Interview: Sebastian Junger

Getting up close and personal with Restrepo
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 30, 2010

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REVIEW: Restrepo. By Peter Keough.
Probably nobody has written a better description of drowning than did Sebastian Junger in his bestseller A Perfect Storm. (Wolfgang Petersen's 2000 adaptation doesn't do the scene justice, though the 160-foot wave is pretty cool.) He's followed that up with A Murder in Belmont, in which he reveals that Boston Strangler Albert De Salvo once was his family's handyman, and with numerous stories for Vanity Fair, reporting from internecine hellholes in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, among others.

But not even being held captive by armed militants in Nigeria satisfied Junger's need for dangerous assignments. Along with photographer Tim Hetherington, he spent most of a 15-month tour of duty embedded with an Airborne unit stationed in the Korengal Valley, the deadliest war zone in Afghanistan. That's the subject of his new book, War (Twelve), and also of Restrepo, the intimate, harrowing documentary he made with Hetherington about men in combat.

The General McChrystal controversy must seem a little serendipitous with the release of the film. Do you think it has a special relevance now?
I don't know if it's special relevance. McChrystal wasn't even in yet when I was over there. In that sense, it's not relevant. But it's definitely bringing the war into the public conversation. I think it had been absorbed by the BP disaster for a while, and now it's back on Afghanistan. It's such a critical story. And it can play out in so many bad ways. It's probably good that — whatever it took, McChrystal or whatever — it's back on the center of the table again.

It never really has been since 2001. Then, it was off to Iraq. Afghanistan was the war that nobody cared to talk about.
I've been traveling to Afghanistan since 1996 to report, and in 2001, I was with the Northern Alliance, and the people in Kabul were just overjoyed. Apparently 90 percent of Afghans in 2002 approved of the American military actions in Afghanistan. They saw it as a way out from under the oppression of the Taliban. They hated the Taliban. It was completely squandered because we left [only] a few thousand troops there. There's 40,000 cops [just] in NYC. It wasn't going to work; the Afghans knew it wasn't going to work. I think a lot of their ambivalence about partnering with us was because they couldn't believe the low level of focus in the wake of 9/11, which [we thought] merited [only] 15,000 troops in Afghanistan. I think that literally blew their minds. For me, it's such a wasted opportunity. It's really tragic, for them and for us.

But that's all politics, which you have said you wanted to avoid when making this film.
We would have been happy to have politics in there had the soldiers been political about it. But they're not. Our sort of self-given mandate was to make a movie that shows what it's like to be a soldier in combat. Period. So the camera never leaves the sides of the soldiers. If there were situations where the soldiers were asking generals, "Sir, what are we doing here?", that would have been in the movie, absolutely. But they didn't do that.

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Related: Review: Restrepo, Reality bites again, Afghanistan: Just say no!, More more >
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