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A Few Good Men

Sebastian Junger, the creator of Restrepo, discusses Afghanistan, literature, and why his subjects are all so darned dudely.

SJ: That's right. That's right. Like there's gotta be some plan. There is no plan—it was Iraq. Iraq was the problem. I talked to an American military officer in '05 who said that in the summer of '01, he had been sent to the border of Jordan and Iraq to scout invasion groups into Iraq. And it just made me think, OK, so Iraq was in the gun sights before 9/11; the first thing Bush did was set up a plan for Iraq, before 9/11—I mean, I don't know, I'm just basing that on what this guy said. But it seemed completely plausible, and then you watch how they handled Afghanistan, it makes it even more plausible.

MJ: Beyond the politics, though, you've said before that one of things you're struck by is the professionalism, the intelligence of these professional officers and enlisted soldiers actually waging the wars. In Vietnam, it seemed like a protracted conflict demoralized the soldiers themselves and brought on a military brain drain. Does it seem to you that over the course of these wars, we're getting a better military corps, more disposed to nuance, humanitarianism, outside-the-box thinking?

SJ: All I know is the officers I met, and they were insanely bright; they were insanely well-educated and so dedicated. They were incredibly impressive guys, and I'm sure there were those guys in Vietnam, too, but they existed in a context of ambition and apathy and incompetence; I only know that, thought, from reading things on Vietnam, so you're going to have to trust the integrity of the reporters and the writers there. But that's what it seemed like. I think part of it is it's a volunteer Army now, and guys who are in the Army really want to be in the Army. I don't know the military culture that well; I really don't. I just know one particular platoon. And I was in a very bad place, and I have a feeling that the Army puts good units in bad places, so I was exposed to the best of the best. I know it's not a very fair sampling. But the guys I met could have run Harvard. They were really like that.

MJ: From my experience over there, rank-and-file soldiers tend not to care much where a journalist is from, or what he or she's done, as long as you're not fouling up their works somehow. But you were with these troops so long; did they ask questions about your background, the things you'd done before?

SJ: Yeah, as the guys got to know me. It was after a little firefight in Zabul. Afterwards—these are 19-year-olds, you know—the guys were like, "I betcha never been in anything like that before." And I'd forgotten this, but one of the soldiers who was there, I'd meet later in the Korengal, reminded me of it—but apparently I said, "Well, actually…" and I went on into Afghanistan '96, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and they were all kind of in awe. I'd been in more combat than any of those guys had.

As they got to know me, they heard the stories. My friend Tim, my partner over there, was in a lot of combat in Liberia, and he has the video to prove it—you know, he's a cameraman. He showed those guys some of that combat footage from Liberia [Laughs], and they were like, "That's insane!" They couldn't believe what they were watching.

MJ: You write in the book about trying to keep up physically with these young soldiers in the Afghan terrain and climate. Did they rag on you much?

SJ: Well, I never slowed them down, so. [Smiles] I mean, even in the best the best platoons, there's always a couple of guys who don't have it all together. So I was fine. But I wouldn't have been if I'd have slowed people down.

MJ: I've heard from at least one reporter who's spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and has said, "There are no good stories on embeds." What do you say to that?

SJ: I don't think there are many good political stories on embeds, because you're down there on the tactical level. It's the same reason you don't really need to send congressmen to remote outposts, or generals. You don't learn much by being in the dirt, except what it's like to be in the dirt. But that is its own story. And to me, it's inherently interesting. When I wrote The Perfect Storm, I went out on fishing boats to understand what it was like to work on a fishing boat. And you could say, "Well, there's no important stories out there—the important stories are the destruction of the fish stocks, the efforts to curtail the fishing industry and save the biosphere," and so on. You could say that, but if you're writing a book that you're hoping to draw people into a human experience, you'd better do it on a fishing boat, or you'd better do it on the platoon level. If you're writing headline stories for the New York Times about where the war is going, I don't think you need to be on an embed. An embed is the ultimate local color story. But to me, that's a very important part of the whole spectrum.

MJ: In much of your work, we're talking about a particular kind of color story, though: soldiers in the dirt, fishermen, smoke jumpers, tree trimmers. Whence this attraction to hard men doing hard things?

SJ: I don't know. It's just interesting. I think human society for tens of thousands of years has sent young men out in small groups to do things that are necessary but very dangerous. And they've always gotten killed doing it. And they've always turned it into a matter of honor and a way of gaining acceptance back into society if they survived. They've sent these guys off to harpoon humpback whales for lamp oil. And to land a spaceship on the surface of the moon. And to take the beaches of Normandy. And to ski across the Antarctic. Whatever the hell it is, society's been doing this since the Stone Age. And it's a very important role for young men in virtually every society in the whole world.

And this society doesn't do it overtly, it just kind of happens. But you go out to logging crews in the West, they're all young guys. Fishing boats, all young guys. Combat units, all young guys. Even when they're not being sent out to do stuff, even back home—as I say in my book—the mortality rate of young men just walking around in society is higher than if they're a cop or a fireman. Young men take risks because it's part of how they define themselves. And society is like, "Alright, we need risks to be taken, because we need oil to be drilled off the Gulf, we need wood to build our houses, we need this, we need that, so have at it, go ahead." So society and the genetic programming of young men converge in this.

And to me, it's an interesting story, partly because it's so ancient. I think it reveals some very powerful and raw truths about human beings. And I felt the tug of those same impulses myself as a young man. I tried to understand them, and my journalism is part of a continuing effort to understand them.

MJ: What were some of those experiences that you had before you sat down to write about other people's stories?

SJ: You know, I hitchhiked across the country once. Which is no big deal, but I was from a suburb outside of Boston; I'd never been west of the Hudson River, so it was a pretty intense experience. I worked as an arborist, a climber for tree companies; I got hurt doing that. And you know, the usual teenage shenanigans that involve the law and risk of injury. Nothing evil, but definitely troublesome to the authorities. In that sense I think I was pretty healthy, psychologically, in that.

MJ: Do you think that "boys' life" used to be more mainstream in American society? It's a perennial lament that we've gone soft, that there aren't a lot of people now who are going off to college and doing these sorts of things.

SJ: Look, it's a recession: There will always be people to fill those jobs. Not everyone has to be a badass. [Laughs.] You've just got to have enough guys to drill for the oil that we put our cars to drive around, or whatever. You know, I think that's probably always been true. If the entire society was like that, it would be a completely dangerous, unstable, militaristic society, and I think it would last very long.

MJ: In the small group of guys that figure prominently in War, Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne clearly pops out as the main protagonist in the story, and you've had a lot of interaction with him since he came back from Afghanistan. Was he typical of everybody else in the platoon?

SJ: No, he really wasn't. I think the guys—not all of them, but a fair number of them—thought about what they were doing in complex terms. But few of them articulated those thoughts. They all had doubts; they all had worries; they all had things they were proud of. But they didn't always put the words to them.

And O'Byrne—Brendan—he's a very smart guy, but his education was not perfect as a teenager. I think he was pretty ADD as a kid, and his family was definitely troubled. But he just had a way of talking about these things that was so insightful and human. He didn't default to the sort of standard military line. He'd say, "What about those guys we're fighting? Are they on their hilltop thinking about us? 'Cause I'm thinking about them!" We'd be out on some ambush, and it'd be cold. "You know, it's cold as hell tonight. They gotta be cold, too!" He would just do that in his mind, and because we could to know each other pretty well, he would speak those thoughts. And he just had some very interesting, complex things to say about the nature of killing, and of brotherhood that was out there. He was just an interesting guy to talk to.

MJ: In your experience, how do these guys—not just Afghanistan soldiers, but fishermen and the rest—handle it when they come home, and find television, pop culture, families, a society that's not of that world?

SJ: Well, you know, we've all read the papers and seen how that goes. The guys I was with, they didn't come home. They stayed in the 173rd or they went to other units and they deployed again. About a third of the platoon is back in Kunar province, fighting very close to the Korengal, and they've been there since last December. They're soldiers. They had come back to their base in Vincenza, Italy. They call their base "Coward's Land," because, I think I say in the book, guys who weren't in combat can order around guys who were, and that's such a reversal of the natural order of things in their minds. It drove 'em crazy.

And I think it made them doubt these rules, these social rules, that were so reassuring out at Restrepo. It was such a dangerous place, and everyone had their job, and everyone knew how they fit into the group, and really nothing mattered except that you were prepared to risk your life to defend everyone else. If you did that, everything else was a footnote. And then suddenly they come back to society, and the footnotes are what people are reading when they meet you. "Are you good-looking? Are you smart? Are you educated? Is your dad rich? Is your girlfriend hot?" All of a sudden all that stuff becomes more important than things that were actually keeping them alive out there. And it's really confusing. I think it gives them a feeling of irrelevance. It's one of the reasons they stay in the Army and go deploy again.

MJ: In the book, you discuss how these guys cope, or don't cope, with family issues back home while they're in the field.

SJ: They didn't have any communication up there, so in a weird way I think it was a little bit easier for them. Once a month, they got to talk with home, and I think it was hard for them to gear back to the lack of seriousness that civilian life involves. And those were the lucky guys; the unlucky guys had really serious problems on the home front. They had parents who were dying and getting divorced, and wives who were leaving them, kids who were failing. I think those are the guys who were really having a tough time.

MJ: While reporting, you'd rotate out to go home for a month at a time. Did you have trouble readjusting and catching up with what everybody in the platoon had been up to while you were gone?

SJ: For sure. But I knew I couldn't be out there forever. I wouldn't have wanted to be. And I knew those guys well enough that it would just be straight-ahead journalism, you just asked people what happened, and you'd confirm it with someone else, and you had a pretty good idea what you missed. So I definitely understood that I didn't need to be there for absolutely everything. Some of the best sections in the book, I think, I was not there for, and I got them through video that Tim had shot, and through interviews with the men, and what I was getting was how they had processed it in their minds. Which is a certain kind of reality. So when Steiner got hit in the head—I wasn't there for that. I wished I had been. It was a hell of a firefight. And it would have been amazing on camera. But I wasn't there. And the story that he told me was pretty affecting in its own way, and I wouldn't have had that story if I'd been there. It would have been in some ways a very shallow interpretation of what had happened.

MJ: Everybody in uniform tells their salty sea stories, and as you get more and more distant from the event, the stories get bigger and saltier. Were frontline soldiers a little more honest to you, or did you still find a lot of sea stories along the way?

SJ: What was going on out there was so outrageous that I didn't get the sense anyone was embroidering things much. I don't know what they're saying now, but if you just report the literal truth, that was already so over the top, they were content with that, probably.

MJ: One of the truths you report in the book is that war is a very boring thing for very long stretches of time. What kind of challenges does that pose in telling a story about this experience?

SJ: Well, you know, in the down time was when things would suddenly come out. Interactions within the platoon, things that revealed some of the stresses of being out there. Combat is very intense but it's sort of monochromatic. It's kind of all the same. It's not a very subtle thing; I don't think there's much to discover out there. For my intents and purposes, the firefights started to blur together. And when it got interesting was when you saw the guys deal with each other when they were under the tremendous stress of not having any combat. Once you're psychologically geared up for combat, not doing anything is terrifically hard. And that was an interesting kind of a social experiment: Stress some guys for five months, then cut out the fighting, and leave them on a hilltop for the next three-quarters of a year and see what happens. That's a fiendish experiment, but it was pretty interesting.

MJ: In your writing, you fill a lot of that down time with information from a lot of psychological and scientific studies the government has conducted about life under fire. Did those just start as what-ifs as you were observing human behavior yourself?

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