Details: Vanity Fair originally commissioned you to write a series of articles about your time with the troops in Afghanistan. When did you decide that this was a bigger story?
Sebastian Junger: Probably when I was writing about being in the IED attack, the emotional effect on me. I put my own feelings in—all my journalistic instincts were telling me not to, but I felt like there was some real value there, and when I started doing that, I started having a really profound emotional reaction in the writing. I mean, I was dreaming about it and being very affected by what I was writing.
I had a nightmare, and I put it in the book. As a journalist, I had such trepidation about putting a dream in a reported book, but then I realized that we are all having nightmares out here, this is what it's about, so go for it. This is the kind of thing that is going to make this book different from other books about this war.
When I was writing The Perfect Storm, it was a journalistic story about a town that I cared about, but it wasn't personal in that sense. This was. I started dreaming about it every night—literally every night—while I was writing. Once I reached that level of emotional connectedness to the topic, I started writing very, very well. I mean, writers know when they are writing like shit and when they are writing really well. [Laughs] Everybody knows. I just began writing really powerfully, and I thought, I am onto something here.
Details: Do you think that American civilians have an adequate understanding of what's going over there?
Sebastian Junger: Americans don't have an understanding of what it's like to be at a small outpost with 15 other men. I think some Americans have an understanding of the broader military and political issues. I think other people think they have an understanding of those things. But what it's like to be a grunt, no, I don't think Americans have any understanding of that, but I am hoping with my book and my movie, they will.
Details: Have you talked to any of the members of the platoon about the U.S. withdrawal from the Korengal Valley?
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I have, and they're pretty moved and upset by it. I don't think they're upset in the sense that they want the U.S. to stay and keep losing soldiers there, but I think they are upset in the way that divorce is upsetting. Okay, this marriage isn't working, but it doesn't mean that divorce isn't painful. It's painful for these guys to watch the video that MSNBC shot of the Restrepo outpost burning. You know, it's named after a guy [platoon medic Juan Restrepo] that they all loved, and they sacrificed and worked and fought up there for 15 months. It is a very, very different level of reality from the wider military question: Is it a good decision or a bad decision? They are really not connected, but it is an important level to acknowledge and honor, I think.
Details: Was there anything about American soldiers in particular that surprised or impressed you?
Sebastian Junger: I grew up during Vietnam, and it was a very different military, a very different war, and a very different country. Then, in the 1980s, the military was kind of seen as a dead-end career if you didn't really have anything else to do. I'm speaking as a Massachusetts Democrat; this was the vision of the military that I inherited from my surroundings.
So when I started working with the military, I was not prepared for what it means to have an all-volunteer army. What it means is that no one is bitching about what is happening to them. They don't complain about it because they all chose to sign up. That is very, very different from Vietnam, and it hadn't occurred to me. Not that they don't have complaints about what it feels like to be there, but not about why they are there in the first place.
The other thing that really struck me was how incredibly smart the officers are—and many of the enlisted men too. And they are really dedicated. Any of those officers, from lieutenant on up, could have been at Harvard, could have been running a small business, or they could have been trying to clean up the valley.
Details: In the popular image of the military, say Catch-22 or M*A*S*H, you name it, the officers are always just...
Sebastian Junger: Just bureaucratic idiots. Nope, that is gone.
Details: Finally, why is this a subject matter that you keep returning to?
Sebastian Junger: Well, the stakes in war are very, very high, and so it feels important. The human drama is extremely intense, and so it's riveting. I think that the effect on you as a person and me as a person is pretty profound. Also, I think that in some strange ways, it was very good for me. You combine those three things and you've got a war reporter.
Buy Junger's War here.