There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hear the sound of gunfire and bolt in the opposite direction, and those who run toward it. For the past 15 years, Sebastian Junger has made his reputation as the latter. He’s donned a flak jacket to cover wars in lawless lands like Liberia and Sierra Leone. He’s been held prisoner by armed militants in Nigeria. And for his latest book, the harrowing and hard-to-put-down War, he spent 15 months embedded with the U.S. Army’s Battle Company in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley — a remote and vicious mountain region in the eastern part of the country that he describes as ”too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.”
Despite his steely, chiseled good looks and adrenaline-junkie temperament, the 48-year-old author didn’t set out to be a cowboy correspondent, hopscotching from combat zone to combat zone. He spent his 20s cutting trees in Gloucester, Mass. But when he tore up the back of his leg in a chain-saw accident, he was listless and lost. ”The woman I was living with, we broke up,” he says. ”My life was not going where I wanted it to. I decided I needed to become a journalist. And the fastest route to that was to throw myself into a scary situation.” Junger bought a sleeping bag and a plane ticket to Bosnia. ”It was like a drug,” he says of his first taste of war reporting.
When Junger returned to the U.S., he dived into a longer project — this time in his own backyard — after a Gloucester fishing boat went down in a freak squall. His account of the tragedy, 1997’s The Perfect Storm, was an instant best-seller that turned him into a literary poster boy. But before he could enjoy Storm’s success, Junger needed another hit of the drug. He headed back to Bosnia on assignment for Vanity Fair.
In his dispatches from the globe’s hot spots over the past decade and his other successful books — 2001’s Fire, a collection of stories about men doing dangerous jobs, and 2006’s A Death in Belmont, a best-seller about his family’s close encounter with the Boston Strangler — Junger has become a sort of 21st-century Ernest Hemingway. Talking over coffee, you get the sense that if he weren’t overseas dodging bullets during the filming of 2000’s The Perfect Storm, he could’ve been George Clooney’s double. He’s all machismo, especially when he talks about his thirst for danger and writing about the men who stare it in the face. ”I just think a lot of interesting emotions come out of danger,” he says. ”It’s almost like that’s when you find out what you’re made of. People act honorably or they act like bastards, they’re generous or they’re self-serving, they get scared or they don’t.” Junger insists that his goal with his new book wasn’t political. He wasn’t out to bash the Bush administration. ”I just wanted to know what it was like to be a soldier,” he says.
While the war in Afghanistan began before the ashes had even settled from 9/11, Junger’s War kicks off in the summer of 2007. He shows us, through the small keyhole of Battle Company, the chaos and camaraderie of combat. ”It got pretty weird out there,” he says, ”and I wanted to record that weirdness because I think people need to know that if they’re going to ask young men to do something like this, they don’t do it easily.”
Junger didn’t want to just write about war; he wanted to film it, too. He and British war photographer Tim Hetherington shot countless hours of video and edited it into a companion film, Restrepo, named for one of the troop’s fallen soldiers. It’s a harrowing and visceral documentary that won the top doc prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will open in theaters on June 25. ”The camera gave me a reason for being there,” says Junger. ”It was like my baby, it was the thing I was supposed to take care of. Once I was caught without my camera in a firefight. I had no role, and all I could think about was my safety.”
Junger’s been back in the States with his wife, Daniela, for the past year. And today, sitting in the New York City bar he co-owns, he’s a long way from the front lines. ”I don’t really want to get shot at anymore. God forbid you get addicted to that,” he says. But war is a powerful drug, and for Junger, it seems it’s not easily kicked. Just moments after mentioning that he might hang up his flak jacket, he’s asked what his plans are after his book tour ends and Restrepo’s run in theaters is done. ”I think I’ll travel a bit with my wife,” he says with a laugh, perhaps at the absurd notion of sitting safely on a beach sipping an umbrella drink. ”And then I’m thinking about going back to Afghanistan.”