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Five times, for a month at a stretch, Sebastian Junger hung with a small unit of U.S. soldiers in a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan. "Hung with" as in crawled out of blown-up Humvees and dodged bullets with, shivered, and sweat alongside 20 young American men in the rugged Korengal Valley.
The experience, in 2007 and 2008, resulted in a book, War; a documentary film, Restrepo, and a deeply changed man.
"I react more emotionally to all kinds of things; weddings, birthdays, just life stuff. I have an emotional reaction much more akin to what I imagine women have," said Junger, 49. "It was a pretty profound experience."
A staunch second-generation liberal, it has also altered his views on war and peace.
"I’m a completely politically liberal person but because of all my experience in war I have a complicated take on the use of force. It’s way more nuanced than most of my left-wing friends and relatives have, because they haven’t seen war and they don’t know how terrible it is."
Junger (pronounced "younger") will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
"I try to talk about war in real terms, terms of real human suffering, so we can make wise decisions about how to use our incredible military power to good ends," he said from his home in Manhattan.
Junger read War (2010) for the audio book, which is enhanced with related photos and short videos that can be viewed on computer. The e-book edition incorporates images into the text: you can read about a battle and then watch a clip of it.
Junger won fame after his popular book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997) and the subsequent feature film in 2000 starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Diane Lane. He also wrote A Death in Belmont and Fire.
Attracted since he was a boy to "extreme situations and people at the edges of things," he’s covered many wars, and expects to venture off to another hot spot this summer for Vanity Fair magazine, for which he wrote lengthy articles about his time in the Korengal Valley. The United States withdrew from the Korengal in April, 2010. Dozens of Americans were killed there.
"I think it’s really interesting, the struggle toward democracy in these countries that have been oppressed for so long, often oppressed by people that the United States was allied with, sometimes shamefully," he said of his next project. "I think it’s an amazing moment in the history of that region to see people trying to break out of that paradigm of a dictator and oppressed people. I’d like to see it."
He first visited Afghanistan in 1996.
"I wanted to write about the terrorist training camps in the Tora Bora mountains south of Jalalabad. There were fighters who had been in the war against the Soviets and had been retrained in these camps, bin Laden camps basically," he said. "I realized the root of the problem [of several deadly terrorist attacks around the world] was these training camps that were left over from the war against the Soviets, and they were going to continue spewing out trouble for years to come. I didn’t know 9/11 was coming but it was pretty clear something was coming."
‘War’s going better’
Afghanistan is in far better shape than it’s been in the last 30 years, he noted. A destroyed Kabul is nearly rebuilt, and Jalalabad is thriving. During the war with the Soviets, an estimated 1.5 million civilians were killed. "The jihad against the Soviets, which we supported, killed an enormous number of civilians and destroyed the country, and then the Soviets withdrew. And then we, I think to our eternal chagrin, withdrew our economic support, so the country imploded." The result was civil war through the 1990s, when about 400,000 civilians were killed.
"That era ended when U.S. and NATO forces entered after 9/11. And in the decade since, civilian casualties have been about 30,000," he said.
"I think the war’s going better and I think the big problem isn’t the military, it’s corruption in the Afghan government. The Bush administration and then the Obama administration were just unbelievably almost weak and cowardly in terms of confronting [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai with his lies and his hypocrisy and his criminal behavior.
"The solution lies in having reputable government that the Afghans are proud of and willing to fight for themselves, rather than having us fight for them. I’m not saying we’ll make the right decisions to attain it, but I think theoretically it’s an attainable goal."
Restrepo, 94 minutes long, is apolitical and aims to impart the feeling of being deployed. It won the grand jury prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award. Junger’s collaborator, British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, also went to the outpost five times, and they shot about 200 hours of video. Hetherington was killed by a grenade April 20 while taking pictures in Misrata, Libya.
In his 304-page book, War (2010), Junger examines courage from three perspectives: neurological, psychological, and sociological.
"It’s a very complicated topic. Basically, something that might get you killed, according to Darwin’s theories of natural selection, is hard to explain in terms of behavior because people who engage in that activity die at a faster rate," he said. If they’re young, that means they’ll pass on fewer of their genes than people who are more cautious. "Darwin would argue that those kinds of ‘brave’ genes would get weeded out pretty quickly. So why does that behavior exist? And is there some kind of genetic advantage to it even though that person doesn’t pass on their DNA?
"In moments of intensity and crisis, there’s a psychological distancing that happens, where there’s a feeling of slight unreality. I experienced it, it’s a funny, almost numbing [feeling]; you can’t quite believe that this is happening so it’s easier to do unimaginable things because none of it feels real. And there are chemical and neurological reasons for that."
Also in the trenches, brotherhood evolves.
"Usually acts of courage in combat are a function of people’s concern for others in the group. And there’s a whole sociological thing where these kinds of male groups and male heroism are extolled and encouraged in literally every society in the world and probably have been for all of history, and there’s probably some pretty sound reasons for that.
"One guy said to me there’s worse things than getting killed, such as watching someone you care about get killed and not doing anything to help him. That’s a lifetime of shame, so getting killed isn’t as bad as dishonor and shame."
Junger grew up in a Boston suburb, the son of a German/French physicist and an Ohio-born mother whose father ran Meyers Lake Amusement Park in Canton.
He has homes in Manhattan and Cape Cod and is married to Daniela Petrova, a Bulgarian native he met in New York. He plays chess, reads, and runs with his dog, Daisy, a rottweiler/shepherd/retriever acquired from a shelter. And he co-owns the Half King, a classy bar/restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood that has poetry-author readings Monday nights and photo exhibits.
"The menu’s very good and it’s a nice place to have a drink."
Tickets for Sebastian Junger’s 7 p.m. Wednesday talk are $10, $8 for students, and can be purchased at Toledo-Lucas County Public Library branches and at the door. The Stranahan Theater is at 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Information: 419-259-5266.
Contact Tahree Lane @ 419-724-6075 and email@example.com.