Interview: Sebastian Junger On The Life Of A Combat Reporter

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington is a documentary about a well-regarded combat reporter who died in a rocket attack by the Gaddafi troops in Misrata, Libya, in 2011. 

It is directed by his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger. A few years back, they made an award-winning documentary together, Restrepo, while embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley. I got a chance to sit down with Junger this past week. Perhaps best known for his best-selling book, The Perfect Storm, Junger exudes masculinity and charisma as he speaks freely about his friend, war and dangers of combat reporting.

Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington airs on HBO on April 18 and then will have a theatrical release in New York.


TWITCH: First of all, I just have to tell you that WHICH WAY IS THE FRONTLINE FROM HERE? is a beautiful tribute to your friend Tim.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.

Is being a filmmaker a natural progression for you after becoming a best-selling author, then an award-winning journalist?

You know, I think if you told me that I would be a filmmaker ten years ago, I'd be shocked, really shocked. But then I realized that in war the situations are moving too quickly to take notes but perfect for video. Nobody takes notes during combat in a notebook: you write, feel stupid, can't read them afterwords, just ridiculous right?

Right.

But it's perfect for shooting video. So I learned to shoot video and quickly liked its immediacy. I mean it's the whole other way of seeing and recording the world. And so I had this idea of spending a year with a platoon on an assignment for Vanity Fair and writing a book about it. And then I thought, "if I'm going to be out there for a year off and on and spend that much time there, I might as well shoot video. At the very least I can give it to ABC, so they can use the footage or maybe I can make a documentary."

To me, it all seem like a part of journalism. I didn't feel like I was switching from a writer to a filmmaker. It all felt like a different facets of journalism, just a different way of recording information. They actually complement each other quite well. Now I don't think I can choose one way or the other and I don't feel like I need to.

Then I brought Tim to the project on the second trip into the Korengal Valley in September 2007. And one of the reasons I really wanted to work with him was because he shoots video and said he would be willing to think about participating in the project. As soon as he got out there, he was very interested.

With your book WAR and RESTREPO and this film, there is this shared theme: the attraction to war, not only in the soldiers but in the combat journalists as well. Was Tim's attraction to war going to the world's hot spots and being in dangerous situations, the same as that of the soldiers?

Well, they are very different roles. If you are a soldier, you have a gun in your hand and you have some moral responsibility, but if you are shooting with your camera, you have much less responsibility. I am not necessarily against wars. I think there are wars that are unavoidable. I'm not categorically against it, although I still think it's awful. But I do understand that the world is a complicated and messy place. And sometimes, using armed forces is better than standing aside and watching something really bad happen.

I think for Tim and for soldiers in a general sense, the attraction of the war is partly because it is incredibly meaningful: the stakes are very high and it's incredibly intense, to the point of being intoxicating. Also, I think, at least out of Restrepo, there was such a deep bond among everyone who was there. The shared emotions, the emotional connection there can't be found anywhere else. I think those are two things that make war so weirdly appealing to young men.

I'm not sure about being a soldier, but I myself kind of had fantasy growing up traveling the world and going to dangerous places and have those intense experiences that you talk about. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who had those kind of fantasies. How did you get into the war reporting business?

I sort of muddled my way through my twenties, trying to be a writer. I was writing short fiction and articles but not very successfully. When I was thirty I felt my career was kind of languishing, although it wasn't even that much of a career. (Laughs) I grew up in a very affluent suburb and I felt like I've never really been tested as a person. Ultimately, I didn't really feel like a man. There is kind of an idea in our society that war kind of turns boys into men. And there was war in Bosnia and to me, it was seen as sort of ultimate test. 'If you pass it, you will emerge as a man.' It's a bit of a myth, but I think there is some truth to that. Going to Bosnia as a war reporter was a professional move but also a personal move that had to do with finding the sense of myself.

It is very ironic that Tim died after he publicly said he would be moving away from combat reporting. He was in a serious relationship and thinking about settling down.

Yes. I think he wanted to believe that he could live a quieter life - which meant two things: it meant not going to war zones and not traveling so much because he was almost never home. Of course you can't have a deep relationship if you are not around most of the time.

I think he wanted to believe he was capable of that, but also worried that he wasn't capable of settling down. When he died I think he was in the process of figuring that out.

I think in Idil (Idil Ibrahim, filmmaker, Hetherington's girlfriend), in addition to his love for her, he saw a chance to become the person he hoped to become - at home and leading a more stable life.

But war is pretty compelling. And in some ways that war is more compelling than marriage and children and society and everything else. For some people, at some point in their lives it trumps everything else. I think Tim was really in the middle of struggling with that.

I know that he was about ten years younger than you were.

Yeah, he died when he was 40. I'm 51 now.

Did you go through the same thought process when you were about the same age as he was?

When I got together with my wife, I was 40, just the same age as Tim was. But no, I did start war reporting before I met her. But we had conversations about it. I said, "There will be a point when I'm going to stop. But it's not now." I told her when I was preparing for Korengal that if I could devote myself for a year to it fully, I might stop doing the war reporting. That's what I've said. I'm not sure if  entirely believed it though. But that was what I was trying to believe.

Where do you stand with that belief today?

Well, after Tim got killed, I made an absolute, instantaneous decision not to cover war anymore. I've never regretted it since. I am happy with the decision. There is no ambivalence at all about that.

How did it come about that you didn't go to Libya with Tim?

We were supposed to be on assignment together. At the last minute some personal things came up in my life and I couldn't do it. It was just the wrong moment. I told him that and he just went on his own.

Was Tim in any way a political person?

Yeah. He was.

When you were making RESTREPO what was his reaction on the ground, since the film is very apolitical?

Oh, he was very thrilled to have the amazing amount of access to the military. It was an incredible chance to see the US military in a very, very intimate, exposed way. He was amazed that there was that much unguarded openness in the US military. He was grateful that there was no censorship at all. And he felt that we were quite lucky.

Can you tell me a little about RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) for
those of us who are not familiar with it?

Sure. Tim's wound was not necessarily mortal. He was hit with Shrapnel and bled out. Yes, it was a very dangerous wound in the femoral artery, but he died of blood loss on the way to the Misrata hospital in the back of a pickup truck. And had the journalists around him had combat medical training, they might have been able to do things to slow down the loss of blood and maybe he would've arrived at the hospital alive and maybe he would've survived. I don't know,  but it's possible, certainly more possible than what happened; no one could do anything and he just died.

So I started a group called RISC. It's only for freelancers because freelancers do most of the war reporting in the world. It's not for network reporters but for young freelancers.

That's how you began your career in Bosnia, no?

Yes. It's only for experienced freelancers, not for people who just got of j(ournalism) school. We just don't have enough resources to train those. It's just for people who are already working in the field. They come back from front lines and we train them and send them back out. It's completely free of charge to them. Freelancers typically don't have a lot of money so we pay for the hotel in New York City and pay for the training done by experienced medical instructors, some of whom are former military, and medical kit is free. All free except you just need to get here. And there is a long waiting list. We take 24 people at a time. RISC is entirely non-profit and exists solely on people's generosity. I truly believe his kind of training could've saved my friend's life. And hopefully it will save others in the future.

I checked out the Sebastian Junger Community website. It's pretty expansive.

It came about when my book War and Restrepo came out. Frankly, I haven't frequented for a year or so. I need to revive it a little. I thought in 2010 that what we needed was a place where civilians, military personnel and vets can come and communicate with each other. I felt that there was huge gulf between the military population and everybody else. The thing is, we are all the same people, all Americans, and there should be more dialog among us. I hope that the community helps further that.

You think that we are pulling out troops and the war being officially over and now John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, is the Secretary of State, there will be a more positive change in the government to help our returning soldiers?

The thing is that they come home and they are no longer in the military. They disperse into the population. So they can't be dealt with as a group. I think the military is quite good at dealing with groups - with platoons, companies and battalions and so on. But once these people get absorbed into the population, the government has no authority over them. I think they do quite a lot. I mean there is psychological counseling, the VA has a whole medical program and the GI Bill. The problem, though, is that the VA is an enormous bureaucracy. It's well funded and well meaning but it's huge, cumbersome and inefficient. I think government should make the VA more effective.

Any advice for the young people who want to be combat journalists?

Mostly, you just have to go. Don't wait around for an assignment 'cause you won't get one, because there are a lot of people who are already over there. You just have to go. And be careful. It is always possible that you could get killed and your family will really grieve. But the job is for keeps. This isn't a movie. It's an important work and it was an experience that radically changed my life. And I feel quite lucky that I've been able to do it for 20 years. The most important thing you can do is just go.

What's next for you, now that you are not a combat journalist anymore?


Well, there are lots of things to write about that are not combat. And some of them are quite interesting. (laughs) I trying to reorient a bit. War is the most dramatic thing, but that doesn't mean it's the most interesting thing. Eventually you realize that there is a difference between dramatic and interesting. They are actually two separate categories. There are other meaningful things to write about back home but it is actually harder to write about. But I'm trying to acclimate my head toward that side of life more. I have another documentary project I am working on for HBO and the book that is connected to it. Can't really tell you the details yet because we are not finished shooting, but it's a really interesting project.

HBO has been helpful for you?


HBO has been amazing. There has been an incredible support from the first day when Sheila (Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films) OK'd the project. Her and Sara Bernstein (producer) - they've been absolutely fantastic partners.

Is your wife happy now that you are not in harm's way?

Now she has to deal with me all day! (laughs) So I don't know. We'll see.


For more information about the film, please visit HBO website.
For more information about Junger's RISC, please visit risc.training.org


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinion on the world can be found at dustinchang.com
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