Sebastian Junger changed the way we see war when he and Tim Hetherington made the Afghan war film, Restrepo. They were nominated for an Academy Award, for their harrowing portrayal of young US servicemen stuck on a rocky outcrop in the far reaches of Afghanistan, fighting a war none of us really understood.
Junger’s journey didn’t begin or end with his time on the front lines of the Afghan conflict. He’d already won acclaim for his book Perfect Storm and his work during the Serbo-Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
To say Junger is a prolific would be a massive understatement. He has five books and five films to his name and has won acclaim across the board for his intelligent, empathetic, and human look at life in the direst of situations. This week, we caught up with Junger to talk about his latest documentary, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS. The film compiles sobering and brutal footage from the Syrian Civil War — film shot on smartphones and handheld cameras while people fought, fled, and died.
Can you talk us through what drove you to get into traveling to war zones?
I don’t know if I was driven to it, but I would say that I had some curiosity about it. My father was a two-time war refugee, and it made me sort of curious about war. I grew up in a very placid suburb and felt like I’d never really been tested or had never really encountered something myself.
There was a civil war in Bosnia in the early ’90s, and I went up there really partly because I wanted to be a journalist, and I thought that would be a kind of shortcut to learning these skills in journalism.
That definitely skips over a few steps by just going straight there. How often have you been back to the Balkans since your first time covering the war back in the 90s?
I went back there actually to cover the war in Kosovo, which was next door in ’98. Then, I was back there again in 2000, to see a good friend of mine off, a journalist, who was moving on to a posting in India. Then, I was back in a couple of years ago, I went to Sarajevo actually as part of my most recent book, Tribe, which involves Sarajevo after the war and how people thought back on the war … what their feelings were about it.
In Tribe there’s a sense that a lot of us get trapped in that “placid suburb” life then we break out and kind of never look back. How do you break out of that without feeling like you’re running away or leaving anybody behind? Or do you always find yourself going back?
I love my family. But, I had absolutely no feelings for the place I grew up in — I mean zero. So I never really struggled with the idea of leaving anyone behind, and I was never gone for that long. I was in Bosnia for six months. Most of my assignments are two to four weeks maximum.
So when I was traveling overseas and covering wars, I was never gone for that long. It’s your standard summer vacation from college, except I didn’t have a Eurail Pass. I was going somewhere else.
Psychologically you’re putting yourself in a very different place than everyone you know, and that’s a different kind of travel. That does create a significant… not a rupture, but a separation between you and others. So there is that, but just time-wise I was never gone that long.
You talk about our evolution and how important having a community is in Tribe. And it sort of feels like we’re actively out there finding new tribes a bit more. Do you think that’s part of us going back a little bit to our communal roots?
For the past few hundred thousand years, humans have always been human. And we still are. So there’s always going to be a sort of groping towards community. I think there’s a kind of a mirage of community on the internet and people keep sort of chasing that mirage. But I know they never get there.
For instance, back in the real world, people following sports teams isn’t the same as community. Affiliated interests aren’t the same thing, but they do overlap. Patriots fans are not a community, but they have an overlapping passion that makes it feel like they’re a part of something bigger, and that’s a really deep human need.
Usually, the thing you’re a part of that was bigger than you, occurred in the place where you lived, among the people that surrounded you. For most of human history, that’s how that’s worked. Now, because we live in a modern society with modern communications and mass communications and all that, you could have the illusion of being part of a community of people that you’ve never met. It’s not a community, it’s something else. It’s a network. Or whatever you want to call it.
It’s pretty clear. You’ve got motorcycle gangs, street gangs, communes in the ’60s, even apartment blocks in some places. I read an article on Cuba where these dwellings were arranged around a single courtyard. All the apartments looked out on this sort of central area. It was very clear that it was basically set up like an urban village, and it’s the most natural thing in the world. I wouldn’t say that we’ve resumed doing that. I would say that we’ve always done it.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about The Last Patrol.
Yeah, of course, yeah. I love talking about that. Go for it.
It’s one of my favorite travel documentaries.
Oh, thank you.
So, the film follows you and some friends from Afghanistan as you walk from New York to D.C. in honor of your filmmaking and journalistic partner, Tim Hetherington, who, sadly, passed in Libya. Can you walk us through how the film came to be?
It was just sort of a whimsical idea that I had. I was going down to Washington, D.C., with Tim, my colleague who I made Restrepo with, and on the train. I was just staring out the window like I usually do when I noticed that there was some kind of dirt road or trail along just about all of it. I said to Tim, “you know, you could walk this whole thing.” We made plans to do that. Then he was killed in Libya and I decided to stop covering war.
I became friends with Guillermo [Cervera], who was holding Tim’s hand when he died, and my friendship sort of transferred over to Guillermo. My buddy, Brendan [O’Byrne] had just gotten out of the service. I just proposed it to those guys. I said, “Hey, let’s walk up the East Coast along the railroad lines.” And they said, “Yes.”
It was a surprisingly simple process. We didn’t have time in our lives to just take three months out and do it. So we did it in stages — which was good because it spread it out a bit. I didn’t have any expectations for it other than I knew it was going to be weird and more difficult than just camping in the wilderness.
It’s quite hard to stay out of sight and out of trouble on these sort of fringes of American urban and suburban society. Once we got to Pennsylvania, it was easier, it’s all farmland roads, but in that sort of industrial corridor between Washington and Philly, it was really tricky. You can see in the film, it looks like they were looking for us with a helicopter. It had a slight feeling of being behind enemy lines, which we all really liked. And it was physically incredibly hard. We were all strong, fit guys, but it beat the shit out of us. We were carrying a lot of weight, and, yeah, we just tore up our legs.
It’s also a very therapeutic film.
It’s an amazing thing to do. Then when it’s time to stop, you need to know when that is because it’ll keep other good things from happening in your life. I feel very lucky I was able to do that for a little while. Then, I’m really glad that I stopped.
I’ve been reading about your documentary in Syria, Hell on Earth, and this is the first time you weren’t in-country shooting. You collected footage from secondary sources to make this one. Can you walk us through how you got this harrowing footage out of Syria?
Yeah. I stayed in this country. I was writing Tribe and promoting it. My partner and my colleague, Nick Quested, was on the ground quite a lot over there. He did 30 some trips. Not inside Syria, obviously, that would have been a sort of suicide mission, but on the Turkish border.
Basically, a lot of the footage we got — at least from Northern Syria — was shot by Syrians who were documenting their own war. We got cameras and hard drives to them. So we had sort of proxy shooters on the ground. There’s always a way.
What sort of amazed me about the documentary is that there’s so much footage, just so much. It’s overwhelming. I hate using this term, but via the mainstream media, we’ve seen so little of this war except for tiny flashes of like a five-year-old in the back of an ambulance and that’s mostly it. It feels like it was kept away from us. Your doc shines a light on a very hard to grasp corner of our world.
Yeah, it’s inaccessible. It’s far away. It doesn’t have obvious strategic implications for the U.S. — at least as far as the public is concerned. It’s also competing with a lot of chaos and political chaos in this country in terms of the news cycle, so I kind of understand.
I remember when I was in Bosnia, the eternal complaint from reporters is when you’re in a situation that’s in crisis, it feels like the whole world must be talking about it. But they’re not talking about it. Then you realize the whole world has got other problems too.
Living in Berlin or traveling to Bosnia and seeing it now, I’m always relieved at how well these places were able to recover from a devastating war — apocalypse even. Then I think about my time in Afghanistan and it’s hard to square where that’s going. Do think that’s there’s a chance for recovery in Afghanistan, ever?
I mean, it was never a modern country. So it’s not going to obviously recover in the same way that Bosnia is. I think it’s always going to be a somewhat unstable, fractured state. It’s a culture that’s not politically cohesive. It’s not ethnically cohesive. It’s an agrarian society. It’s like other countries in that part of the world, the economy is very, very different. I don’t think it’s going to change that much.
The Soviet invasion on Christmas Day 1979 really ruptured that society. It was on its way towards sort of a more Western model and they just completely shattered that. Countries may not get two chances at that actually. I’m not sure. I don’t think it will be back in that place where it was in 1978, not in our lifetimes.
It’s hard because I want an answer to this and I imagine I’m not alone in that. But then I know from being there that there might not be an answer or solution to any of these questions. At least not one that makes much sense to an outsider.
Yeah. Yeah. All of those countries have really, really serious problems: Ideological problems, economic problems, and ethnic conflicts. Those things are hard to solve. I’m not sure if it could happen.
I don’t think we’re going to solve it on this phone call.
What do you tell people who want to go to a war zone and cover it?
I always tell people to be careful. I just say, “It worked for me. It works for everyone I know who’s tried it.” Climbing the ladder in this country to get to the point where you’ll be sent overseas by a news agency, that takes 20 years. Who has time for that? But, if you just go there, you’ll either work your way into that sort of niche where you’re selling your stuff, or you won’t. You will have just spent $5,000 or $10,000, and you’ll have a really, really, interesting experience. So I just tell people to go.
What do you wish you were told before you went out there and dropped yourself in the war zone?
I didn’t realize how very doable it is to carve a space for yourself in the field of journalism. It always felt like you needed permission or you needed like the “okay” from someone, that there were gatekeepers who were going to keep you out.
There’s an initial rung of reporters on the ground and because it’s such a hard and sometimes dangerous life, after a few years, those people are constantly moving upwards into more stable positions. You just can’t keep doing it forever like that. You can’t even keep doing it for five years often. That’s a long stretch. It’s like playing pro football.
What that means is that there are constantly openings. They’re constantly having to sort of fill those ranks in the army. And that means once you’re a CPA [cost per action], you can be a CPA your whole life. I didn’t know that. I just thought there’s no way into this thing because I had no experience. How am I going to break into this? Then, I realized, ‘oh, it’s actually quite easy.’ You really just have to go and stay for a while, and something will happen. I wish I had known that before I left. I would have made leaving on that first trip a lot easier.