As a war reporter, Sebastian Junger has been in fierce battles from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Afghanistan. He has felt the dirt kick up onto his face from a bullet that landed just inches away. But he never truly understood what it means to be a soldier until two weeks ago.
The best-selling author of The Perfect Storm and other books, Mr. Junger and his close friend, British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, spent a good portion of 2007 and 2008 living with an American platoon in a particularly remote and dangerous portion of Afghanistan. Their collaboration resulted in his 2010 book War and in their Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, he told a Stranahan Theater audience Wednesday night as the final speaker in the Authors! Authors! series co-sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
When the recent hostilities broke out in Libya, he was supposed to go cover it with Mr. Hetherington. A personal matter kept him home, so Mr. Hetherington went on without him. Two weeks ago, Mr. Hetherington and another photographer, Chris Hondros, were killed in a battle in Misrata.
When he and Mr. Hetherington went to Afghanistan, they were "trying to understand and communicate to you all what it feels like to be a soldier," Mr. Junger said.
They spent time with the soldiers -- five, one-month stints over a 12-month period. They befriended them and shared in their grief and their joys, their deprivations, their fear, their boredom, and their camaraderie. They shared the surreal experience of hearing bullets go past their heads -- "it sounds like a rubber band snapping against plastic," he said -- before hearing the sound of gunshot. But the one thing they could not share, the most essential element of being a soldier, was the sense of brotherhood, the sense of "putting your own safety and security below that of the group."
Soldiers and war reporters alike know that they can be killed in battle at any time, Mr. Junger said. But he never experienced what it meant to lose someone for whom he would gladly lay down his life, until now. He had spent more time with Mr. Hetherington over the last three years than anyone else had and, although he is married, he said it almost feels as if he were widowed.
The experience has profoundly affected him.
"I've given a lot of thought to it over the last two weeks, and I don't think I'm going to cover war anymore," he said.
At least not from the front lines. To spare his wife getting a call telling her that he has been killed, he said he will focus his reporting on the broader picture of wars -- what they are about, and why they are being fought.
"The wars that I've covered, they all were brought to an end by a show of force by the West. … And never would that happen without journalists like Tim going there and reporting on it," he said.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.