JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us.
Our speaker is a well-known journalist, a New York Times best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, and the director of the award-winning documentary Restrepo.
We are delighted that Sebastian Junger is our guest today. This morning he will be telling us what it is like to serve in a platoon of combat infantry in the U.S. Army.
Since time immemorial, war has been the subject of many books, songs, movies, and conversations. Still, the enduring question is: What is it about war that is so compelling—so many young men, some still in their teens, who are willing to risk everything to go off into battle and be killed or wounded for life? What does it mean to fight, to serve, and to face down mortal danger on a daily basis?
Sebastian Junger has been traveling to and writing about Afghanistan since 1996. Yet, in going there in 2007 and 2008 as a correspondent for Vanity Fair, his purpose was not to report on the Afghans or to write about why we are fighting this war, but to find out about the soldier who has been sent there to fight. He wanted to know what a soldier feels, what he can do, what he is capable of doing, and what he is afraid of.
Accordingly, on five separate occasions he followed the 2nd Platoon, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, to one of the U.S. military's most remote and dangerous outposts in the Korengal Valley, a rugged and inhospitable terrain which is located in eastern Afghanistan about 25 miles from the border with Pakistan. The soldiers were there to intercept Taliban fighters who were passing through to fight in other parts of Afghanistan and, if there was any time left, to persuade the people of the valley that Americans were their friends.
Under the most difficult of conditions, these soldiers were crammed together inside a tiny mountain outpost surrounded by enemies who were determined to kill them. Sebastian experienced everything these soldiers did, which included stultifying weeks in camps while waiting, nerve-racking patrols, terrifying roadside bombs and ambushes, and the loss of friends.
If you've seen the documentary Restrepo, or maybe even read WAR before coming here this morning, you know that this book is more than a boots-on-the-ground narrative. It is first and foremost a story about the emotional terrain of combat.
Sebastian reveals how war can not only replace the mundane occurrences in everyday life, but how it also creates an intense bond among soldiers that can only be broken by death. WAR is an account about the reality of combat, what it means to serve and to trust your fellow soldier in an extreme situation.
This book could only have been written by someone who had the empathy to identify with these soldiers and the skills necessary to tell a remarkable story. That person is our guest this morning. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Sebastian Junger.
Thank you for coming.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be awake at this hour and speaking with you. [Laughter]
I'm going to talk a little bit about my experience out in the Korengal and more broadly about my career and about war.
I've been covering wars since 1993, when I went to Bosnia as a completely inexperienced freelancer. Like a lot of freelancers in Bosnia, I just went there and thought that I'd figure it out when I arrived, which most of us did.
But when I went over there, I thought that it was going to be exciting and glamorous and intense, being a reporter in a war zone—and it was all those things. It was a lot of other things too, but it was definitely those things.
One of the things I became interested in in my book WAR is this weird—I mean war is a terrible thing. It kills people, it ruins societies—it's just very obviously bad. We're all in agreement on that.
So why is it also to some people sometimes attractive? What is it about humans, about men in particular, and about war which is—it's a complicated relationship we have with it.
A few years ago, I was reading a biography of Daniel Boone. I'm paraphrasing here, but at one point the author was quoting the journal of a young woman who is in one of these very rough settlements that the early white settlers created in the Ohio River Valley. These are small, small settlements. There were a lot of Indian attacks and a lot of killing. The Indian wars in the Ohio River Valley in that time were just brutal, absolutely savage, on both sides. It was a horror show.
I can't imagine anything more terrifying than being part of a party of 23 Anglo settlers in the Ohio River valley surrounded by Indian tribes who wanted to kill you. What a terrifying thing! You can't call in air support. You can't take a flight out of there. You're stuck.
This woman wrote about the Indian wars out there. She said the men and the dogs have a fine time; it's always the women who suffer. It was such an amazing insight. What is it about men—and dogs, I suppose—what is it about men that—there is a difference; we can go into that later. [Laughter]
What is it about men that responds with excitement to something so awful? You kind of have to answer the question. All politically correct thought aside, if we don't answer that question, it's going to be awfully hard to stop war.
I remember when I was a young man, I was in a bar in Pamplona, Spain during the San Fermin Festival. Everyone was doing a lot of drinking. It was a very highly charged atmosphere. I made some friends with these two young Spanish guys, really great guys, cross-eyed drunk. One of them was wearing a plastic Viking helmet for some reason, which I didn't question for some reason.
At one point in the night, these three really tough Moroccan kids came in. One of them wanted the helmet and grabbed it. My new Spanish friend grabbed the helmet to keep hold of it. Suddenly, there were five guys pulling at this $3.00 plastic Viking helmet. They almost got into a really serious fight about it. Clearly, that wasn't about the helmet; it was about some kind of territoriality and some kind of rivalry.
What was very interesting is all of that energy that could have gone into seriously hurting each other—these are five strong guys who are ready to go at it and all of them were very drunk—and no one, including myself, was interested in intervening. Like this was just going to happen.
It was really quite brilliant the way it was avoided. One of the two Spanish guys asked me—I sort of stood back, and I speak both languages, so I was translating for them. I was basically the UN for a moment.
He said to me, "Will you take my place at this helmet and do you promise to defend it upon your ancestors?" There was this sort of elegant Spanish formulation.
I was like, "Yeah, okay." So I took hold of the helmet.
He went to the bar and he bought a big bottle of cheap red wine and he came back. They had stopped pulling at it because it was tearing, first of all. So here's an interesting lesson: When men are destroying the thing that they want, they might be able to collaborate. It's an interesting insight.
He went and got the wine and he filled the helmet up with red wine. The other thing is don't spill the wine. Don't tear the helmet, don't spill the wine, and maybe we can have peace. Essentially that's how it worked.
He put his hand under the helmet and he said, "Okay, now everyone let go." It really was an interesting thing. He made everyone, at least symbolically, invested in the integrity, the safety, of this thing they all wanted. Once you do that, then people cooperate rather than fight. It was an interesting lesson in diplomacy.
He put his hand under the helmet and everyone let go, because they didn't want to be the one who spilled the sacred red wine, which was $1.99 a gallon. He presented it to the lead guy, the biggest, toughest-looking Moroccan, and said, "You're a guest in our country so you drink first."
The guy drank. Then he passed it to his left. The helmet went around the circle, then it went around another time, and it got filled up, and it kept going around. Eventually, the helmet was forgotten on the floor and the bottle was going around the circle. Within an hour, they were even drunker and all best friends.
It was such an amazing insight into whatever it is in the young male brain which is eager to confront and contest and fight others, basically rival tribes essentially. But that same energy can turn into an incredible bonding force. That bond is intoxicating.
Civilians look at war and wonder why soldiers miss it. They're only looking at the part of the equation which is antagonistic and bloody and deadly, which is the conflict. What they're not getting is the other side of that same energy, which is the intense bond that has to happen in those environments, which is probably what the young woman in Kentucky was referring to—the men and the dogs have a fine time. Like yeah, this is the most intense experience you will ever have if you survive it.
I was in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan and achieved some renown after I left because there was just so much combat there and it was so tiny and arguably so unimportant.
It was six miles long. When I was there, a fifth of all the combat in all of Afghanistan was happening in those six miles. So 150 men, a battle company, the 173rd Airborne, were for a while absorbing a fifth of the combat for 70,000 NATO troops in the country at the time.
I was in a small outpost called Restrepo. It was named after the platoon medic, Juan Sebastian Restrepo, who was killed in action early on.
I'm just going to note this because it's important and interesting. In the current debate about immigration, it's important to remember people like Restrepo. He was born in the country of Colombia. His mother immigrated to this country. He died fighting for America at the bottom of a hill in Afghanistan. In our debate about immigration, we have to remember guys like Restrepo, at least in terms of our tone of voice when we talk about immigration. It's a very important thing to keep in mind, that this country is made up of young people like Restrepo and many of them have died for us.
At any rate, the outpost was called Restrepo in his honor. It was a 20-man position on a knife-edge ridge. None of the modern conveniences you associate with the modern U.S. military were there. There was no phone, there was no Internet.
There was no running water. You basically didn't bathe for however long they were out there. I don't know if any of you who haven't bathed for a month understand that if you don't bathe for a month, you really don't change your clothes for a month. There's no reason to. So that means you really sleep in your clothes. You basically just walk around in your clothes until they fall off.
There was no cooked food, there were no women out there, there was no alcohol out there—none of the things that young men like. And it was all men out there also; there were no women in uniform in the Korengal. None of the things that young men like were out at Restrepo.
I did five one-month trips out there. As one of the guys said, "Some of the scariest things out there never happened." The attacks that we were braced for that didn't materialize. The anticipation of fear in some ways is worse than the fear itself—dread. There's all different kinds of fear, there's a whole taxonomy of fear.
What I found to be the worst was dread—sitting there at night, at 10 o'clock at night. You know a patrol is going out at 2:00 in the morning. I walked every patrol with those guys. I lived identically to the soldiers, except I didn't carry a weapon, and I had a video camera. That was really the only difference.
A patrol is going out at 2:00 in the morning. You have a few hours to get some sleep because you're going to be walking for 24 hours, and you can't because of the dread in your stomach. That feeling in your bunk waiting was way worse than the actual crisis of combat.
Combat is weird. It's a blur. You're so hyper-functional and tunnel-visioned that it's actually not that unpleasant. It's hard to describe.
There were bad things going on all around us. Chosen Company kept getting into these disastrous fire fights. They sent out a 28-man patrol in November 2007 and they got ambushed, and within a few minutes every man in the patrol had a bullet in him. They had 100 percent casualties in a few minutes, killed and wounded. I think it was six guys got killed. The wounded fought off the enemy until air power got there, something like three hours later.
They had an outpost almost overrun, two of them—Wanat, which you may have heard of, and Ranch House. At Ranch House, the enemy was inside the wire, in American bunkers, shooting at other American bunkers. The guys were tumbling out of the hooches in their underwear throwing hand grenades. It was a bad scene. That kept happening.
We all knew at Restrepo that if the enemy wanted to take Restrepo, they could. It would have cost them a lot, but they could have overrun a 20-man position on that ridge if they had wanted to.
You'd go to sleep at night thinking, wow, they always attack at 4:00 in the morning. The next thing I know, the next moment of consciousness, might be in the middle of a massive firefight, and the guys on sentry duty can't keep it at bay, and we're in it. So you could go to sleep and have a terrifying night simply because of what could happen.
Every time we rode in the Humvees—it was mostly on foot. The Korengal Valley is very steep. Just about everything we did was on foot, but once in a while we'd be in Humvees.
I got blown up at one point. The Humvee I was in got blown up. So after that every Humvee ride was psychologically a nightmare even if it didn't happen. It takes a toll to do something that you know could kill you. It really takes a toll. It doesn't have to happen. It doesn't matter. You're already paying the price.
After all of this hardship and difficulty, only one guy got out of the Army. Everyone else decided to stay. Everyone who had the choice decided to stay in, except one guy got out, Brendan O'Byrne, who was the subject of my book. We were very good friends out there. We remain good friends.
He lived near New York. I invited him to a dinner party right after I'd finished the manuscript. I had sent the manuscript to a few friends who wanted to read it.
One of them, this woman in her forties, a good friend of mine, really wanted to meet Brendan. She was at the dinner party. She had read the manuscript.
She said to Brendan, "It's so good to meet you. Is there anything at all that you miss about being at Restrepo, any part of it?"
Without any irony at all, he looked at her and he said, "Ma'am, I miss almost all of it."
I feel that we, as society, have to understand Brendan's answer. We are choosing to send these young people out there—and I'm not saying we shouldn't. There are good wars, there are wars that have to be fought, and we're all going to argue about which ones those are. I understand that. But there are wars that have to be fought, and we, as a society, are sending our young people out there.
We owe it to them to try to understand their emotional response to that experience, because they don't even understand it. They're young. What do you understand at 19 or 20? A girl breaks up with you and you don't understand it. You know what I mean? That happens in your forties and you can wrap your mind around it. At 19, it's a catastrophe that you can't even begin to process.
Well, the same thing with war. They come back and it's very confusing to them. Their feelings are very confusing. They feel incredibly guilty, they are filled with rage, and they miss this thing that was obviously so terrible. It's confusing to them.
It's confusing to their wives. Imagine having your boyfriend come home after a year or so and he gets home, and then you start to realize after a few weeks that he misses it. As a girlfriend or a wife, what do you do with that? It's really confusing.
We need to understand their reaction to combat because that's the only way we are going to be able to make a place in society for them that works for them and for us.
Soldiers don't see war usually through a political or a moral lens. They have an emotional experience out there.
Civilians look at war strategically, politically, morally. They look at war in every way except the emotional experience of being in it.
It's easy to understand the trauma, that's obvious. You have a car accident, it's traumatic, but no one misses car accidents. You go to war, it's traumatic; no one misses the traumatic parts, but what about the parts that were kind of weirdly fulfilling?
The thing that they miss—and it's easy to pathologize this; it's easy to say, "Okay, you just miss the adrenaline, you're an adrenaline junkie, you're addicted to combat. You've been exposed to this drug." I hear this language all the time: "You've been exposed to this drug called combat and now you've sort of been ruined for everything else."
There is a component of adrenaline to this, of course. If you look at the mortality statistics for young men in accidents and in violence, they're astronomical. A young man 18-24 is in more danger just walking around doing the stupid stuff that young men do, than if he were in the police department or the fire department or probably in most units in the U.S. military.
Three percent of the units in the U.S. military take 80 percent of the casualties. So if you just take a random 19-year-old statistically and put him in an average unit in the U.S. military, he's probably safer, with all the strictures and guidelines that come with that enlistment.
There is definitely in young men a kind of response, a thrill-seeking reflex, that goes away with time, that is far in excess of young women their age, and it goes away pretty quickly. At the end of their twenties, into their thirties, men mellow out and, just statistically, they stop dying in car accidents, dying from jumping off things they shouldn't jump off of, swimming across things they shouldn't swim across—all that stuff, that's something that young men do in their early twenties, and clearly that plays a role in their response to combat.
But there's something more profound. What it is is brotherhood. There is a brotherhood in combat that is a function of necessity out there. It's not friendship. Brotherhood and friendship are very different. They're both important but they're different.
Friendship is a function of how you feel about another person, and it exists everywhere in our society, and it exists in combat too. The more you like someone, the more you care about them, the more you will do for them, the more you are willing to sacrifice for them.
What's interesting about brotherhood is it has nothing to do with your feelings. Brotherhood is not about how you feel about the other person.
As Brendan said to me at one point—we were sitting on this hillside and American mortars were going over our head, and we were on an ambush outside this enemy village, and we were sitting there. They were our mortars but you'd jump anyway because they're terrifying. So we're sitting there twitching and trying to have a conversation. He said, "You know what's really weird? There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we'd all die for each other."
That's what's so powerful and comforting about brotherhood. It doesn't matter how much you piss someone off. It doesn't matter how they're feeling about you that day. You know that their commitment doesn't change because you're brothers. That's important in combat.
Combat is this really weird chess game/football game. Everyone is dependent on everyone else. Whatever you're doing, it won't work if the other people in your squad aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing. As soon as they stop doing what they're supposed to be doing, you're screwed, and vice versa.
In combat you don't want to wonder if, as you run out of ammo in an exposed position, is Joe, who's behind a rock over there with another box of ammo, going to actually run through gunfire to bring it to you. You don't want to wonder that because you upset him yesterday. That whole emotional part of human relations has to disappear in combat.
It's replaced by this pretty profound decision to put your welfare, your safety, below that of everyone else in the group. You're not important compared to everyone else. If everyone in the group does that, you're all better off, you're all safer.
But just think about how comforting that would be to a young person, to a young man. You're in combat. You have complete utility—you know what your job is, you have a clear purpose.
Your relationship with others is determined purely by your conduct. Back in society, if you're good-looking, if your dad's rich, or if you're not good-looking—all of these things that you have no control over at 18 determine how you're seen by people. In combat it really doesn't matter. You can be ugly, you can be a Harvard grad, you can be gay, you can be whatever. If you're a good soldier, you get the respect of your peers. You're totally self-determining.
No teenager has that luxury in high school, being completely self-determined in how they're perceived. In combat you have that experience.
You're in this brotherhood, where you know 20 or 30 other guys will risk their lives for you, and vice versa.
Then you bring someone like that back to society, and all of a sudden they don't have utility. An American infantryman in combat is the top of the food chain. They're well-trained, they're well-armed, they have a very clear sense of their role, their duty. Then you take that same 19-year-old, take away his gun, take away his uniform, you put him in street clothes in society—a 19-year-old male in society is at the bottom of the food chain. All of a sudden, you're expendable, you're overlooked. Older, higher-status males are getting all the attention.
I've been a 19-year-old male. It's not a lot of fun. Maybe if you're Justin Bieber it's all right. But for most of us mortals it's miserable in a way that I don't think 19-year-old women quite understand. There's a different relationship between a 19-year-old man and society and a 19-year-old woman and society.
But then you take these guys and put them in combat, and suddenly it's like: "Okay, this is it. This I have control over. In this environment I can determine who I am, how I'm seen." That's a very powerful thing.
When these young people come back into society, what will go a long way—I'm not going to prescribe how to fix the VA or anything; I have no idea—but just in terms of us as citizens dealing with veterans, I think—
I'm always getting this question: "How can we help? What should we say to veterans?"
I don't exactly know the answer. But what I can say is that if in your mind you understand that there might be a very important and in some ways psychologically healthy thing that they're missing from that experience, if you can wrap your mind around that and not judge it and just take it for what it is, that will go a long way towards their understanding that confusing reaction of their own.
I've got a few minutes left before I take questions. I just want to break out of the Korengal valley and talk about war in a more general sense.
One of the really confusing things about war is that it's so awful and it's so violent and sometimes it's necessary. That right there is a conversation that society has an awfully hard time with.
I'm just coming at it from my personal experience. I wasn't in World War II. I wasn't in World War I. I get that those were awful, awful events in human history.
My experience with war started in Bosnia. That war, which went on for four years and culminated in the massacre at Srebrenica—8,000 men and boys machine-gunned into pits and bulldozed over, and that finally helped trigger real NATO intervention, which stopped the war.
My experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, I kept having these—and I grew up in New England, in a totally liberal family, post-Vietnam, antiwar, anti-military, the works—that's how I grew up. I went to a Montessori school in Cambridge in the 1950s. I mean imagine.
My experience was in war after war, I'm thinking, "When is the world going to do something?" Finally, the world does it and the war stops. So I have a very complicated relationship with the use of force.
I remember I was in Liberia—what a bloodbath—in 2003, probably the most terrifying experience of my life. There's an American warship anchored offshore, off Monrovia.
At one point, I am in this street crowd. The Liberians during wartime were pretty volatile in crowds. It was a very charged energy in the street. It was terrifying.
A lot of that energy started to be focused on me because I was an American. There's this crowd that gathers in front of me. People are accusing me of things—"You're American."
Oh God, here it goes. That's way scarier than combat, because you're totally alone with a crowd. I mean a crowd is a monster.
You know what they were upset about? They were upset that there was an American warship offshore and that they were staying there. They were like: "Invade us. What are you doing offshore? You have an army for a reason. Come help us. What are you doing? Come. We need you. Stop this war. Three American soldiers could stop this war. What are you doing in the safety of your warship?"
I had no answer. I left, I had to get out of there. I had some real issues with the Taylor government that got pretty ugly and I got out of there.
But what happened after I left was the American forces did come ashore. I don't know how many, but it wasn't a lot. And they never fired a shot, and it ended the war.
I got back to the United States. I was on the subway. I saw some kind of radical newspaper. The headline was "Imperialist U.S. Forces Out of Liberia."
I'm like, Are you kidding? Is this where the pacifist movement is at right now, that a squad of Marines shows up in Monrovia and ends a war and that's a bad thing?
To me it just captured the very confusing ethical territory of use of force, and that we have not figured it out yet. The far right hasn't; the far left hasn't. It's a very confused conversation.
The far right thinks that the U.S. military in an endeavor can do no wrong; and the far left thinks in any endeavor they will always do wrong, they shouldn't exist. Neither is true.
In order to minimize harm and maximize good in the world, we're going to have to have a real conversation about when do you use force; when is the amoral choice not using force? When is that? I don't know when it is. But we need to have that conversation.
I was in Afghanistan in the 1990s, in 1996 specifically, and then again in 2000. It was a horror show. That ended on 9/11.
I'm citing someone else's statistics so I can't vouch for them, but the numbers that I heard was that in the 1990s—forget about the 1980s when the Soviets were in there; that was a whole other level of horror—but in the 1990s, during the warlordism and the civil war in Afghanistan, something like 400,000 Afghan civilians died. That ended on 9/11, with U.S. forces and international forces in Afghanistan, and in the decade that NATO has been in Afghanistan it's something like 30,000 civilians have died. You go from 400,000 to 30,000.
I completely understand calls for "We need to leave Afghanistan." But what I would love to ask your society as a whole, and particularly the antiwar component of it—who have such an excellent point but I'm not sure they've completely thought it through—I would like to ask them: If leaving Afghanistan means that civilian casualties will go up, which it very well could, would you still be a proponent of leaving? In other words, is pacifism a stronger ethic than a kind of utilitarian whatever produces the least amount of suffering? I don't know which it is. Is pacifism an inherent good, even if it increases civilian suffering, or do we really try to figure out a completely utilitarian ethic where we do whatever preserves the most human life?
Frankly, Plan B is sort of where I'm at. But we do need to talk about it, because otherwise the right wing and the left wing and everyone in between is going to be throwing empty truisms at each other and we won't act as humanely and effectively as we could in the world, as a very powerful and great nation.
I've overrun my time by four minutes. I don't want to deprive you of a chance for questions. Thank you.
JOANNE MYERS: You may not have been able to answer the questions, but you certainly raised the right ones.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: James Starkman. Thank you very much.
I just would like your comment on two examples of the adrenaline and brotherhood themes that you touched on. One was the award-winning film The Hurt Locker—certainly, the protagonist in The Hurt Locker seemed to be quite loaded with adrenaline—and also Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers, in terms of the brotherhood theme.
And just another comment. There are probably 25 civil wars or potential civil wars going on in the world right now. With the limited resources that the United States and NATO and others have, how would one possibly choose or allocate resources among them to prevent suffering?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you for the questions.
I'll start with the second one. First of all, just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we're allowed to do nothing.
I understand we can't deal with every civil war in the world with military force. It's not going to happen. There should be some understanding in the international community about what level of atrocity, what level of aggression, internal or external, triggers an international response.
What happened in Libya is a really good example of it. Here you had a leader with a track record of barbarous actions who vowed a bloodbath in one of his own cities. If that doesn't trigger NATO reaction, why do we have NATO?
It's not to guard against the Soviet Union anymore. What's it for? If we hadn't intervened in Libya, we should just have disbanded NATO, practically. I'm speaking rhetorically now.
But it really needs to serve a purpose. A situation like Gaddafi threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi, that to me is a proper use of international power. I think it saved thousands of people.
My good friend, Tim Hetherington, my colleague on Restrepo, lost his life in Libya. His last Tweet was—he didn't Tweet much, but he did a little bit—his last Tweet from Misrata was something like, "I'm in Misrata; heavy shelling by Gaddafi forces; NATO nowhere to be seen." One of the shells of the shelling that he was commenting on, an 85-mm mortar, killed him a few hours later.
So we do need to have a conversation among the world powers about where is that line where not acting becomes the immoral course of action; just sitting back and watching becomes immoral. We're used to the idea that war is immoral, of course. But there are situations where inaction is also immoral. Where is that line?
As far as The Hurt Locker goes, they got half the equation. They definitely got the adrenaline part down. They completely ignored brotherhood. The central ethos of a solider as I experienced combat was you don't get your brothers killed. That's what that guy was doing in his cavalier, kind of cowboy way, was putting the lives of his brothers in jeopardy.
I saw it out there. I don't know how conscious it was, but the sense I got was that the guys out there were thinking I would definitely rather risk getting killed, I would possibly rather die, than to allow a friend to get killed and not do anything. That's how strong that ethos is.
Throwing yourself on a hand grenade is not an empty cliché. People have literally done that. If a soldier is going to do that, they're not going to act like a cowboy and get everyone killed.
Even if one of them did—and I'm sure it happens—it wouldn't last very long. Either the commanding officer would deal with it or, frankly, the guys would deal with it, and it wouldn't feel very good, I promise.
So The Hurt Locker got half of that equation. In some ways they got the more obvious half. But the really profound thing going on is brotherhood, and they really didn't talk about that much, or that guy wouldn't have acted that way.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Thank you for all your insights. But there's another part of the story that you haven't had a chance to discuss very much, and that is here we have young men primed for war. But what about the enemy? Is there any consideration of the enemy? For example, Afghanistan, the Taliban, there are so many different groups, and sometimes they're allies and sometimes they're not, and that changes over time. Meanwhile a lot of civilians get killed.
In our own country, the Civil War, people who were neighbors or who lived in Kentucky, across the border from each other, suddenly are the enemy, and they look alike and they speak the same language and yet they're the enemy.
So what happens? How do you deal with brothers who suddenly become "others"?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I don't think that transition was made in Afghanistan. I don't think in any cultural or genetic sense the Taliban were brothers to our soldiers, except in a very broad human sense.
But that's a pretty abstract idea—like "we're all brothers on the planet." You can argue that, and there's a certain beauty to that way of thinking. But the reality out in Afghanistan was that the Taliban did not feel like our brothers, and vice versa.
But you've just described the tragedy of war. It's exactly that. People that you otherwise wouldn't have any problem with, suddenly you want to kill them because they want to kill you. It's a self-perpetuating thing.
The Moroccans and the Spanish guys in my bar, they were not brothers, but they figured out how to be. But they didn't start out as brothers; they started out instantly as enemies. That describes a lot of combat.
The American Civil War, I can't even comment on it. I don't know enough about it. But that is the tragedy of civil war.
Just as an example of the logic of war and how quickly it takes hold, I was in Kosovo. My sympathies were not entirely, but considerably, with the Albanian population. I had friends in the Albanian population who had had a very rough time with the Serb forces. It was an ugly time.
The Serbs hated the press. Every checkpoint we went through was a nightmare. We came up to this Serb checkpoint and we were getting the full treatment. The guy I was with, Harold, got hit pretty hard in the face by one of the policemen. It was just shaping up to be a bad experience.
All of a sudden, an Albanian sniper on a nearby hilltop opened up on us. Me, Harold my friend, the Serb cops, Serb military police, whatever they were, all dove behind some sandbags. I'm like, "Shoot back. What are you doing? Come on. We're getting shot at." It took three gunshots and all of my political convictions were gone. Now I'm on the same side as the Serbs, right?
It's amazing how the logic of violence just takes over. So you talk about a possible brotherhood with the enemy—well, yeah, until they're shooting at you, and then that just disappears.
That's why war works in a way, because the imperatives of survival, to go back very far in our human evolution, completely transcend the loftier notions of political correctness and brotherhood. Beautiful things to aspire to, but I promise you, if you're getting shot at, any one of you in this room, you're getting shot at by somebody, you hate the person who is doing that because they're trying to take you away from your family and your kids and your loved ones and they're trying to end your life. You hate them, and it doesn't matter what they are, who they are. That's how you get something like the American Civil War.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence. I have two questions for you.
You keep talking about "the guys," the guys and the brotherhood and the bonding and so on. Increasingly, women have been moving in to the combat areas as support personnel and the like, and not necessarily as they used to be, as nurses. So, number one, what is the impact on this concept of brotherhood with the infusion of women into near-combat roles?
The second thing is, according to yourself, people like you, why would you and others put yourselves in the middle of combat areas where you could get killed? What is it for you that gets there? I mean soldiers are there to do a job. Journalists are there to do a job, but that's a voluntary exposure of oneself to that kind of danger.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: The soldiers all volunteered too, and they volunteered for some of the same reasons that journalists volunteer. They are curious about how they'll do in combat.
The guys I was with were all young men. Combat is seen as a very primal kind of way to test yourself as a man. When I was 30 years old and Bosnia was going on, and I had sort of muddled my way through my twenties by waiting tables and trying to be a writer, when I saw Bosnia, among other things I wanted to know how I would fare, how I would test out there. That was true for a lot of soldiers.
Also, I had a real belief in the idea that communicating information about the world's tragedies will help end the world's tragedies. The reporting on Srebrenica by David Rohde, the very brave cameramen in Sarajevo in 1992-93 where they were capturing these horrible mortar attacks that were killing people—all of those things went into a decision by the UN and by NATO to do something. It took years, but eventually it worked.
So for me I had a feeling of utility, like I'm serving a purpose that brings some kind of good to us all.
And it's a form of a test. I'm sorry—it's exciting out there, it is. It's scary and it's dangerous and it's traumatic, and I've had all kinds of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it's also exciting. If I were to bashfully pretend, "No, no, no, it's all just horrible, but I'm just doing my duty," I'd be lying.
As for women in combat, it's such a politically charged question—thank you for asking it. In some ways it's very complicated; in some ways it's very simple.
The question isn't, "Are women capable of being in combat?"—obviously, they are capable of it, that's clear.
The physical requirements of combat are so extreme that most men fail at it. Women, who are generally smaller, even fewer of them will be able to pass those tests. But obviously some could.
Just to give you an idea, on the multi-day operations in the Korengal, the guys carried around 150-160 pounds. If you can't do that, you're not going to be combat infantry. Whatever society wants to do with gender equality and all that, that is the physical reality of the Korengal and places like that.
But the question isn't really, "Can women do it?" Yes, they can, of course. But that's not the question. The question is, "Would having women in a combat unit make the combat unit more effective at fighting?"
The U.S. military is charged with protecting a society which strives towards equality. But the U.S. military itself, its goal isn't necessarily that equality. Its goal is to be effective in protecting us.
Any general would say, "Will a platoon be better with three women in it, yes or no?" If the answer is "no" or "we're not sure," they're not going to try very hard to make it happen. That may feel unjust, but in the ruthless efficiency of decisions in combat, that's how things get worked out.
Ultimately, could you do it as an experiment? Absolutely. I watched it happen with Tim and myself. We're civilians; we're not soldiers. I'm in my forties. If you go to a combat environment, you become a soldier in terms of how you act, how you think.
A woman in that environment would effectively become the same thing. You could be, as I said, a Harvard grad; you could be wealthy, you could be poor; you could be gay, you could be straight—it doesn't matter—you could be a journalist, you could be anything. If you don't conform yourself to the group norm, you're out. That's true whether you're a woman, a journalist, or anything.
Are there women who could conform to that group norm? Yes, they could. But then what happens?
There's a huge privacy issue. In other words, there was no privacy at all at OP Restrepo. Just as a society, we're very sensitized to that. What do you do with that?
Then there's the final issue, which I had never thought of until I gave a talk last summer on book tour, and someone asked the women-in-combat question, and I stumbled around like I just did with all the appropriate answers.
Then this young lady raised her hand. I called on her. She said, "My husband is in an airborne unit and he was at a remote outpost just like Restrepo, and obviously it was all men out there. I can tell you that the idea of women in combat at those outposts, the wives would never allow for it."
So what do you do with that as a society? You probably don't touch it. That's probably what will happen.
But that said, our U.S. military would be vastly diminished without women in it. We all need to appreciate how crucially important women are in the military. Those 3 percent of units that are taking 80 percent of the casualties, at remote outposts, where they're carrying 150 pounds and not washing for a month and have zero privacy—is that the best use for women in the military? I don't know. I'm not going to answer that. But it's a question to contemplate.
QUESTION: Frank Cao, United States-China Exchanges.
I'd like to probe a little deeper on part of a previous question on the issue of the thinking of war correspondents in going out and doing that kind of work. You've experienced the mortality of your friend and colleague, Tim. Recently, at the International Center for Photography, three war correspondents were featured, Frank Capra and two others, who served in the Spanish Civil War.
Out of those three, the young woman who was his girlfriend, also in her own right an excellent photographer, died in that war. The other gentlemen survived. Frank Capra, some years later in Indochina, toward the end of the French occupation, he too was killed in war. That's not a very good percentage as you think about becoming a war correspondent.
So when you think about your own mortality, and have thought about it over these many years and these many wars, how do you think of What I'm doing, what are my chances?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Another easy question.
There's a lot of denial involved. Denial works—seriously, it does. It doesn't necessarily lead to a successful emotional inner life later, but in terms of doing something that's frightening or unpleasant, denial works quite well.
We're all to some degree in denial about our mortality. We're not walking around focused on our imminent death in some Zen-like way; we're enjoying the spring morning.
It's a little bit more extreme in combat. But most reporters don't get killed. So you just think: Okay, I'm running a risk. But I'm smart; I'm not running stupid risks, and my odds are okay. It certainly feels better than the long, slow death of life in a cubicle in Manhattan doing some other job. That's how most war reporters would consider the dilemma.
Just on the subject of Tim, up until five, six weeks ago, my career as a war reporter had never really cost me anything. It gave me some bad dreams, it gave me some weird reactions. I didn't lose anyone. I certainly wasn't wounded or injured myself, although I came close several times. I've experienced great terror a few times and that leaves a bit of a mark. But it never really cost me anything.
Then suddenly, six weeks ago, it did, it cost me the life of a dear, dear friend, Tim Hetherington. I met him four years ago, but in the way that people do in war zones, we got extremely close very, very quickly. We essentially became brothers in the sense that I've been using the word today.
I got a really interesting email. The day that Tim died, he was in Misrata, on Tripoli Street, with four other journalists. A single mortar came in, exploded in their midst, and by some miracle didn't kill all of them. It killed two people, Chris Hondros and my friend Tim.
So word got back very quickly to the United States. I'm just in shock obviously. I'd never lost someone this close to me before. At first I was amazed how little I felt. That was my first—wow, I thought I was a caring person and I'm not feeling anything. It really actually kind of disturbed me. Of course it came some hours, some days, and some weeks later, a profundity of pain that I just didn't even know existed.
But that day, in my kind of numb shock, I get an email from this Vietnam guy whom I'd met in Texas a year earlier on book tour. He really liked my book. He saw Restrepo and really liked it. He met Tim also. We were in a touch a little bit.
He sent me an email. He said: "I'm so sorry about Tim. I hope this doesn't sound callous, but I do have to tell you this. You guys, with your book and your movie, you got pretty close to understanding war, you really got very, very close. But you did not understand all of it. The central truth about war isn't that you could get killed; it's that you will lose your brothers. That's guaranteed. That is the core reality of war, is that you will lose your brothers. Until today, in some ways you didn't know the first thing about war, and now you know everything you need to know about it."
That was such a profound insight. Now it has cost me something and now I have a real comparison to make: the good of this versus the evil of that.
I'd make a different decision if I were 28 or 38, but I'm 49 and I'm married. I've thought a lot about it. I am okay with—I'd hate the idea, but I've made some peace in my mind about the idea of myself getting killed in a war zone. I've sort of figured that one out.
What never occurred to me is that nobody else is okay with it. My wife's not okay with it, my parents, my friends—no one else has made that deal. That's basically what I'm risking. I'm not risking myself out there, because if I get killed I'm done. I'm risking all of their lives in some ways, the quality of their lives.
Stupid, right, but the light bulb finally went on because of Tim. So I really decided there's ways of covering these wars without actually getting shot at.
I realize that the guys with the guns, they are very dramatic and compelling, but the guys with the guns in Misrata, they are actually in a weird way not the point of the story. They're a function of the story, they're a byproduct, they're a symptom of the story. The machinery that is putting these young men in blown-up buildings across the street from each other shooting at each other, that machinery is actually arguably a more important focus for journalism, at least at my stage in life and at my capacity of understanding. So I'm going to try to focus on the machine, basically.
JOANNE MYERS: On that sober and candid note, I want to thank you so much for being with us today.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: My pleasure. Thank you very much.