Chapter 16: Inside the story

Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 10:05pm
By Michael Ray Taylor

At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Esperanza Spalding sang over a montage of photographs of film-related men and women who had died in the past year. One of those featured was Tim Hetherington, nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011. Hetherington was killed in April in Libya while photographing the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. His Oscar nomination came for Restrepo, which he created with journalist and author Sebastian Junger. The film follows a platoon from the most active combat unit in Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. Junger first told their story in a series of magazine articles, photographed by Hetherington, for Vanity Fair. In 2010 Junger brought out War, a full-length version of the story of being embedded for weeks at a stretch with young men who faced constant enemy fire, hunkered down in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Korengal Valley, just north of the Khyber Pass.

A few days before the Academy Awards remembered Hetherington, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed while covering the civil uprising in Syria. The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists confirms that 2011 was one of the deadliest years for journalists on record, and so far 2012 appears even worse. Junger, who will deliver a lecture titled “Dispatches from War: Stories from the Front Lines of History” at Middle Tennessee State University on Tuesday, March 20, recently spoke with Chapter16 by phone from his car as he drove toward New York City, where he lives and is the co-owner of a pub, The Half King.

Why do war correspondents take such risks? Why do
you do it?

The Arab Spring opened up this whole area of danger because there was full access to frontline combat, and that’s usually not true. It’s usually quite hard to get into combat as a journalist. Nobody wants journalists around in combat. In Bosnia and Sarajevo, it was almost impossible to get out to the front lines. I mean, you could always get hit by a stray mortar. But there were very, very few journalists in combat.

With the Arab Spring, all of a sudden these kids with no idea what they were doing were just jumping into pickup trucks. And if you were there, you could jump into one, too, and off you went, and no one had a clue what they were doing. So a lot of people got killed — not just journalists, but rebels too. It was a war of complete unprofessionals.

I think there’s a sort of a large amount of ego in it, frankly. It’s a very flattering job to have. People admire you if you’re a war reporter. It feels nice to be admired. I think there is a component of, “These are terrible things, and the news needs to get out, and someone has to do it, and I’m lucky enough to be that person.” For some, there’s a certain amount of youthful thrill-seeking, of proving one’s self. When I went to Sarajevo I was a young man, and I think young men definitely have a very ancient impulse to prove themselves as men. War is a clichéd way to do it, but in some way it works, so there is a bundle of different motivations.

One of the things that we hear about the way war today is different from wars in the past is that soldiers are on the Internet, reading email and staying in touch with the outside world. Was it like that for the soldiers you wrote about?

Not for them. They would go weeks at a time without any email or phone or anything. But I should add as a matter of sort of general principle that journalism in the old days, in the '90s, took place in developing countries that had very, very poor communication. There was no Internet, no cell phone. When you went to Sierra Leone you were really in Sierra Leone. And you didn’t have much access to your editor, your family, your girlfriend, whatever. As a journalist, having communication — that’s a very new thing. Psychologically, it changes the experience. And I’m sure for a college student, for their year abroad or whatever, it also changes the experience if you can just call home any time you want. In the old days you had to wait for a letter to come. So all that has changed a lot for many soldiers, too.

Your best-known works, The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, were research-heavy projects, where you were digging into the past in various creative ways, but as a war reporter, you’re right there in the middle of it. How does that experience translate into the writing? Does it change the way you approach the work?

Well, I’ve never really written in first person before, other than the odd paragraph here and there. I was living in Gloucester [Mass.] when the storm hit. I think there is one mention of that fact in all of The Perfect Storm. Otherwise there is no first person, no reference to myself, my own life, my own thoughts. So if you experience in an extensive way the story you are writing about, then putting yourself and your thoughts, your reactions, into the story is completely natural. It illuminates the story in ways that a strict sort of journalistic third person couldn’t.

You have to be honest. Just because you are inside the story doesn’t mean you can pretty up your emotions, pretty up your responses to be more flattering. You really have to be honest about the embarrassing stuff, the noble stuff, the ugly stuff and whatever. The way you respond to that situation is very, very revealing of the situation, but it’s not if you sort of try to doctor it up at all to try to make yourself look better.

Once you’ve jumped into that sort of experience, does it make it hard to go back to the straight third person?

Certainly the writing is easier. I wrote War in six months, which is very fast for me. It was a very emotional experience, writing the book. That emotion produced very rapid writing. It was the first time words just poured out of me. Emotions poured out of me. They never had before. A Death in Belmont was much more of a chess game. I was juggling an enormous number of very, very complex facts and trying to order them, trying to be rational and methodical. It wasn’t an emotional experience, particularly.

I haven’t started another book project, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like. But frankly, there aren’t that many experiences I can imagine having that would be as intense and powerful and emotional as the one I had out in Korengal.

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