Last Oscar season, author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington walked the red carpet together.
Their documentary “Restrepo,” recorded while they were embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan’s remote and dangerous Korengal Valley, was nominated for an Academy Award. For months the two men had lived with the troops, sharing the same food, the same stifling quarters, and the same long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of adrenaline-fueled terror.
Barely two months after the Oscars, on April 20, Hetherington was killed in a mortar attack in Misurata, Libya, where he was covering the rebel uprising against Moammar Kadafi’s regime. In the months since, Junger has resolved to pull back from combat journalism.
“I’m not going to do any more front-line reporting, because I don’t want to put my wife through what I went through with Tim,” he said during a recent stopover in Los Angeles to promote the new paperback edition of his 2010 book “War,” which Junger was compiling while he and Hetherington were filming “Restrepo.”
“It was a very obvious thought to come to in the wake of all this. Tim’s death made war reporting feel like a selfish endeavor.”
It’s a startling concession from an author whose eyewitness accounts from Liberia, Afghanistan and other global hot spots can make readers imagine they’re inches away from the mortar blasts and AK-47 rounds.
Written in sinewy, stripped-to-the-waist prose, “War” not only paints vivid profiles of the U.S. soldiers Junger met, and the harrowing conditions they endured, it also penetrates deeply into the strange, terrifying allure of combat and the motivations of the young men who mostly wage it. The book has drawn critical comparisons with such canonical literature as Michael Herr’s Vietnam-era “Dispatches” and the World War I and Spanish Civil War reflections of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell.
In this month’s Vanity Fair magazine, Junger eulogizes Hetherington’s valor and vision in conveying the world’s suffering to others. Another photojournalist, Chris Hondros, was fatally wounded in the same Libyan attack that killed Hetherington, and two other photojournalists were injured.
Before Hetherington’s death, Junger said, the perils of war reporting had always felt abstract. He’s not judging other journalists’ decisions to place themselves in harm’s way, but he’s had enough.
“I thought it couldn’t happen to me, and I’d never known anyone who had got killed — couple guys that got shot. You know, there’s a lot of denial. I mean, denial works.”
A trim 49-year-old with intense storm-gray eyes, Junger has the demeanor of a youthful college English professor who moonlights as the track coach — an Ivy League mind outfitted in solid blue-collar principles. He projects a restless curiosity, a touch of rah-rah adventurism, a dash of low-key machismo.
The author and his wife of six years, Daniela, a Bulgarian native to whom “War” is dedicated, have no children but are discussing starting a family.
Junger said that his father, a theoretical physicist, opened his mind to science and the idea that the physical and human worlds “can be understood and should be understood.” His mother, a painter, gave to her son a more aesthetic and spiritual mode of understanding. Journalism merged his left- and right-brain tendencies “in kind of a nice way.”
Despite his own vow to pull back from the trenches, Junger still not only considers war to be a great journalistic subject, he regards it as one of the three or four master narratives of human life — or, at least, guys’ lives.
“Look at the cave paintings in France. What do they show? They show the game animals that they’ve hunted — a form of warfare, in a way, violence. They show warfare, they show men fighting each other. They show fertile females. I mean, what topics preoccupy men? You want to look into the male brain? It’s like, OK, I need to kill game, I need to sustain myself — basically, career. Conflict and combat, manliness and proving yourself. Hot chicks. And the final one is shamanism, connection to the divine. That comprises the entirety of what’s on the walls of the caves in France. That’s the male brain, that’s human society in a lot of ways.”
Stories of violent conflict and men acting gracefully (or otherwise) under duress have been the alpha and omega of Junger’s writing career, in books such as “The Perfect Storm” (1997), about a fishing boat disaster, and “Fire,” about men who earn their living, and sometimes their deaths, by doing perilous jobs in places like Sierra Leone and Kosovo.
As a writer, Junger credits Hetherington with “opening my eyes up” to the rich complexity of visual experience. When he was trying to organize “War” around a unifying principle, Junger asked himself, “What would Tim do and how would Tim think about this material?”
Junger concluded that his friend “wouldn’t be organizing it in an event-driven, linear way, he’d be looking for some deeper structure that reflects the human experience.” That helped Junger eventually build “War” around three thematic blocks. “Fear” elucidates the primal emotions and human frailties that combat unleashes. “Killing” illuminates military tactics, political gamesmanship and the grotesque seductiveness of high-tech weaponry.
The book’s final section, “Love,” explores the ties of loyalty and affection that bind soldiers to one another far above any mere ideology.
“Everyone’s against war, any sane person’s against war, and yet everyone goes to see war movies,” Junger said. “All my lefty friends — and in case you hadn’t picked up on it I’m pretty left-wing — went to see ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ They’re going to see ‘Saving Private Ryan’ because war is dramatic and compelling and important and reveals tremendous things about the human soul. And you get it on oil rigs, you get it in logging camps, you get it on fishing boats, you get it in platoons.”
If all war is insane, and yet horribly compelling, in Junger’s view there are good wars and bad wars. Afghanistan, which he has reported on since the 1990s, is among the former, he believes. Even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drew the U.S. deeper into the country, he said, it was clear that only the international community could end Afghanistan’s endless civil wars.
Junger believes that if the U.S. and its allies can ever pressure Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government to reform so that the people will support it, U.S. forces can withdraw and Afghanistan can achieve peace, security and at least a form of “middle-ground” democracy between the failed state it was in the 1990s and “democracy like we see it in Iowa.”
By contrast, invading Iraq was an error, he thinks, and he refused to cover it because “I don’t want to risk my life covering a mistake.”
There’s one other dangerous assignment that Junger shuns: writing fiction. In his early 20s, inspired by the brainy tough-guy holy trinity of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, Junger tried his hand at a few short stories, but they rightfully ended up buried in a closet, he said.
“I mean, a bad novel is hard to write,” he said. “A brilliant novel, like I don’t even know how that happens. So that’s why I don’t do it. Writing fiction feels like it would be like going off the diving board into a swimming pool that has no water in it.
“Maybe one day I will, and the pool will be filled with water and it’ll be nice, but right now it doesn’t feel that way.”