Emotions at war: Sebastian Junger talks about his new book, War

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:51pm

Sebastian Junger has, quite literally, penned his way through some of the world's most vexed issues and zones to become one of America's most renowned foreign correspondents. Long before his 1997 book The Perfect Storm earned him fame, Junger was funding his freelance forays into places such as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Indeed the 48-year-old has always maintained that he prefers risky, journalistic assignments in troubled places to writing his famous books, which also include Fire and A Death in Belmont. But that all changed, Junger says, with the new book, War, which recounts his experiences embedded with US troops in Afghanistan.

'It was a very powerful experience, and I felt very plugged into something important, and personal and urgent, and I never felt that writing a book before. I had only had that feeling while breaking stories that were of real significance.'

Junger spent 14 months in Korengal valley, site of some of the most intense fighting in the current war. He was intermittently embedded with the men of the Second Platoon, part of the 173rd Airborne, between 2007 and 2008. He slept with them, dodged bullets and endured extremes of heat and cold, fear and boredom alongside them in a valley he describes in War as 'the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off'. His words proved prophetic in April this year, when, soon after he completed both War and Restrepo, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary he co-directed and co-produced with photographer Tim Hetherington, the US military decided to pull out of the Korengal. Not that military strategy is the focus of Junger's narrative.

From the outset, he wanted a non-political book. 'I wanted to understand the experience of being a soldier in a platoon of combat infantry, and if those guys had sat around talking geopolitics or the rights and wrong of the war, that would have been in the book, but they didn't and so it wasn't.' But the mere fact of this withdrawal, after five harrowing years of conflict and the deaths of countless US soldiers, gives an added poignancy to a narrative that compares with Michael Herr's groundbreaking Vietnam novel, Dispatches.

But War grapples with the intimate details of combat in an altogether different time, place and mindset. Its adrenalin-inducing potency, too, is of a different order. Junger documents the bizarre bonding rituals of the Second Platoon - famous for their courage under fire and lack of discipline away from it - and explores the nature of courage, boredom and the sheer excitement of war with an almost anthropological zeal. His meticulous prose is deliberately unemotional, yet the sum of his narrative tears into your consciousness.

He wanted to examine 'what it feels like to be in combat, the sort of phenomenology of war, how fast do bullets go? What happens in your brain when you are scared?'

'War is insanely exciting,' he says. 'The shocking truth is that there is a tremendous amount that's appealing to the people who've been in it, and that's one of the things that are so confusing to soldiers afterwards - 'If I went through something so terrible, why do I miss it?' And that to me is one of the central questions about war, one of the central things that civilians don't want to understand, and that soldiers try but often fail to understand, 'What was happening out there that was so fulfilling?''

People sometimes write it off as an adrenalin rush, he says, but that is a very cheap way of explaining it. 'It's the sort of intoxication of being needed, of being in a small group where the whole group needs every single person, and every person needs the group. Having a utility and purpose within the small group of people who you love is intoxicating, and when you take it out of that situation, everything feels a bit hollow and meaningless, and that's why these guys are kind of torn about it.'

But ultimately, what drove the book was his desire to find an explanation 'for how courage works, how it manifests itself neurologically, physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially'.

In War, he goes so far as to say courage is love, and now says: 'Love is the basis for acts of courage. Courage in that context was acts done to help others. They certainly weren't doing those things out of patriotism.'

For Junger, too, the experience of being embedded with the platoon was one of the most profound and rewarding experiences of his life.

'Like a lot of writers, I've always been a bit of a lone wolf. I had never been part of a group, wasn't on the football team at high school, and suddenly I was part of a group that had a very intense purpose in a very isolated place and I experienced some of that genetic echo that they were experiencing. Humans are social animals and they are social on a scale of 30 to 50 people and I have never quite had that experience of brotherhood until this.'

Junger's mother was an artist, his father a physicist, and he spent his 20s trying to get his writings published, paying his way by waiting tables. 'I wasn't really making a living at it until my mid-30s.'

He was already freelancing successfully when he penned The Perfect Storm. Its phenomenal success was 'a little disorienting'.

'I took refuge in foreign reporting, in Africa, Kosovo, wherever, where The Perfect Storm couldn't reach me.

'But I'm fine with it now ... I want to write stuff that gets people to think about things in a different way. I don't want to write a book that is irrelevant, however beautifully written, or ... how well it does.'

The notion of meaning is a recurring theme in a conversation with Junger, who says: 'Western society in all of its affluence and its paranoia about risk, about random circumstance, has stripped life of a certain amount of meaning and intensity.

'The truth is, you can do skydiving and it doesn't necessarily make your life more meaningful, so it isn't just purely a matter of risk. It is something else.

'People long for meaning and a bit of transcendence maybe. Some people find transcendence in having children but there are other ways to do it, and for me writing something that connects with people and becomes meaningful to them,' he adds softly, 'that's my form of transcendence.'

Writer's notes

Sebastian Junger

Age: 48

Born: Belmont, Massachusetts, US

Family: married to Daniela

Current home: New York Genre: literary non-fiction

Latest book: War (Fourth Estate, 2010)

Next project: yet to be decided

Other works include: The Perfect Storm (1997); Fire (2001); A Death in Belmont (2006); documentary film Restrepo (2009) Other jobs: contributing editor, Vanity Fair, tree logger, waiter

What the papers say about War:

'It takes a very good book to carry off a title as portentous as War, and Sebastian Junger has written one.' The Economist 'This splendid book should help the rest of us understand them - and war itself - a little better.' The Washington Post

'Junger has found a novel and interesting lens through which to view the conflict in Afghanistan, and he captures many things a lesser writer might miss.' The New York Times