Sebastian Junger on war, during Aspen Ideas stop
July 8, 2010
ASPEN – Journalist Sebastian Junger began his war projects – the book “War,” published in May, and the documentary film “Restrepo,” which shows Friday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival – with an overtly political decision. Junger had picked the company that he wanted to be embedded with – it was the U.S. Army’s Battle Company, whom he had reported on in 2005, when the unit was fighting in Afghanistan. But Junger learned that Battle Company was scheduled for deployment in Iraq, a place that, for political reasons, he refused to go to.
“I would not have followed them to Iraq,” said Junger, who appears Friday at Paepcke for a post-screening discussion with Laura Thielen, artistic director of Aspen Film. “I wasn’t interested. I grew up in the wake of Vietnam, in a very liberal area, outside of Boston. So my image of the U.S. military was not positive. I was against the war in Iraq.”
Shortly before the scheduled deployment, the Army changed direction and sent Battle Company to Afghanistan instead. Junger, along with British photojournalist and “Restrepo” co-director Tim Hetherington, both of whom were on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, willingly followed the soldiers to the Korengal Valley, in southern Afghanistan.
As far as can be told from “War” and “Restrepo,” that was the last political-oriented thought to go through Junger’s mind. In the book and the movie, Junger removes himself entirely from the politics of war, the morality of war, to focus on the more basic, but ultimately fascinating topic of exactly what a soldier in combat does. The mission Junger assigned himself was to come as close as possible to being a U.S. soldier, and since soldiers don’t involve themselves in the politics of war, then neither did Junger.
“I was surprised that the soldiers weren’t more political. They weren’t political at all,” Junger said in a phone interview. “Had the soldiers sat around talking about the broader politics of war, we would have put that in the movie. But it’s no different than firemen or police – they’re so focused on their job. And soldiers are a lot younger than firemen and policemen. They’re 19 years old.
“And it doesn’t matter. They’re there, and they will either get killed or not get killed. The politics of why they’re there isn’t going to change that.”
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Junger leaves unmentioned the fact that soldiers – especially those in the Korengal Valley, a notoriously dangerous combat zone – have little time to think or talk politics. As documented by Junger and Hetherington, the bulk of the soldier’s life in the Korengal is devoted to not getting killed (which involves, in large part, killing the people who would kill them). The day at the Korengal Outpost, known as “the KOP,” and then a smaller outpost known as Restrepo, after a much-admired soldier who died early in the deployment, is devoted to building barriers against the near-constant hail of bullets and bombs; attacking and shooting the “bad guys” (mostly Taliban fighters, many of them from Pakistan); and logistical tasks involving guns and ammunition. There is also a good amount of sleeping; sleeping pills, that kill time and sometimes keep nightmares at bay, are an important part of a soldier’s rations.
In both “Restrepo,” which earned the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and “War,” Junger gives a remarkably close-in view of this existence. Junger and Hetherington virtually never take their eyes off the soldiers, and what their days are filled with. Both projects, which practically mirror one another in tone and content, take the audience onto the steep, stark mountainsides of the Korengal. There is not only the endless rat-tat-tat of long-range sniper gunfire, but also more intimate combat missions; in “Restrepo,” there is one tragic confrontation that is presented from a shockingly front-row view. Audiences are taken into caves where platoon leaders, using intensely blunt talk, hold meetings, known as “shuras,” with the relatively friendly local elders.
Politics are not the only thing absent from the reporting. When Junger says he wanted to put himself in the boots of a soldier, he takes that to extremes. Soldiers are generally unaware of where they will be deployed until their feet hit the ground, so Junger cloaked himself with the same ignorance of basic facts. Before first going to the Korengal Valley, he had never heard of the place, and did no research beforehand.
“I had never heard of the Korengal. I didn’t expect so much combat,” Junger, whose previous books included “The Perfect Storm,” and “A Death in Belmont,” an investigative work about the Boston Strangler murders of the mid-1960s, some of which took place in the neighborhood in which Junger grew up.
“War” and “Restrepo” are also entirely void of outside commentary on the soldiers. There are no military officers heaping praise on the Army fighters, no criticism from anti-war groups.
“I wanted, as close as possible, the experience a soldier has,” Junger said. “And they don’t do any research – the technical aspect is the same wherever they go. They’re well trained and can pick that training up and put it down anywhere they go. And the soldiers don’t have access to colonels, so I didn’t want to have colonels talking in the movie.”
In “War,” Junger does devote some time to his reflections on war and the nature of being a soldier. He devotes several pages to explaining why actually picking up a weapon would, for him, have been crossing a forbidden line. He writes a bit about the nature of a platoon, noting that platoons have a strong resemblance, in structure and purpose, to early human communities.
“They’re small groups, about 30 men, in tenuous positions where everything was interpersonal,” he said in the interview. Noting that he studied cultural anthropology at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, and tends to filter his journalism through the filter of anthropology, Junger added of his reporting in Afghanistan, “I thought I was looking at the development of human society. I thought I was getting a glimpse into something that was fundamental to humans.”
Mostly what he saw, in terms of the foundation of humanity, was the bond exhibited by the soldiers of the platoon. To Junger, the selflessness and commitment to the unit demonstrated was not just the stuff of World War II movies; it comes to life in “War” and “Restrepo” in various ways – especially when soldiers talk about how much easier it would be to die than to see a platoon-mate get killed.
“It’s a cliche of Hollywood movies,” he said. “But I had never seen it in action. I felt like I was looking at the core of values that make us human. It’s self-sacrifice for a brother. No other mammal does that.”
Junger says he easily could have made a different kind of movie than “Restrepo,” and could well have written a different sort of book that would have justified using the title, “War.”
“I’m capable of writing a broader political piece,” he said. “I just didn’t interest me this time. I wanted to find out what it was like to be a soldier in combat.”