Foreign Affairs Plus: Q&A With Sebastian Junger

This Plus collection includes an interview with Sebastian Junger, co-director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo; a PDF download of "Groundhog War,"  the original Foreign Affairs review essay of Restrepo; and an excerpt from Junger's book, WAR.

Restrepo cover

 

 

More information about Restrepo is available on the official site, restrepothemovie.com. The DVD is available for purchase from National Geographic, as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

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Watch the trailer for Restrepo.

 

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Sebastian Junger answers questions about soldiers' experiences and their readjustment to civilian life, Pakistan, and the future of Afghanistan. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The author has agreed to answer follow-up questions from Plus readers. Please email foreignaffairs@cfr.org by November 16 to submit a question.

 

You have said that with Restrepo, you wanted to put the focus on the experience of the soldier. Do Americans and policymakers truly understand the challenges that these soldiers face?

I don’t think the American public -- any civilian public -- understands the challenges of soldiers, or fire fighters, or emergency room doctors, or guys who work on oil rigs. It’s not just soldiers; there’s a lack of understanding for entire sectors of the economy and particularly the sectors that kill people.

Policy isn’t really determined by the welfare of soldiers. It never has been. Everyone knows that being a soldier in combat is rough. Everyone knew in advance that D-Day was going to be an absolute bloodbath. But the decision to launch D-Day, to launch any war, isn’t really based on what it’s going to do to the soldiers. So ultimately, I think not. Where the soldier’s experience becomes important isn’t necessarily in formulating policy. It’s in reincorporating these people who have been so deeply affected by war back into society when they come home. I think that’s where it becomes really crucial.

It’s clear from the book and the film that the bond between the soldiers is extremely strong, and that readjustment to civilian life is difficult. What do you think will be the long-term consequences for these men and women?

The long-term consequences for these vets are going to be what they’ve always been in every war we’ve ever fought: social dislocation, some troubled marriages, some troubled lives, unemployment, and some homelessness problems. I think that’s unavoidable. The question is to what degree will it happen? It can be a smaller problem or a bigger problem. I don’t think you’re ever going to completely eliminate the emotional consequences of combat. It’s too traumatic; you’re just not going to do that as a society. But I think you can mitigate the effects of that when these people come back home.

People ask me, “What can I do for the vets?” And my answer is really simple: Give them a job. You meet a vet, give him a job. You can talk about therapy, and you can talk about this and that, but at the end of the day these people come home from a job where they felt extremely utilized and necessary and valued to a society in a recession where they can’t get a job, and they feel the opposite of all those things. And it’s devastating. I wish there were a national program -- some kind of “put the vets to work” program. It might even stimulate the economy. But it would be of tremendous value to the vets and I think to the nation.

Does apparent lack of public support for the war in Afghanistan have real consequences on the ground?

I think it’s negligible. Their missions are very precise: secure this building, secure this valley, control this outpost, and observe the enemy. . . And the stakes are not political for them. The stakes are very physical. They want to survive, and that’s it. Those things are true whether they’re in a war that the public feels is a good idea or a bad idea. It doesn’t matter if you get killed in a war that everything thinks is a good idea; you’re still dead. And if you survive a war that the public doesn’t think is such a good idea, you’re still coming home to your girlfriend. Those are the things that are of primary importance to the soldiers. They don’t discuss politics any more than I did when I was nineteen years old.

One part of their mission is interacting with locals to try to get them on board. Are the locals hedging their bets because they aren’t sure that the troops will continue to be there? If so, don’t politics have some effect on the mission?

The political debate back home is different from that. That’s counter-insurgency doctrine, COIN. That’s different from the public debate about whether we should be in Afghanistan or not. That public debate is of no consequence to the soldiers. They finish their deployment, they’re alive. And part of coming home alive is engaging with the locals in a successful way so that the locals don’t turn on them and support the Taliban. So part of coming home alive is doing that job well. And they know it. And it’s one of the reasons -- other than the obvious moral reasons -- that they really try to avoid civilian casualties. You kill civilians, they side with the Taliban, you get killed. It’s a pretty simple equation.

I should say that the soldiers, the enlisted guys, their job is not really to engage with the locals. They provide security so that the lieutenant or the captain can engage with the locals. You don’t have a specialist with an automatic weapon over his shoulder negotiating with locals. He’s there to make sure they don’t get attacked while the lieutenant does that. The lieutenant has gone through West Point, has some training in this, and that’s a whole different ball game. So it really isn’t the enlisted guys trying to interact with the Afghans. They’re like cops, basically. The analogy I often make is to people in a high-crime, drug-infested neighborhood. They don’t really like the cops, but they realize that if the cops weren’t there the neighborhood would be a violent hellhole run by drug dealers. So they tolerate the cops, and sometimes they even give them information, but it’s at great risk to their own safety.

In the book, you mention Pakistan as the one topic that gets the soldiers riled up politically. Can you elaborate on their frustrations? Can you talk about your own observations?

It was a completely known and accepted fact that all of this stuff was coming from Pakistan. The ammunition, the fighters. They were local fighters but they were getting resupplied and helped out by fighters coming from across the border from Pakistan. You would hear it on the icom [two-way radio] chatter, “twenty more fighters crossing the border into the Korengal.” So the soldiers were very cynical about Pakistan because it’s not an enemy state; it’s an allied state. They knew that their hands were kind of tied, that our hands as a nation were kind of tied with respect to Pakistan. But then, there on the ground, they see all this stuff come over from Pakistan. It’s well known. So they’re kind of cynical about it. But also at the end of the day, wherever this stuff is coming from, they’re in the Korengal. It’s not their problem to deal with Pakistan.

There wouldn’t be an insurgency if there weren’t a Pakistan. Weapons come from somewhere; they don’t grow them in the fields of Afghanistan. They don’t grow bullets in Afghanistan. That stuff comes from somewhere. It comes from Pakistan or comes through Pakistan. . . India completely out-guns Pakistan, and so Pakistan needs to have Afghanistan as a fallback position in case India invades. They can’t afford for Afghanistan to be under India’s control, so they’re doing everything they can to have it under their control. As long as the Afghan government is an independent entity that is not in the control of Pakistan, Pakistan is in a very weak and threatened position. Pakistan’s sense of security comes from supporting an insurgency that keeps Afghanistan unstable and potentially under its influence. . . It goes back to Kashmir. And if somehow we could unravel that, and Pakistan saw a reason not to hedge their bets by supporting an insurgency, there wouldn’t be an insurgency. There would be some trouble, but it wouldn’t require 100,000 men to keep it in control.

Can you talk about war reporting and journalists embedding with troops? Is the American public getting all the information it needs from war reporting?

If there were no embedding, they would certainly be getting less information. And they would have no access to the actions of our troops overseas, which would be a real corrosion of democratic principles in the free press. The embedding program was a real leap forward for journalistic access and openness. Reporters have always reported from the other side, from the civilian side. . . Starting in 2003, suddenly they had access to U.S. forces as well. If you read journalism from both of those sources, you start to have a pretty complete picture of the conflict. So long as it’s only one or only the other, it’s not a complete picture and is inadequate and ultimately damaging to our country.

In Iraq, in the early 90s, there was no front-line reporting. There were no journalists allowed with American troops. So there’s this huge hole in the reporting. You had no access except what the Pentagon wanted to share with the public. You had no access to what was going on out there, except for a few brave people in Baghdad itself. You had a completely one-sided understanding of the war. It was a one-dimensional understanding from the Iraqi perspective and not from the American soldiers. You never want to allow the Pentagon to simply show you the images they want to show you. That’s disastrous for freedom of the press. So now that it’s on both sides of the equation, it’s great.

Can you talk about how Tim Hetherington's death has affected you? [Tim Hetherington was the co-director of Restrepo, and he was killed while reporting from Libya in April of this year.]

It was devastating to me. I very quickly realized that I didn’t want to inflict on people that I care about what I was going through with Tim. I’ve been doing this almost twenty years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve come close to getting killed or really badly hurt. And I just suddenly felt like this is a good time to leave the poker table. We all take risks when we do this work, and those are risks that eventually catch up with you. And I just felt like I’m coming out ahead if I get out now. War reporting is very intense and it’s incredibly meaningful and I want those feelings to continue in my life, just without risking my life.

I’m making a documentary about Tim -- about his life, about his death, about his work -- for HBO. And I’m starting a medical training program for journalists. It’s called RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues). It’s a three-day battlefield medicine course. You get a medical kit; the course is free. Lodging is free for three days in London, New York, and Beirut. Tim’s wounds did not have to be mortal. He bled out, but there are things you can do in his situation to slow the bleeding down to get the person to real help. No one around him knew what to do, and I wouldn’t have either. I want to prevent the next Tim, so I’m really throwing myself into that. It provides a really meaningful alternative to what I used to be doing.

What is the most important thing people should understand about Afghanistan?

What I should say is that the Korengal Valley is not Afghanistan. The successes and failures that the United States had there aren’t necessarily representative of the war in general. We could “win” Afghanistan and not have a presence in the Korengal. Or we could certainly have a presence in the Korengal and definitely lose Afghanistan. They really are different things.

Overall, it’s really important to remember in the debate about this war -- the ethics of it, and the strategy of it -- that through no fault of their own. . . the Afghans. . . were propelled into what is now thirty years of conflict. Right now, because of NATO forces, this is the lowest level of civilian casualties in that country in thirty years. What’s happening now is nothing compared to. . . their civil war in the 1990s. It’s just important to keep that perspective. I’m not arguing for or against the war, I’m a journalist, and I don’t take positions. But it’s very, very important when you evaluate the war on humanitarian terms that you understand that this is Afghans' best chance of development and progress and is the lowest number of casualties they’ve seen in more than a generation. That sometimes comes as a surprise to people.

According to Afghan human rights groups, 85 percent of those civilian casualties are caused by Taliban attacks. There’s no love lost, and it gives an idea of what would happen if NATO pulled out just in terms of the human suffering in Afghanistan. I completely understand Americans saying, “I’m tired of our kids coming home in boxes. Bring the troops home.” I get it. But I do sort of recoil a little bit when someone says, “We need to leave Afghanistan for the sake of Afghans.” NATO pulls out and that country goes back to the bloodbath that it was in the 90s. That’s the only reason we’re tolerated there, much like the cops in a high-crime neighborhood.

David M. Rodriguez, a former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, argues in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that we need to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans and that the local security forces will be ready to take over by 2014. Is that your sense?


I haven’t been there since 2008, but I think that’s being pretty optimistic. Look, they have no reason to risk their lives and die for that government. It’s a completely corrupt government. It’s a criminal cartel that we allowed to develop on our watch. First U.S. president George W. Bush and then President Barack Obama completely ignored the problems of corruption in the Karzai administration. At the end of the day, they were just completely indulgent of him, never called him to task, never forced him to implement corruption reform. So the Afghans look at this and think, “Why would I die defending this? The corrupt government that’s stealing us blind?” Until we use our enormous leverage to force Karzai to implement real corruption reform, the Afghans -- the soldiers and civilians -- none of them will have any reason to risk their lives defending their own government.

Can the Afghan forces take care of themselves? Ultimately, I don’t think they have any motivation to if they’re. . . in the service of a completely corrupt government. It’s not going to happen. I think corruption reform is absolutely necessary for that to even have a chance of working in 2014. But I think that we do have a lot of leverage, and we can make it happen.

The author has agreed to answer follow-up questions from Plus readers. Please email foreignaffairs@cfr.org by November 16 to submit a question.

 

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Download "Groundhog War," by Bing West. September/October 2011

Two documentaries on the Afghan war, Restrepo and Armadillo, show how a combination of overwhelming military resources and aggressive counterinsurgency ultimately leads to frustration on the battlefield.

 

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The following is an excerpt from WAR by Sebastian Junger. Copyright © 2010 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. The book is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

War cover

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KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN
Spring 2007

O'Byrne and the men of Battle Company arrived in the last week in May when the rivers were running full and the upper peaks still held their snow. Chinooks escorted by Apache helicopters rounded a massive dark mountain called the Abas Ghar and pounded into the valley and put down amid clouds of dust at the tiny landing zone. The men grabbed their gear, filed off the birds, and got mortared almost immediately. The enemy knew a new unit was coming into the valley and it was their way of saying hello; fourteen months later they'd say goodbye that way as well. The men took cover in the mechanics' bay and then shouldered their gear and climbed the hill up to their tents at the top of the base. The climb was only a hundred yards but it smoked almost everyone. Around them, the mountains flew up in every direction. The men knew that before the year was out they would probably have to walk on everything they could see.

The base was called the Korengal Outpost--the KOP--and was considered one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan. It was a cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire. There was a plywood headquarters building and a few brick-and-mortars for the men to sleep in and small sandbag bunkers for mortar attacks. The men ate one hot meal a day under a green Army tent and showered once a week in water that had been pumped out of a local creek. Here and there PVC pipe was stuck into the ground at an angle for the men to urinate into. Since there were no women there was no need for privacy. Past the medical tent and the water tank were four open brick stalls that faced the spectacular mountains to the north. Those were known as the burn-shitters, and beneath each one was a metal drum that Afghan workers pulled out once a day so they could burn the contents with diesel fuel. Upslope from there was an Afghan National Army bunker and then a trail that climbed up to Outpost 1, a thousand feet above the KOP. The climb was so steep that the previous unit had installed fixed ropes on the bad parts. The Americans could make the climb in forty-five minutes, combat-light, and the Afghans could make it in half that.

Several days after they arrived, O'Byrne's platoon went on patrol with men from the 10th Mountain Division, whom they were replacing in the valley. Tenth Mountain had begun their rotation back to the United States several months earlier, but Army commanders had changed their minds and decided to extend their tour. Men who had arrived home after a year of combat were put on planes and flown back into the war. Morale plunged, and Battle Company arrived to stories of their predecessors jumping off rocks to break their legs or simply refusing to leave the wire. The stories weren't entirely true, but the Korengal Valley was starting to acquire a reputation as a place that could alter your mind in terrible and irreversible ways.

However messed up 10th Mountain might have been, they'd been climbing around the valley for over a year and were definitely in shape. On the first joint patrol they led Second Platoon down toward the Korengal River and then back up to a granite formation called Table Rock. Tenth Mountain was intentionally trying to break them off--make the new men collapse from exhaustion--and halfway up Table Rock it started to work. A 240 gunner named Vandenberge started falling out and O'Byrne, who was on the same gun team, traded weapons with him and hung the 240 across his shoulders. The 240 is a belt-fed machine gun that weighs almost thirty pounds; you might as well be carrying a jackhammer up a mountain. O'Byrne and the rest of the men had another fifty pounds of gear and ammunition on their backs and twenty pounds of body armor. Almost no one in the platoon was carrying less than eighty pounds.

The men struggled upward in full view of the Taliban positions across the valley and finally began taking fire halfway up the spur. O'Byrne had never been under fire before, and the first thing he did was stand up to look around. Someone yelled to take cover. There was only one rock to hide behind, and Vandenberge was using it, so O'Byrne got behind him. ‘Fuck, I can't believe they just shot at me!' he yelled.

Vandenberge was a huge blond man who spoke slowly and was very, very smart. ‘Well,' he said, ‘I don't know if they were shooting at you . . .'

‘Okay,' O'Byrne said, ‘shooting at us . . .'

Inexperienced soldiers are known as "cherries," and standing up in a firefight is about as cherry as it gets. So is this: the first night at the KOP, O'Byrne heard a strange yammering in the forest and assumed the base was about to get attacked. He grabbed his gun and waited. Nothing happened. Later he found out it was just monkeys that came down to the wire to shriek at the Americans. It was as if every living thing in the valley, even the wildlife, wanted them gone.

 

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