By Michael Ray Taylor
March 15, 2012
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 photographs featured Tim Hetherington, nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011. Hetherington was killed last 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 of 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 on “Dispatches from War: Stories from the Front Lines of History” at Middle Tennessee State University March 20, recently spoke withChapter16 by phone from his car as he drove toward New York, where he lives and is the co-owner of a pub, The Half King.
Chapter 16: Why do war correspondents take such risks? Why do you do it?
Junger: 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.
Chapter 16: 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?
Junger: 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.