Into the Valley of Death

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Peter Robinson: A contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, Sebastian Junger is the best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont, and Fire. Between June 2007 and June 2008, Mr. Junger embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, making five trips to the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, a location that saw more combat than any other in the Afghan theater. Mr. Junger describes what he experienced in his most recent book, War. By the time you decided to make five trips to Afghanistan, intentionally seeking danger, you were a successful author and a married man. What were you doing?

Sebastian Junger: I’ve been reporting on wars since Bosnia in the early ’90s, and it really is just how I see myself. The author gig came a little later. It worked out better than I could have anticipated, but I never changed my sense of myself as being a reporter who goes to foreign countries and often reports on conflict.

Robinson: You divide War into three subsections, or three books, the first of which is “Fear.” You quote Captain Dan Kearney, commander of Battle Company: “I was blown away by the insurgents’ ability to continue fighting despite everything America had to throw at them.” It was “a different enemy than I fought in Iraq, and . . . the terrain offered some kind of advantage that I’d never seen or read or heard about in my entire life.” Who was the enemy and what was distinctive about that terrain?

Junger: It was very mountainous; the valley started around five thousand feet and was extremely rugged. There were a lot of rocks, a lot of vegetation, a lot of places to hide. There was something called microterrain, the military’s term for little holes and hiding places in the rocks where you can survive artillery or even five-hundred-pound bombs dropped by planes. So they could completely hammer a Taliban position and then, you know, the smoke would clear and the Taliban would pop up and start shooting again.

The Taliban were a mix. Starting at the bottom, there were local guys who were paid $5 to shoot off a magazine at the Americans and sort of run away. There were those guys, not particularly ideological and they needed some money. Going up the chain, there was a lot of timber cutting in there, and there was a kind of local timber mafia; they would cut these huge trees on the upper ridges and export them to Pakistan illegally. Those guys had a vested criminal interest in keeping government authority out of the Korengal Valley. Not ideological, but they saw a sort of common goal with the more ideological fighters who came in from Pakistan. There were Pakistanis trained in the training camps of Pakistan, there were foreigners from Saudi Arabia, from Chechnya—those were really, really hard-core guys. They really knew what they were doing, and they were utterly ideological and probably not people you could really negotiate with.

Robinson: So, fear—your topic in this first book: “Combat jammed so much adrenaline through your system that fear was rarely an issue; far more indicative of real courage was how you felt before the big operations. . . . My personal weakness wasn’t fear so much as the anticipation of it.” Explain that.

Junger: One guy said to me that the scariest stuff that happened up there were the things that didn’t happen. The attacks we were expecting that didn’t happen. Once an attack started, fear really was not a problem. You were functional but your mind went kind of blank, at least mine did. The guys were very well trained, they jumped on their weapons and they did what they were trained to do. The dread beforehand, before an expected attack or before an American operation into a dangerous area, that dread was really sometimes kind of unbearable. But it’s a different experience from straight fear.

I was blown up by an IED. I was in a Humvee that got blown up, and we were stuck in there for a few minutes taking fire; the Humvee was on fire. I had zero fear; I don’t think my heart rate even went up. All the fear of that situation happened later in the evening.

Robinson: The second sub-book in War: “Killing.” You offer a couple of ways to understand the essential activity of combat. Here’s one: “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. . . . War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50-cal. during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of.” So, forget rationalizations about why war may be just in certain circumstances—young men kill other men because it makes them feel so alive. Is that part of what’s going on?

“One guy said to me that the scariest stuff that happened up there were the things that didn’t happen. The attacks we were expecting that didn’t happen.”

Junger: No, I think you’re reversing the cause and effect a little bit. They’re put in these situations for political reasons. I mean, they join up maybe because of 9/11, or their father was in the military. War is triggered by political problems. One way or another, the guys find themselves out there and what happens to them is that the rationale for the war itself disappears in combat. What remains is the bond between the men. And that bond is intoxicating. To be in a small unit, where your job is very clear, and you’re functioning the way you were trained to do, protecting your brothers in that platoon and they’re protecting you, is a situation you cannot recreate in society. It’s a very fulfilling one and it’s confusing to these guys because they come back, they come home and they miss something that is absolutely terrible. It’s like missing a really, really bad marriage, and it confuses them and they don’t know what to do with the contradiction.

Robinson: You write: “Killing begins to make a kind of sense to me. . . . A man behind a rock touched two wires to a battery and tried to kill me—tried to kill us. There are other ways to understand what he did, but none of them overrides the raw fact that this man wanted to negate everything I’d ever done in my life or might ever do.” What’s striking there is that “killing begins to make a kind of sense.” You understand why the soldiers feel they have no choice but to shoot, to kill when they can, when they’re forced to. What do you mean when you say it begins to make sense to you there?

Junger: People see killing as a moral choice, and in a situation where your life is in danger, it ceases being a moral choice, and becomes a very practical one.

Robinson: A final passage from your second sub-book: “Once in a while you would forget to think of the enemy as the enemy and would see them for what they were: teenagers up on a hill who got tired and cold just like the Americans. . . . Once you thought about them in those terms it was hard not to wonder whether the men themselves—not the commanders but the actual guys behind the guns—couldn’t somehow sit down together and work this out.” To me what’s striking in that passage is “once in a while.” Why isn’t this thought haunting the entire experience?

Junger: You needed a certain amount of quiet time to get in touch with who the enemy was. When they were shooting at you, it didn’t really matter who they were; someone was trying to kill you. I had bullets hit inches from my head, I got blown up, everyone in the platoon was almost killed, and you really needed a week or two without a firefight to start to think, “Well, there’s guys on the next hilltop over who are sort of watching the clouds drift by all day wondering when we’re going to attack them, and we’re wondering the same thing, and in the end it’s just guys like us over there.” It took a certain amount of peace and quiet to come to that thought. And it didn’t go very far from there.

“The guys find themselves out there and what happens to them is that the rationale for the war itself disappears in combat.”

Robinson: The third book within War is titled “Love.” A quote: “The Army has a certain interest in understanding what was going through Giunta’s mind during all of this, because whatever was going through his mind helped save the entire unit from getting killed.” Tell that story, then explain why the Army needed to be interested in what was going through his mind.

Junger: First Platoon walked into an O-shaped ambush at night and they were facing massive firepower. The whole first squad was taken out in the first burst and really, in some ways, they all should have died except that they’re so well trained. The only safety in a firefight is shooting more bullets than the other side and forcing them to get their heads down; once your head’s down, you can’t shoot back. So it’s kind of a contest of firepower in those first moments, and what you have to do, as a soldier, is ignore the fact you could get killed and concentrate on doing your job with whatever weapon you have. That was what Giunta and everyone else in that platoon did when they got ambushed. And as a result, they lost two guys and several were wounded, but it could have been an absolute catastrophe. It wasn’t, because of the incredible training that these guys have gone through.

“In a situation where your life is in danger, [killing] ceases being a moral choice, and becomes a very practical one.”

Robinson: “When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that.” Again, explain that.

Junger: There’s a limit to how many people you can affiliate with. Within the core group in the squad and the platoon, I really think, and this happens regularly in war, there are guys who would have thrown themselves on a hand grenade to save the other guys in their squad. You can’t have that kind of feeling, that kind of commitment, that kind of love basically, for an infinite number of people. The limits seem to be basically the platoon, extending a little bit.

Robinson: Which is how many people?

Junger: About thirty-five guys. After the company level, it’s pretty abstract. There was an unmanned observation blimp that was owned by the brigade twenty miles away; it was doing something good, watching for any enemy movement. It crashed during a thunderstorm. It was a brigade asset, and when the guys in the platoon heard about the crash, they all broke out in a cheer.

Robinson: I can see indifference, but why were they cheering?

Junger: I don’t know. I don’t think they knew. It was like someone else’s problem.

Robinson: So you’re trying to understand how these men love each other enough to fight for each other. One explanation is that in some way they’re genetically programmed to.

Junger: One of the guys said, look, there are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we’d all die for each other. In winning terms, that doesn’t make much sense. Why would you die for a guy—I mean, die for your children or your spouse, but for a guy you’re not related to, another peer, who will go on to have children and pass on his DNA, and you’re going to die and you won’t? It makes no sense. But what researchers have figured out is that in our evolutionary past, in those groups of thirty to fifty people you were related to most of the people in that group, so even if you didn’t have your own children, in a conflict you were dying to protect your nephews, your cousins, your sisters’ kids . . . and then it actually made sort of Darwinian sense to risk your life, sacrifice your life in protection of the group.

Let me try two brief quotations from War that seem to me to get at slightly different things. Number one: “Over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive.” Number two: “The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea.” Those are both getting at love in the attachment to the platoon or squad, but they’re doing it in different ways. That first quotation, there’s a kind of free will that seems to me that—you wouldn’t use this term, but there’s a kind of nobility, there’s something very attractive about this. And in the second quotation, it’s insane. It’s genetic programming. It’s just a kind of primeval instinct.

“There are guys who would have thrown themselves on a hand grenade to save the other guys in their squad. You can’t have that kind of feeling, that kind of commitment, that kind of love basically, for an infinite number of people.”

Robinson: So, which is it?

Junger: I think it’s both. And I think much of our behavior is derived from our genetic past and that it’s further molded by cultural influences. Over and over again, and I have video of this, guys will stand up and risk getting hit in order to do their job up in the platoon and keep everyone safer, and in that sense, they’re choosing to participate in a potentially suicidal act to safeguard everyone else. That is a very profound choice that a person makes for the welfare of another person. Putting someone else’s welfare above your own is at the heart of combat, but ironically it’s also at the heart of much of religious thought. There are real parallels between the two.

Robinson: Was Afghanistan—is Afghanistan worth it? Fighting in the Korengal Valley cost the lives of forty-two Americans, hundreds more wounded, and yet it was just announced that Americans had withdrawn from the valley. How does that revise your opinion of what took place? And how do you respond to that?

Junger: Every war, I think, has its Hamburger Hill. At Dunkirk, we lost thirty thousand men. It’s hard to reconcile that with still winning the war. War is incredibly complicated and it’s changing every day, and the strategy changes because the enemy’s strategy changes. Before the Americans pulled out of the Korengal, the Taliban didn’t cease operations, but they were drastically reduced. The amount of fighting in the Korengal dropped tremendously in the previous year and both sides moved on. That happens, I think, in every war. Emotionally it’s very hard for the soldiers, but in terms of strategy, the commanders are saying, look, we don’t have enough men, we don’t have enough resources, and the one hundred and fifty men who are in the Korengal are better used elsewhere.

“The world needs to understand that the chaos and violence of Afghanistan can reach out to touch them in the future—in a year or in ten years—if that country isn’t stabilized.”

Robinson: You write of a Lieutenant Colonel Bill Ostlund: “He had such a full-on enthusiasm for what he was doing that when I was around him, I sometimes caught myself feeling bad that there wasn’t an endeavor of equivalent magnitude in my own life. It wasn’t the war, per se, that he was so fired up about as much as the whole idea—a truly radical one when you thought about it—that America was actually over here trying to put a country like this back together.” Were you responding to his enthusiasm because it was so catching or were you responding to the idea that he had of putting Afghanistan back together? In other words, were you at some level on board with the program?

Junger: I think both. I’ve been going to Afghanistan since 1996. It’s a country I care about tremendously. I was there in the ’90s; it was a bloodbath. And if NATO pulls out, it’s going to go back to that. That’s a very, very painful thought for me to contemplate.

I don’t think the Afghans are particularly fond of the Americans—who wants to have foreign troops wandering around their country?—but I think most of them are pretty terrified of their prospects if the world pulls out. So, out of concern for Afghanistan, I’m kind of on board in that sense because the stakes are very high for the Afghan people that this work.

“Putting someone else’s welfare above your own is at the heart of combat, but ironically it’s also at the heart of much of religious thought.”

Robinson: Sebastian, a few weeks ago, the man sitting in that chair was [Hoover senior fellow] Fouad Ajami, Middle East expert at Johns Hopkins University. A supporter of the Iraq war, but not a supporter of the Afghan war—to my surprise. A point he made is that there is no Afghanistan to put back together. The idea that it was ever a normal country is false. How do you respond to that?

Junger: That’s wrong, that’s totally wrong. Kabul was the location of the best medical school in all of Asia, in the ’70s, before the Soviets came in and destroyed that country and triggered a civil war that essentially now is still going on. The hippie trail went through Afghanistan—I mean, it was a place where many, many Western visitors went. The museums, there are ancient monuments that tourists would go to . . . I mean, it wasn’t unified in a sense that the United States is unified, but that doesn’t mean it was in conflict. It was stable for decades. It was stable and functioned. It’s a funky place and that’s one of the things that make it interesting.

Robinson: Hold on, unpack “funky” for me.

Junger: You know, there are tribes and nomads and all kinds of scenes that look like they’re right out of the Bible. If you grew up in Wisconsin, you’re going to see things you didn’t think you’d ever see. But it was peaceful enough that people went there regularly. The Soviet invasion ruined that and the country’s still trying to put itself back together. So, in my opinion, he’s completely wrong and it can be done.

Robinson: It can? Let me give you a direct quotation from Fouad Ajami: “Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is a bandit and the Afghan campaign can’t be won. There’s nothing to be gained for the United States in Afghanistan. It just doesn’t end well.” What kind of ending can you see?

Junger: The Western world figured out how to drive the German army out of Europe. They did D-Day. They pushed through France, they pushed the Germans back into Germany. If they can do that, there’s something like ten thousand to twenty thousand Taliban fighters, essentially barefoot in the mountains with AK-47s. They can probably figure out how to win that fight. I think the problem isn’t the military one. It’s a political problem in the countries of Europe and the United States, and if they really want to do it as they did in World War II, they can probably figure it out.

Every country in Europe has been attacked or has had a near miss from Al-Qaeda. What drove the United States into Afghanistan was three thousand dead in New York City on 9/11. If those three thousand dead had happened in Paris, I think France would be in Afghanistan. The world needs to understand that the chaos and violence of Afghanistan can reach out to touch them in the future—in a year or in ten years—if that country isn’t stabilized. If we go back to the ’90s, we may risk going back to 9/11.

Robinson: Let me ask you this, as a kind of summary statement, I’m quoting from the book: “Heroism is hard to study in soldiers because they invariably claim that they acted like any good soldier would have.” Do you want to call the men you covered heroes?

Junger: “Heroes” is such a loaded term. The way it’s used commonly is “anyone who served.” The soldiers themselves draw greater distinctions. Serving on a rear base is very different from serving on a front line and the soldiers are very aware of those differences. The guys themselves, they wouldn’t call themselves heroes, and I don’t think I would want to describe them in ways that they don’t understand themselves to be. They were very, very brave and probably their most noble act, I think, was joining in the first place. These guys decided to volunteer to risk their lives and serve their country and whether you’re for or against the war, that’s a noble thing. What happened in the Korengal Valley they did for themselves. They don’t call it courage. I think that is something that should be respected. It’s something that has affected me a lot to be around.

Robinson: Thank you very much.