SJ: I just became interested in courage. It's this sort of mythic thing that civilians talk about. Soldiers never talk about it. But clearly it's happening. And I just started to think of it as a profound choice that a person can make, where your welfare is more important to me than my welfare. The group is more important to me than me as an individual, and if everyone feels that way, we're all going to be better off.
I had this idea that only humans do that. I mean, there were herd animals that engaged in collective defense, and there are animals that protect their young, obviously—good genetic choice. But the decision to suicidally defend your peers against attack, where their death is more upsetting to you than the prospect of your own, that's a human thing. And once I started to think about it in those terms, I felt I was getting to the heart of it. It's very hard to define human. We use tools. Yeah, so do chimpanzees. We understand death; so do gorillas. We cooperate with each other; tons of animals do that. I thought I was sort of narrowing in on something that's uniquely human. It is that kind of altruistic behavior for a peer you're not related to.
And to help me in understanding this I just went looking into the scientific literature, and what kept coming up were military studies. Because, of course, some smart guy behind a desk realized that if they could figure out what gets men to act courageously, they have an advantage over another military with the same number of men who are not gonna act courageously.
The stuff that was coming out of these studies was so interesting and counterintuitive, like the fact that fear is connected not to the level of danger but the level of perception of control. So if you're a fighter pilot in World War II, with a 50 percent cumulative casualty rate, fear is less of an issue than in a rear-based unit with a much lower casualty rate but guys with no real control about when they're occasionally bombed. That's fascinating, and it explains why people are less scared of driving, when they're in control, than when they're flying where they're much safer but have no control. It went into the book because I just couldn't help myself.
MJ: You wrote in the book about the distinction between the fear and the anticipation, about that being a function of control.
SJ: Yeah. Brendan said to me at one point—he just had a knack for saying stuff that was so trenchant and right on—he said, "You know, some of the scariest stuff out here never happened. It was the attacks that we were expecting and never materialized, and the hours and days before that attack. The operation that got aborted at the last minute." That stuff was terrifying, compared to once it was actually going on, when there wasn't really room for terror. That was such an insightful thing that he said.
MJ: You reviewed Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn in the New York Times Book Review, a newly completed novel of a Vietnam soldier's experience. Drawing parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan has become fashionable. In War, you discuss having these "Vietnam moments" of collective wishful thinking, fostered by a military PR machine.
SJ: These guys are over there, the public affairs soldiers and the colonels, everyone in charge, is over there to do a job. And it's completely understandable to me that they things they say present the job in the best possible light. You go talk to BP right now, it's going to be the same thing. You talk to a kid who's in trouble in school, not doing his homework, he's going to do the same thing. It's just human nature. I get it. I think it's only dangerous if you're not aware that that's happening. I think it's also very dangerous on the side of the press to be so endlessly cynical about the military that you don't believe a goddamned thing, and you just assume you're getting lied to all day long. It's unfair, it's destructive, and it's bad journalism.
So I feel like you have to talk about that optimism in the context of its counterpart: the cynicism of the press. They really are two sides of the same coin. And I think that cynicism came out of Vietnam where they were lied to all day long, you know? The whole war was a lie. The Gulf of Tonkin was a lie. The whole goddamn thing started with a lie, and it spurred 10 years of lies.
Afghanistan didn't start with a lie. We really did lose 3,000 people. It really happened. The towers aren't there, you know? And Bin Laden really did do it. And he was in Afghanistan. There's no lie there. But I think the press has a kind of hangover. Vietnam was almost now a kind of journalistic myth. And we all grew up on that myth, we all read Michael Herr's Dispatches, and it set up this paradigm that I think the press has actually been more reluctant to move on from than the military is.
MJ: You bring up Michael Herr. Whether people you're reading today or just influences in the past, who are the guys that really did stuff, wrote the stuff that made you want to get into this in the first place?
SJ: I mean, the people that I read when I was young were John McPhee, Joan Didion, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez—great, great, great nonfiction writers. The best, you know. Those are the people I emulate as a writer. As far as war reporting, Kapuscinski is amazing; George Orwell—Homage to Catalonia is incredible; you know, Hemingway was a novelist, but it's pretty damn compelling stuff. Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls is incredible. It's not journalism, but it feels a little bit like it. Michael Herr, absolutely. Tim O'Brien, again a fiction writer, but amazing.
MJ: In your own work, there's also a certain economy of speech, of words, that you've always been really bound up with. Is that a Hemingway thing? Who else is at play there?
SJ: John McPhee. Asolutely. I mean, I think in sports, in art, in writing economy of motion is—it just is. You know, if you design a machine to do something, the fewer moving parts it has, the better a machine it is. And I think that's true in the arts as well. And definitely for me it's true in writing. I think that's the basis of good design in almost anything. And writing is partly a matter of design. It's like almost engineering—or engineering with words. Like, how do I get this done the most efficiently, with the fewest possible extraneous movements. How do I construct this paragraph to do what I need it to do without wasting the reader's time?
MJ: Has it now gotten natural enough, are you confident enough in your voice, that it comes out pretty well the first time? Or do you find yourself chop, chop, chopping?
SJ: No, it comes out. I mean, obviously, like everyone, I edit. But it's not a laborious process. I've just been doing this a long time now, and it comes out pretty smoothly actually.
MJ: I've heard a lot of people complaining, especially since Iraq and Afghanistan kind of broke out and became our paradigm for wars, how much harder it is to make your bones as a stringer. To get out there and just go places where you think the stories are and to establish yourself as a freelancer to begin. What kind of advice would you have for somebody who wants to be parachuting into Africa or… other conflict hotspots?
SJ: Well, the networks and cable news are in a state of crisis, and no one can afford to maintain a journalistic presence in any of these countries. The insurance is too high. The rates for union camera work are too high. It's hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. Like, no one can do it. It's over. In the eighties, I don't know, maybe that was true, but the networks were making so much money that it didn't matter. But now it matters because they're getting killed. And so actually I think there's a real opportunity. Like, if I were 23 years old, I would move to Kabul. ABC can't keep someone there, you know? I mean, I think they have someone there right now. But it's a very tenuous connection that the news bureaus have with these foreign stories. They just can't maintain it. And even if there's an ABC correspondent out in Afghanistan, he can't be everywhere.
And I think if you buy a video camera, a good video camera, and you learn how to shoot video, and you can move it through your laptop on whatever the electronics are required—I never file from over there, so I don't even know how that shit words—but if you figure the technological aspects of it out, and you get a sat phone and a bulletproof vest, and you move to Kabul and you just hang out looking for good stories, and approach the networks and the newspapers—I mean, the trick is, you file three minutes of footage for ABC, you get $500. And then you file a story for the Boston Globe—they definitely can't afford to have anyone there full-time—and you get $800.
You can do it. I think actually, in a weird way, the financial collapse of the news business has opened possibilities up. In the eighties, all the major newspapers had bureaus all over the world. Try to break into that. In Bosnia, Jesus Christ, it was hard. They all had their paid guys there. They don't anymore.
MJ: So you see self-financed conflict bloggers like Michael Yon actually being kind of like a model for young journalists these days?
SJ: Yeah, I mean in the sense of multitasking, multimedia news provider, yes.
MJ: I had a "Covering Conflicts" professor in J-school. In the middle of our class she left for like three weeks to go over and cover Kashmir. Shot amazing video, did some ridiculous stories, couldn't find anyone to buy it. She ends up giving it to somebody for pennies on the dollar.
SJ: Well Kashmir's not—
SJ: Yeah. I mean, nothing's happening there, it's a 30-year stalemate. In '94—was it '94? No, it was later than that—in '98, the Kargil offensive killed hundreds and hundreds of Pakistani soldiers. I mean, they were coming at the Indian positions like full-on, World War I-style, fixed bayonets. I think it was '98. Then it sort of popped up in the news, and then it subsided again. So unless you catch one of those…
But my guess is that when Haiti happened, my guess is that there were freelancers down there that were getting work. The ones that got on the plane first and got down there. I'm not doing that kind of work anymore so I don't know for a fact; it's just my guess.