There's no shortage of writers who focus on the strange and dangerous things young men do. But few tackle their macho subjects with an earnest voice and bona fide investigative skills. Maybe it's because Sebastian Junger—National Magazine Award winner, Vanity Fair contributor—cornered that market. The scruffy scribe has written about war zones from Sarajevo to Sierra Leone, as well as what he calls "necessary but very dangerous" guy jobs, from smoke jumping (Fire) to deep-sea fishing (The Perfect Storm). If Hemingway were alive, he might be reading Junger—and challenging him to a wrestling match.
Junger's latest project combines his dual interests. Produced with videographer Tim Hetheringon, Restrepo is a riveting documentary that charts the highs and lows of a single, all-male infantry platoon of the 173rd Airborne's Battle Company in a remote outpost of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. It follows on the heels of his book, War, which describes the platoon's experience in greater psychological detail. The soldiers of Battle saw some of the harshest fighting in Afghanistan, and ultimately it was for naught: The outpost was abandoned to the insurgents last spring.
Mother Jones caught up with Junger on an early-summer tour. Over grilled cheese, he shared his thoughts on Afghanistan's past and future, growing up progressive, and why his preferred subjects are so darned dudely. "I felt the tug of those same impulses myself as a young man," he said. "My journalism is part of a continuing effort to understand them."
Mother Jones: When did your experience with these soldiers become a book to you? Did you have it in mind as a book topic at the outset?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. I was with Battle Company in '05 in Zabul. I've been in Afghanistan a lot, starting in '96, you know, always with the populace. I was with the Northern Alliance when they took Kabul, and it looked like the end of the story. And then the war dragged on. I don't think it's controversial to say there weren't nearly enough men there. And it got worse and worse. And so in '05 I thought, alright, my country is really in this place long-term now, the story isn't going away. And I wanted to know what it was like for the soldiers themselves. I had grown up during Vietnam. I had no connections to the US military, and I had a pretty cynical default opinion about the US military. And I was just really blown away by the sort of quality of the soldiers and officers. I couldn't believe it.
I didn't want to cover Iraq, partly because I just thought it was such a strategic error. I thought part of the reason I was watching Afghanistan not work was because of Iraq, and I just didn't want to cover it. So, I thought, if Battle Company goes back to Afghanistan the next deployment, I want to cover one platoon, which is a sort of manageable number of men, for a whole deployment going back and forth. And I thought, if I'm going to do that, I can pay for it by doing magazine assignments for Vanity Fair, and they were happy to do that. And I would shoot video for ABC News, which I already had a relationship with. And they were happy for that. And I thought, that's how I'll write a book about a platoon. And it will be a nonpolitical book. It will just be about what it's like to be in combat, and while I'm shooting video, I might as well shoot as much as possible, and try to make a documentary that will come out alongside the book.
MJ: In '05, was Afghanistan a hard sell at that point? Iraq was kind of dominating the headlines then.
SJ: I don't really remember. Graydon [Carter], I think he really trusts me about my instincts, about what's a good story, what's a developing story. I'd made some good guesses before, they'd sort of worked out. Stories like in Africa, Kosovo. In Kosovo, I went before it was anything, and then it just exploded into this huge international story. The same thing happened in Sierra Leone with the diamond trade. I just kind of kept guessing right. And so I don't know what Graydon was thinking, but he OK'd it pretty quickly.
MJ: You mention Kosovo, Sierra Leone. You also shadowed Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance against the Taliban, around before anybody in the West really knew who the Taliban were.
MJ: One of the things that makes these sorts of stories resonant, it seems, is they did end up blowing up into big political stories. And yet you tend to shy away from the political when you're actually covering events on the ground.
SJ: Well, I mean, there's political and then there's just sort of a basic humanistic analysis. My reporting in Africa wouldn't be political per se, but it's certainly the point of my reporting—and of a lot of other reporters I know: Human suffering is bad, and if reporting stories about it brings it to light and someone does something, you know, that's part of the point of journalism. And it's a thin line between that and activism, and you have to be careful about that. But that was the sort of conceptual framework for me in all my reporting.
It has political ramifications, but I wouldn't go into it with a political intent. It was really: This is happening, this is why, and it sort of begs the question—I don't ask it directly, but it begs the question—"Why can't the West do anything?" And in all the stories I've covered, the West did do something and actually brought those conflicts to a halt pretty quickly and easily.
I'm a good liberal, and I grew up in a very liberal family and had very strongly held beliefs. But I have a very complicated relationship with war, because the wars that I've seen were stopped by military action. So when people become just adamantly against any use of the US military, people who say that are on my end of the political spectrum, and it really bothers me, because I feel like they're willfully ignoring suffering overseas. Suffering overseas was the hallmark of the left-wing agenda in the eighties. Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala—those were the great causes when I was in college. And it all of a sudden seems like that's just a blind spot for the left. And it really troubles me.
MJ: That seems to have been one of the side effects of Iraq and now Afghanistan, a general isolationism, a not-wanting-to-do-anything-ism, from all sides when future conflicts may pop up.
SJ: Right. The right wing's isolationist because, they have, in my opinion, a kind of selfish viewpoint about America and the rest of the world. And the left wing is isolationist because they've become very confused about the responsibility of power to take care of the powerless. Sometimes that power involves the threat or the use of force. You know, nobody's objecting to police in San Francisco carrying guns. That's the use of force—morally, philosophically, it's no different. They've got guns, and the citizenry expects them to use those guns if it comes down to it. So I don't quite understand the moral distinction between that and, what was it, a three-week intervention in Bosnia that stopped the genocide that had killed a quarter million people, and I don't think one American soldier was killed? You know, I just can't reconcile those things, and the left isn't trying to reconcile them, and that troubles me.
MJ: You were also out ahead of a lot of people in the West when you profiled Massoud and the Northern Alliance, who were fighting the Taliban before 9/11. What drew you to that story in the first place?
SJ: I went to Afghanistan in '96 to write about terrorist training camps south of Jalalabad and Tora Bora, in the mountains. I was there right before the Taliban took over, literally a few weeks before they took Kabul. The frontline wasn't terribly active, but it was definitely there. And they swept into power.
Massoud was minister of defense then, and I just heard he was sort of this genius commander. I just kept tracking the Afghan story, and what evolved was this guy Massoud holding the north with a relative handful of fighters, preserving some territory against what in my mind was clearly an evil regime. The Taliban were spawned by chaos and they were kind of a solution to the chaos, but as they consolidated their power, they became more and more hideous, and more and more disliked by the Afghan people.
And so I saw Massoud as a kind of heroic figure in this story. He had his flaws obviously. But then I got the chance in 2000 to go over there—I had wanted to go over, but I didn't have any real connections to that story. And I wound with National Geographic, this amazing photographer, Reza, who knew Massoud, and it was the ultimate "in" to that story. It was a very romantic story in some ways. I mean, here's a fairly principled leader with a very tough group of men fighting against very long odds, against a regime that was pretty appalling. For a journalist, that's like catnip. And my time there really affected me, and when Massoud was killed and 9/11 happened, it affected me tremendously. And I went back there as fast as I could to watch Kabul fall [to the Northern Alliance].
MJ: But despite the daring and the romance, Massoud and the Northern Alliance had to do some nasty things and get in bed with some bad people, too, like the Uzbek-born alleged mass-murderer, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. How do you bring a clear narrative to a story as murky as that?
SJ: I don't know. [Laughs.] That's the short answer. I mean, in terms of Massoud's choices, I think they were practical alternatives to defeat. So my guess is, he thought we could sort out Dostum later, but right now we have to survive the next couple of years. Massoud was already—when I was there—he was already training a civil police force to maintain order in Kabul when Kabul fell. This was in 2000. The Taliban were going down. And h had convened a gathering of Afghan leaders from around the world—they literally flew in from London, and the United States —by coincidence, when I was there, I met [future Afghan president Hamid] Karzai, in a field. They just put a bunch of plastic chairs in a circle in a big field. And all of these guys who you're reading about now, they were all there, discussing the post-Taliban Afghanistan and how to deal with it. And this is in the fall of 2000—it's pretty amazing. So the narrative that I stuck to was really a profile of this extraordinary man. Afghan politics is so weird and complicated, and I didn't see a need to get into the arcane details. There are other guys who do that very well, and I didn't see a need to compete with them on that.
MJ: The Northern Alliance was a disparate collection of groups and interests, and much of the challenge in Afghanistan now is how localized a conflict it is. In War, you discuss those challenges in the context of one place, the remote Korengal Valley. What are the big difficulties of journalists and soldiers in interacting with local Afghans?
SJ: My reference point for that is 2001—I was walking around Kabul getting hugged by strangers on the street when they found out I was American. They saw us as liberators. How often does that happen? You're hugged as an American in a foreign country, in an Islamic country, because of something your military did? That made a big impression on me, and I read later that something like 90 percent of Afghans—I don't know who does these polls [Laughs]—approved of the US military action after 9/11. That's how much the Taliban were hated. So my sort of starting point for evaluating the war is that the Afghans were grateful. As the war was prosecuted poorly, and undersupported and undermanned, and that approval rating dropped, that was a really tragic thing for me to watch. Because I understood why the Afghans were losing hope, but we're also their last best hope of regaining a normal society.
People who are suffering come up with very paranoid theories about why the world works the way it does, and the theories they were coming up with about American involvement were just, like, incredibly paranoid and incredibly painful to hear. Including that we're actually in league with the Taliban, and the whole war is a performance to conceal our deeper involvement with them that will play out years and decades from now at the expense of the Afghans. You know, it's absurd, except that if you think that we lost 3,000 people on 9/11, and the culmination of our effort in the years that followed was 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, it really is kind of puzzling. Come on, we're the United States, and we lost 3,000 people and those skyscrapers, and that's only worth 15,000 men? There's 40,000 cops in New York City alone. That's how the Afghans see it, and they've been searching around for explanations and not coming up with any.
MJ: Kind of like American conspiracy theorists: Instead of just going with the simplest, most obvious explanation—government incompetence—they assume that the government is totally capable, and totally evil.