Sebastian Junger was on a publicity tour promoting his latest book, “War,” when it was reported that the 1,000th American serviceman had been killed in Afghanistan. This was of particular interest to the 48-year-old author because his book and the documentary “Restrepo” are about the period in 2007 and 2008 when Junger was embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan’s dangerous and remote Korengal Valley. “Restrepo,” which Junger codirected with Tim Hetherington, opens Friday.
Junger is best known for his monster 2000 bestseller “The Perfect Storm,” but he has since written several other books, and become a war correspondent covering conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo. Lewis Beale caught up by phone with the New York-based author, who was in a Seattle hotel room.
Q. Given the news about American casualties, and that Afghanistan is now the longest American war ever, do you think it’s winnable?
A. It’s the longest-running war in part because it’s a low-intensity war. The war has dragged on so long because in 2001 when we had the gratitude of the Afghans, when the Taliban were toppled, we squandered that gratitude by undermanning and undersupporting it. Is it winnable at this point? If the allies can pull off D-Day, they can defeat 20,000 Taliban. It’s not a tactical issue, it’s a political issue. Everyone has been attacked by al-Qaida, and it boggles my mind that none of these countries are taking care to contribute to this effort.
Q. You were embedded with the military over a 15-month period. What lessons did you learn about today’s Army?
A. I grew up in a liberal family during Vietnam, and I had a lot of assumptions about the military which aren’t true. The officers I met were incredibly smart, competent guys. The soldiers, I expected people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale, and they weren’t.
Q. You’re married. How does your wife deal with the danger of your assignments?
A. In this case, she said you can do it this once, but you can’t do it again. I’ve been covering wars for a long time, the assignments were usually no longer than a month. I’m not gonna spend another year with a unit at a remote outpost getting shot at. But I’m sure I’ll cover another war.
Q. What were the scariest moments for you?
A. They were not in combat. They were before big ops, when you never knew which patrol would go badly. Those midnight sweats before the action.
Q. Do you get nightmares? If so, about what?
A. Of course. They’re about combat. Situations where we were hammered and no one can do anything about it. I wake up with a start sometimes. I live in New York, and those big trucks hitting potholes remind me of the sound of mortars.
Q. How about some tips for filming under combat conditions?
A. You point the camera at the center of the drama. In combat, the first thing you do is take cover, then you think about shooting. You can’t be afraid to burn footage; we shot a lot. We got so much combat footage we were able to get creative, like “let’s get an eyeball shot of a guy shooting a gun.” We put together a combat sequence that looked like it was from a narrative feature. That’s what we were going for.
Q. You’ve said that you’ve matured a lot in the past 10 years, and that has given you a better understanding of the stories you’ve been covering. What did you mean by that?
A. When you’re young, you’re a little more amped up, a little more taken by the emotion of things. When you get older, it causes some people to open up a bit. I think I had a more thoughtful response to (the war) than I would have had 10 years ago. And I’ve been covering wars for years now, and I have been able to process it on a more thoughtful level.
Q. You’ve also said that one of the reasons for doing this book and film is to correct the way Hollywood portrays war, that they always get it wrong. How do they get it wrong?
A. War movies are written by people who haven’t gone to war, so their reference points are previous Hollywood movies. So you end up with this myth that keeps re-creating itself — like recently, combat makes adrenaline junkies out of soldiers, and I don’t think that’s accurate.