't like to acknowledge the real moral damage that comes from killing people, and the left wing doesn't like to acknowledge that soldiers sign up for the military with tremendous enthusiasm and often miss combat after it's over. I hope my film undermines those sort of facile truths at both ends of the ideological spectrum. 

SEE IT: Korengal is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.