Traverse City Events: Sebastian Junger at TC National Writers Series

Traverse City Events: Sebastian Junger at TC National Writers Series.

Sebastian Junger is an internationally acclaimed journalist, best-selling author and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. His book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea earned him the nickname "the next Hemingway" and was adapted into a hit Warner Brothers film starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Junger has won the National Magazine Award and the Dupont-Columbia Award for broadcast journalism, and received critical acclaim for nonfiction books A Death in Belmont and War.  In 2010, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for their documentary Restrepo, a film about the conflict in Afghanistan that went on to win an Oscar nomination in 2011 for Best Documentary.

Last month, Hetherington was killed while covering the front lines in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya. In a recent phone interview with MyNorth ahead of his upcoming appearance May 17 at the City Opera House in Traverse City, Junger talked about his late friend and collaborator, his experiences in Afghanistan making War and Restrepo, and the impact Tim’s death—as well as the recent death of Osama bin Laden—is having both here and overseas.

MyNorth: Your most recent book, War, gives an eye-opening account of what it’s like to be on the ground in combat, specifically in Afghanistan. Restrepo did the same, but in film form. Can you talk about the relationship between War and Restrepo, and how you were able to convey your experiences in Afghanistan uniquely through each medium?

Sebastian Junger: I think words and ideas have their own strength, their own way of conveying information, and moving images also have their own strength. Tim and I wanted to do a project where these two media reinforce one another. In War, I was able to explore more conceptual and thoughtful areas—for example, how courage works neurologically, the impact combat has on a person socially, and so forth. You can’t do that in a documentary without bringing in experts, and putting in a talking head scene with experts removes the viewer from the battlefield.

With Restrepo, we wanted to give the audiences the illusion of experiencing combat, of actually being on the ground, for 90 minutes. So we committed to not having any armchair interviews with generals, or families back home, but instead restricted our cameras purely to the realities of what the soldiers were experiencing. We didn’t want to distance the viewer in any way from that reality. Ultimately, I think that’s why the film ended up resonating so much with audiences. 

MyNorth: War is divided into three sections, entitled Fear, Killing and Love. What is the significance of those three titles? 

Sebastian Junger: After my time in Afghanistan, I tried to understand what the primary emotional experiences of combat are. A strictly linear narrative wouldn’t have worked for the book, because the sequence of events in the Korengal (Valley) was such that a lot of action happened in the beginning and then tapered off, which isn’t a dramatic arc. But what was a compelling arc was exploring these primary emotions of combat. The love aspect of combat, which is the bond between the men and their sense of brotherhood, is what allows soldiers to overcome the other emotions—their fear in battle, and their natural human revulsion over killing other people.

There was a famous quote from a Medal of Honor winner from World War II, which I included in the book. He was asked how it was he was able to take out an entire nest of German soldiers by himself, and he said: “I did it because they were killing my friends.” I thought that was such a profound comment on why people do the unthinkable and are able to act the way they do in combat. 

MyNorth: The U.S. has been entrenched in war for almost a decade now in the Middle East, seemingly more so every day. What is the biggest misperception or the aspect most misunderstood by non-military Americans about the realities of what’s happening on the ground there? 

Sebastian Junger: There are a few things, particularly with Afghanistan. Most Americans first started hearing about Afghanistan in 2001. What you have to understand is that being liberated from the Taliban was a tremendous source of joy and celebration for the Afghans. I was on the ground then, so I know this firsthand. They did not see Americans as invaders. They saw us as liberators. It was a radically different experience then than it is now, where we’re seen as invaders and fighting every ethnic population in the country. That’s an important point.

The irony in all of this is that this is the lowest rate of civilian casualties in that country in 30 years right now. As horrific as the headlines seem, you have to put that in a historical context. A million died during the Soviet’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. That was followed by a decade of civil war and strife, in which 400,000 were killed. But in this last decade, under NATO and the U.S., the uppermost estimates of casualties are only 30,000, and most of those are from Taliban attacks, not Americans. Afghanistan also has the highest rate of economic growth in that part of the world right now. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s way better than it’s been for a long time in that country.

MyNorth: America has been in a celebratory mood recently over the death of Osama bin Laden. However, whenever members of the military are interviewed about this story, they seem decidedly more somber in their response. What impact do you think Osama’s death is going to have on Afghanistan, particularly on American troops on the ground?

Sebastian Junger: Everyone is worried about revenge attacks. On the one hand, our soldiers are thinking this is great news, because it could demoralize the Taliban and cripple their tactical abilities and decrease doubts among the population that American efforts there are working. We need the confidence of the Afghan people, or we’re not going to succeed over there. So they’re thinking those things, and on the other hand, they’re stationed in remote outposts and are worrying about revenge attacks against American soldiers. Because it was American soldiers who killed the Taliban’s leader. Revenge is a common human emotion, so they have legitimate cause to be concerned.

MyNorth: You’ve spoken about Tim often in the past few weeks, particularly in a beautiful tribute you wrote for Vanity Fair. Looking back on Tim’s life, what do you think will be the legacy of his career and the body of work he’s left behind?

Sebastian Junger: Tim was a very complicated and brilliant person. (Pauses) He’s hard to summarize in just a few words. He refused to call himself a photographer. He called himself an “image maker.” He saw the entire array of visual possibilities as his domain. One of his works was an audio-visual presentation called Sleeping Soldiers, which is this cryptic installation shown at art galleries and studios. He did this really hallucinatory short-form video piece called Diary about the connection between his civilian life and his experiences in war. And then we collaborated together on Restrepo.

I think Tim broadened people’s minds about the scope of possibility that photographers will use and consider. It’s not just ‘Click, I have an image’—it’s about, how can you use images and video and audio in a combined way to creatively communicate essential truths about the human experience, society, young men, violence. What interested Tim were the deeper truths about us. About life.

MyNorth: You and Tim both published work in Vanity Fair, which, far from being a fashion magazine, often provides nuanced, in-depth reporting on a wide variety of social and political issues. With the prevalence of Internet news coverage today, do you think there is still an audience and appetite for long-form journalism in this country?

Sebastian Junger: I think there is. If you look at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Economist—those magazines are doing very well. I don’t think they’re ever going to go away. There are people who don’t want to get their news from television. The financial models may be getting revised, but as a friend of mine pointed out, central heating didn’t replace the fireplace. The Internet is part of the food chain for fast information, but very few people want to sit down and read a long, thoughtful piece online. At least I don’t. Magazines and books will continue to be the gold standard of thoughtful expression. They’ll be buoyed around in the sea of fast-flowing information on the Internet, but I don’t think they’ll ever sink. 

MyNorth: What’s next for you career-wise? Are you planning on tackling another film or book?

Sebastian Junger: Yes and yes. I say that only because that’s what I’ve always done, so I imagine I’ll keep doing it. But to be honest, Tim’s death took the wind out of my sails in a profound way. I’m not going to be doing any more stories where I’m getting shot at. If something were to happen to me—I can’t imagine making people close to me feel the way I do about Tim right now. But instead of seeing that as a door closing, I think it’ll actually force an opening of some new area I might have overlooked in my career. That’s how life goes, you know? And I’m open to that.

 An Evening with Sebastian Junger, a Traverse City National Writers Series event, will take place on Tuesday, May 17 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at the City Opera House or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include an audience Q&A and post-event reception and book signing. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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