Bestselling author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington, both seasoned war reporters, have just released a powerful new documentary, Restrepo. In order to show the true experience of an American solider, the pair joined the men of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade for a full deployment. It just so happened that the platoon got assigned to the Korengal Valley, a six-mile slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush known as the deadliest place in Afghanistan. During their 14-month project, Hetherington broke his leg and Junger tore his Achilles and survived an IED attack. Both men could have easily been taken out during the almost daily firefights. But this isn't their story. The journalists remained far out of the frame to show the soldiers' experience. And unlike The Hurt Locker, this is real. At times devastating, at times playful, this story is very real. We spoke to Junger about making the film, dodging death, the McChrystal question, and what's needed next in Afghanistan. —Mary Anne Potts
You've been reporting from Afghanistan since 1996. Why do you keep going back?
In 2001, it was an easy win. The Afghan people were, for he most part, incredibly grateful to be rid of the Taliban. And it looked like the story was over. And then, I think, we didn’t leave enough troops there, and we moved on to Iraq, and the war got worse and worse. By 2005 I thought, O.K., since we are going to be there for so long, I want to know what it’s like to be a solider in the U.S. military. I was with Battle Company of the 173rd in Zabol province in 2005, and I was really amazed by those guys. It was my first experience with the U.S. military. I decided that if they went back to Afghanistan, I wanted to do a project that shows what it is like to be a soldier in combat in the U.S. military. I wanted to be with a platoon for a full deployment—a platoon is about 35 men. So they went back to Afghanistan in 2007, and I followed them there about a week or two later.
What made you decide to shoot your first documentary in the Korengal Valley, which was known as the deadliest place in Afghanistan for the intense, frequent fighting that occurred there?
I didn’t know it would be. I was going over there because Battle Company was there. I had never heard of the Korengal Valley before. They hadn’t either. It just happened to be a very violent place.
When you heard about its reputation, did you rethink your decision?
No, I trusted the soldiers’ ability to stay safe and protect themselves. If anything, I thought, at least I am in a place that is active and not dormant, which wouldn’t have been much of a documentary.
Can you describe how you physically get to Outpost Restrepo? Sounds like extreme hiking, what with the altitude, war gear, and lurking Taliban….
Restrepo was an hour-and-a-half hike up a steep hill. Some of the operations that they did were pretty rugged, mainly because they were carrying so much weight. A soldier would be carrying 150-160 pounds, with all the ammo, water, and gear, such as a bulletproof vest and helmet. Typically I had about half that weight because, obviously, I wasn’t armed. But it was tough. We would not move very fast.
And then there was the fact that you basically could be under fire at any moment out there, right?
Pretty much. There were some places that we knew were safer than others. If you were behind cover, you were O.K. On patrols, you never knew when a firefight was going to hit. It’s part of the reality out there. I adjusted to it pretty quickly.
The soldiers had combat training. You were a journalist behind a camera. Did that make you vulnerable?
You don’t need much training to take cover. Training comes in when it’s time to fight back, and that was their job. I just had to shoot video—a monkey could do it, it’s not that hard.
How did you deal with the fact that you might die reporting this story?
I dealt with it by trying to be as safe as possible, which meant always being aware of where cover was. When we were on patrol, I was constantly looking ahead to see where I would go if we got hit. Could I go behind that rock? Behind that tree? I was continually scanning the terrain thinking where’s the best place to be if we got hit right now? On a tactical level, there are things you can do to protect yourself. In terms of reconciling myself with the idea of getting killed? I tried not to think about it.
That’s probably good. But you did have some close calls, right?
I did, yes. There were a couple firefights where the rounds hit very close to me. I got sprayed in the face by dirt that was kicked up by a round that hit next to my head. I was in a Humvee that got blown up by a roadside bomb. It went off under the engine block rather than us, so we weren’t harmed. But yeah, we were aware that death in combat is a pretty random thing. Everyone is just rolling the dice.
Your tore your Achilles tendon and co-director Tim Hetherington broke his leg. And still you guys kept going back?
Yeah, we had to alternate trips for a while because we kept getting hurt. I ruptured my Achilles tendon high up, where it attaches to the calf, so I was able to recover from it in a couple months—I was even able to walk after a few days, so I stayed out there. Tim walked all night on a broken leg. It was the only way to get him out of there. If he had been crybaby about it, he would have put everyone else in danger.
Is there a kind of survival adrenaline that kicks in during those moments of pain and stress?
Yes. Absolutely. Likewise for the soldiers if they get wounded. Sometimes guys would get hit by rounds and not even know that they were wounded. The medic checks everyone after a firefight to make sure there isn’t someone who is wounded and just not aware of it.
The Battle Company men must have been a little surprised that you and Tim kept coming back, even after your injuries?
Yes, it wasn’t what they expected. Journalists usually don’t do that. So after two or three trips, they realized we were serious, and they took us seriously. They bought into the project and understood it was a good thing.
In the film, the soldiers talk about their haunting memories and psychological issues since returning. Are you dealing with the some similar challenges?
A little bit. I’m older, so I have a place in society that acts as a counterbalance to the very intense reality out there. They are 19, 20, 21. They don’t have that place in society yet because they are young. They are at the bottom on the food chain. That happens a lot in reintegrating yourself. I have had some nightmares and I jump at loud noises once in a while, but that goes away.
What was your reaction last April when General Stanley McChrystal pulled U.S. troops out of the Korengal Valley?
I didn’t personally feel anything, either way. But the soldiers I knew had very strong feelings about it. They worried about the effect it would have on them. They were very emotional about it. But I think they also understood that they are soldiers, and strategies change, and that the military command is continually making decisions about where to put their limited resources and limited manpower. And the war had shifted to a point where the Korengal was no longer relevant, so they moved on.
We just saw a piece of war journalism end a military career. If you had been reporting the Rolling Stone story, would you have sold out McChrystal?
That’s a good question. I can’t really imagine following a general around. That’s not really been the focus of my reporting. So it’s hard to imagine even being in that situation. Ultimately, I think my guideline would be…. Well, first of all, people always talk badly about their bosses. If you work in a kitchen in a restaurant—I own a restaurant, so I know—people who work there say stuff. And likewise, if you’re a general, you’re going to say stuff about the commander in chief. It’s part of the territory. I think I would have reported it if I felt like the things that were being said and the sentiments behind them were actually costing the lives of American soldiers and detrimental to the war effort. If they were just blowing off steam? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would. Possibly not.
Do you think embedded journalists will have a harder time getting military access in the future?
That guy wasn’t really embedded. The press has always had access to the generals. Will that continue? I don’t know. The embed program is designed to put journalists with front line troops. It was started in 2003. I hope it’s not affected, because the embed program is a very good thing for the army, the country, and for the civilian population. It’s absolutely essential for accountability and understanding.
Has the tone of your interactions with local Afghan people changed over the years?
Because of the narrow scope of this project, I haven’t really interacted with the Afghan people that much lately. My reporting in 1996, 2000, 2001, and to an extent in 2005 was from the perspective of the Afghans. And for this project, it wasn’t so much. It’s been a few years since I’ve been embedded, as it were, in Afghan society. I hope to do that again. But it was just a very different beast this time.
What do you think should happen next in this very complicated war?
I think America has done about everything it can. And without increased help from the international community the effort there is in serious jeopardy. Maybe the surge will do the trick for our sake and the sake of the Afghan people. But if it doesn’t, I don’t think we can step it up one more time. It is really in the hands of the international community. And that is where the repercussions will play out. Al Qaeda has attacked or tried to attack every country in Europe. They have attacked all of the apostate regimes in the Muslim world—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan. If they are able to resurrect their operational base in Afghanistan, in the wake of a NATO pull out, they will attack those countries again. It’s everyone’s concern, and I think there should be a much higher level of support in Afghanistan from those countries than there is right now.
Why did you call your bestselling book on this subject simply War and not something more specific like the film?
I wasn’t writing about Afghanistan. I wanted to explain to readers the emotional experience of war. So I chose that word because I thought it was the most free of specific associations with this particular war, with the war on terror, with Afghanistan. My focus was on the universal soldier experience. As a result, I have had Vietnam vets come up to me and say, “Thank you for telling our story.”
You wrote about your most intense moment of fear in Liberia for the magazine. How did this Korengal Valley experience stack up?
For me, being alone in an African civil war is the most terrifying thing I’ve experienced. Being part of a platoon of fellow Americans in Afghanistan, psychologically, was far easier to deal with. Being alone in a dangerous situation is the scariest thing there is.