Beginning in 2007, Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) spent 15 months embedded with a small platoon in the Restrepo outpost, a mountainside base in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, which at the time was considered to be possibly the most dangerous place in the world. (Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan hit in or around the valley.) Last week, after years of violence and setbacks, the United States finally abandoned the valley to focus its efforts elsewhere. This May will see the publication of Junger's book about his time overseas, War (Twelve, $27); it is an intense journey into military life in a war zone. Restrepo, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning documentary Junger directed with the help of war photographer Tim Hetherington, will be released this July.
Details: You've written many books, obviously, but this is the first film you've made. Did you go into Afghanistan expecting to codirect a documentary?
Sebastian Junger: I wanted to write a book about a platoon, and I was using a video camera in my reporting. I thought if I was going to spend that much time with the platoon, then I might as well film the whole time—and if I can turn that footage into a documentary, then great. But if I can't, it will still serve a reporting purpose. Then I hooked up with Tim Hetherington, who is a visual artist. We started making the movie after the deployment was over while I was writing my book. They weren't mutually exclusive, and they actually complemented each other quite well..
Details: It is definitely interesting to compare the two, because while they both tell the same basic story, they tell it in very different ways.
Sebastian Junger: I conceived of the book, and Tim and I conceived of the movie, in very similar ways. We were not interested in the broader political or military or moral conversation about the war. Neither one is about Afghanistan, neither one is about George Bush, neither one is about whether we can win this or not win this. It's totally about the emotional experience of being in combat. And that experience does not change war to war or century to century.
Details: How did Afghanistan compare to your earlier experiences reporting from war zones?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I had never been with Americans before, in a unit where I felt a very strong affiliation and connection and a sense of shared fate. I have been in civil wars, where I was not interested in sharing the fate of the people around me. [Laughs] I was in Africa with child soldiers, and I was in Afghanistan starting in 1996, and in Eastern Europe and the Balkans in 1993, 1994. I was definitely reporting on someone else's problems, and I did not want to get killed doing it. I didn't want to get killed doing this either, but it was the first time that I experienced a shared feeling with the actual combatants. Not with the civilians—you can go to an African civil war and feel a great and profound and tragic connection with the civilians that are suffering, but that's not what I am talking about.
Details: In another interview, your collaborator Tim Hetherington talked about it as being "emotionally embedded." Do you think that connection affected your reporting?
Sebastian Junger: It limited my ability to empathize with the Taliban for sure. In theory, you have no allegiance either way and report with dispassion on both sides, about both sides. It's utterly unachievable in practice, but that's the theory. I think my connection to the guys I was with—what it meant was that my own lack of objectivity was clearer and more undeniable than it is in other stories, where you still aren't objective but it's easier to think you are. In this one, I couldn't even think that I was objective. I was like, "No, I am with these guys, and the value of what I am doing lies in the connection to them, not in my supposed indifference to them."
Details: Was this the first time that you'd been so close to so much gunfire?
Sebastian Junger: There are different kinds of danger in war, and I hadn't been in front-line, small-arms fire like that before. On the other hand, we weren't getting shelled. The Taliban didn't have artillery. I've been in conflicts where I wasn't getting shot at but was getting shelled pretty badly. That's way more scary. I mean, you know, pick your punishment.
Details: In the film, some of the firefights, which are pretty intense-looking, almost seemed like an everyday, boring routine for the soldiers.
Sebastian Junger: They're well trained, and their safety lies in that training. Also, a number of the firefights were happening while the soldiers were behind cover, in their base behind sandbags, and you've got to be pretty unlucky to get hit in the forehead by a bullet that comes through a small firing position. But I promise you that if you get ambushed in the open without cover, it's a very different experience, and there is none of the joking around or lightheartedness.