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.”
We spoke with Junger for a profile in this week’s issue of EW. Here are some of the outtakes from that interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you embedded with Battle Company, you were more than just a reporter with a notebook, you and veteran British war photographer Tim Hetherington also brought video cameras to film the missions (the footage of which was edited into the Sundance-winning documentary Restrepo). How did having a camera help you with the book?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It certainly helped me as a journalist. It’s very immediate and very exact. So I would use the video tape as a reference for myself when I was writing. I mean, we’re visual creatures. Most of our information comes through our eyes. Reading ultimately is a cerebral activity, it takes place in your mind. And it’s a way of making reading visual.
Did being preoccupied with filming, help make you less scared?
The camera gave me a reason for being there. I think if your house is burning down and you had your child in your harms you wouldn’t be thinking of yourself. And if you were by yourself and your house was burning down, you’d be terrified what was going to happen to you. The camera was like my baby. It was the thing I was supposed to take care of. My job was to get video. Once I was caught without my video camera in a fire fight, all I could think about was my safety. I had no role. So it really did make a difference. And I’m pretty sure that it works the same way with weapons.
How did you get your start as a war correspondent?
I was 31. I went to Bosnia and I started filing freelance radio reports for 40 dollars a pop. It was the bottom of the journalistic food chain, but I was part of this world of foreign reporting. I was nothing on the food chain, but I was completely intoxicated by it. It was exciting and world events were happening right around me…It was like a drug.
I’m sure I spent more money over there than I made, but it was my journalism school. And I came back and I just wanted to keep doing that. I went to Afghanistan in 1996. I went to Kashmir to write about the foreigners who were fighting in Afghanistan…al Qaeda basically. And they’d taken some westerners hostage and killed them in Kashmir. And I wrote about that.
Prior to going to Afghanistan to write War, what would you say was the hairiest place you’d been as a reporter?
Well, I don’t know that this was the hairiest place that I’d ever been. I mean, there was a lot of gun fire, but if something happened to me, there were helicopters and medics. I felt very taken care of. To me, hairy is being on your own in a situation that you’ve got to handle. That was Sierra Leone, that was Liberia, that was Afghanistan in ‘96. Those places were hairy. Nigeria. I was grabbed by men and held there. That s— was scary. That was terrifying.
You said this kind of reporting is like a drug, what is it about you that gets off on that?
In Bosnia, part of what was a drug wasn’t the danger – that was pretty minimal. What was intoxicating was being a part of the news machine – the urgency of it, the intensity of it. The risk is also intoxicating, which is what you’re asking about, but there is this component, which is the job itself. Everyone responds to risk with adrenaline. Adrenaline is essentially cocaine in your brain. There’s a chemical component that we’re all susceptible to. But different people have different threshholds with it. I would NEVER jump off a bridge with a bungee cord. Forget it. There’s no way I’m going to go bungee jumping. My tolerance for fear is low. I can get scared quickly. I don’t like the feeling of being scared. It feels like I’m being injected with poison. I didn’t like being in Liberia, Liberia was terrifying! I mean, everyday we were bungee jumping and we didn’t know if we were attached to a bungee cord. I had nightmares afterwards. I’ll never go back to the f—ing place again! With this, I didn’t’ feel that scared. I mean, there were moments of fear. But it was a collective experience and, I think, for most of human history danger has been experienced collectively. The jobs young men had to do in earlier stages of our human race were hunting and war. Those are things you did with other young men. And we’re wired to deal with that. I don’t think we’re wired to go through that alone.
You also chose to make a movie out of the experience in Afghanistan, Restrepo. Are you concerned that so many war movies lately haven’t done very well at the box office?
No. Partly because they keep making bad war movies. Hollywood thinks that the problem is making movies about war. They don’t realize that people just don’t want to see bad movies about war. They saw Black Hawk Down. That was a movie about a war no one cared about. And Hurt Locker was a good movie. Anyway, all of those are fiction anyway. A documentary about war, how are you going to get people to see that? But I just had this feeling, this is right, this is good!
You went to Afghanistan 5 times, for a total of 15 months for War. How did you sell your wife on the idea?
[Laughs] I probably blocked it out because I can’t remember. When Daniella met me I was doing this kind of work and it was just part of the package. But for what I am, a reporter, I do very little of this work – like I’m not gone every other month. But when I do it, I jump in with both feet. That’s what we do. For a bestselling author, there aren’t many who do this. But if you put me in the other demographic of war reporters, I’m just another guy doing his job.
Yes, but what is that conversation with your wife like?
She married someone who did this. I’m away less than most of the reporters I know because I don’t do hard news. So already, that helped. And also, quite frankly, when I went into this, I don’t think she realized how intense it was going to be. And when I found out how intense it was, I didn’t really share the details. Because I didn’t’ want to upset her. And then afterwards, after the five trips were over, I told her some stuff that I hadn’t wanted to talk about and that was a difficult conversation. She felt a little betrayed I think. But I don’t know that I’m going to do this again. I don’t want to really get shot at anymore. God forbid, you get addicted to that. So I don’t know. There are other ways of challenging yourself. But I think she understood this is a major project.
Have you kept in touch with the soldiers from Battle Company?
Yes, of course.
Was there a temptation to put more of yourself in the book?
S—, I thought I put a lot of myself in! [Laughs] I put in everything I had to say about myself. As a journalist, you don’t usually use the first person at all. I thought I put in an enormous amount of myself. I thought I was a lens people could see the situation through.
It must have been interesting watching Restrepo with an audience at Sundance. As an author, you probably don’t get the chance to watch people experiencing your work?
With this movie, you sit there and it’s a two-hour collective experience and the lights go on. You never get that with a book. Not at a reading, not at a book signing. I would watch people watch my movie…it was cool. I’ve sat next to people on airplanes who were reading my book, but that’s totally different. This was the entire movie. The screenings were really emotional. Every single screening there were people crying in tears. That was very profound for me. It made me feel like I had done something good at a time when this country is groping for some meaning. I felt like I touched a few people who needed a catharsis. I just wanted to know what it was like to be a soldier.
You may hate this question, but so be it. You get lumped together a lot with Jon Krakauer…
Yeah, people say to me “I loved your book about Everest.” I get that all the time. It’s very funny.
Did you read his Pat Tillman book?
I don’t think the association’s a bad one. You two had bestsellers at a time when adventure journalism took off – it was a moment.
I think we’re roughly the same age and our books came out with a few weeks of each other or something like that. But I mean, one’s a sport that people didn’t have to die doing and another one guys died making a living. So let’s be clear about where adventure begins here. I think for a long time those topics were treated fictionally and then suddenly Krakauer and I came along and wrote non-fiction accounts of these things. So I understand the comparison for readers.
How did you feel when Hollywood came calling for the movie version of your bestseller, A Perfect Storm?
Well, my agent sent the manuscript around and I went out to Hollywood because it was not an obvious movie. They didn’t come calling, it was more like I was courting them. I was trying to explain to them: Hey you can make a movie out of this! I know everyone dies! [laughs] and Warner Bros. picked it up and I think they basically forgot about it. And then the book started to do well and they remembered it. I didn’t want to write the script, I wanted to go back overseas, so I didn’t really think about it. I mean, I went to the movie set because I have a crush on Diane Lane, but it wasn’t my world.
How do you feel about the movie?
I mean, it’s a big Hollywood movie, which isn’t really my taste in cinema. But for what it is, I think it was very good. It respected the town and the people in the town. And I appreciate that. And today, it reaches people that my book didn’t.