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.