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Sebastian Junger (left) with Tim Hetherington at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. (Tim Hetherington)
Sebastian Junger (left) with Tim Hetherington at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. (Tim Hetherington)

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Sebastian Junger: 'He was trying to see beyond the drama of guys shooting guns' Add to ...

When a mortar shell landed near Tim Hetherington last month in Libya, the world lost one of its most celebrated observers of war. The photographer and filmmaker had spent years in dangerous places.

Perhaps nobody understood his personal sense of mission better than Sebastian Junger, his friend and collaborator. They survived months together in eastern Afghanistan while co-directing the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo.

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Junger, also the award-winning author of The Perfect Storm and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, will speak on Saturday after a special screening of the film in Toronto, with all proceeds to a charitable humanitarian fund in Hetherington's name.

He spoke to Globe's foreign correspondent Graeme Smith, on assignment in Pakistan, this week.

I've pulled up an article I wrote in 2009 after a colleague died. It's not nearly as good as the excellent rant you did for Vanity Fair about Tim Hetherington's death. But I remember sitting half-drunk in the newsroom and typing this: "Why bother? Sometimes you ask yourself that question with a note of bitterness." So let me ask you: Why the hell do we do this?

We're drawn to the intensity of war. There's an element of personal ambition; every journalist I know is ambitious and wants to rise up the ranks. Finally, and most importantly, there's an element of humanitarian concern. There are many stories that did not elicit any useful response from the world, but for every one of those there's one that has - Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Libya. There would have been no intervention in Bosnia without press coverage of the genocide that was happening. All of those disasters would have continued unacknowledged and not dealt with by the international community.

I remember reading in your book War that the thing that drives soldiers into war is love. That's almost the exact opposite of Chris Hedges's conclusion in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - that war is a poisonous drug, something addictive.

This whole sort of adrenalin-junky thing is basically pathologizing a very complicated emotional response on the part of the soldiers. Journalists and soldiers have very different responses to war, although they overlap. There is an addictive adrenalin response to war, and in that we share a commonality. But that's just a piece of the puzzle. What I found with the soldiers was there was a much more profound response to that environment. They felt incredible emotional security from being part of a brotherhood. Their disorientation upon going home wasn't related to not getting an adrenalin hit every half hour. It was because they were not part of a group they could trust, and they were being judged, not for their loyalty to a group but for other things: what they looked like, how much money they made, their social status. ... Every person has access to courage if they choose. You're judged for that in combat, and not much else. But back in society they're judged for other things, everything except courage. They all join up because their dad was in Vietnam, or they're upset by 9/11, but ultimately in combat it's concern for their brothers that gets them to expose themselves to return fire or run through fire to pull someone to safety. It really is a form of love. The root of the word courage is coeur - heart. Even the word itself comes from the idea of love.

It's interesting because both you and Chris Hedges use similar language. He talks about the seduction, the allure of war. You both come at it from an almost romantic view, but draw these opposite conclusions.

There certainly is a romance and thrill to war, so we're in agreement. But I think when he wrote his book, which I really liked, he wasn't writing from an experience with soldiers. It's a specific thing. If he'd been with Second Platoon for a year [the troop of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who were the subject of Restrepo] he would have had some additional understanding.

Have you stayed in touch with the guys you filmed in Restrepo from the Second Platoon?

Oh yeah.

How have the guys you filmed in Restrepo done?

All but one or two of them are still fighting. They've gone on to other units, Special Forces, Rangers. They're high-speed guys in the military. I think they're good. A few have gotten out. A couple of the guys had a rough time, didn't get themselves together. But you kind of knew it. Guys who had difficulties out there also had difficulties back here.

Have they become celebrities in their world?

To an extent. When Tim was killed in Libya, somebody saw it online and went out to where Misha Pemble-Belkin was pulling guard duty - they knew he'd been in the film.

I was supposed to be in Libya, with him. I didn't go.

What kept you away?

Some family issues, and Vanity Fair got cold feet because it looked so dangerous. Tim came back, then decided he wanted to do it anyway. He went back again with his own money.

I was in Libya. I didn't take as many chances as Tim did. I'm more of a coward; I was further back from the front lines. But I remember thinking about how little of what I'd experienced in other war zones applied to Libya. It was frightening, actually, to learn that it's not a cumulative thing. You don't actually get much wiser.

The two guys who got killed were incredibly experienced. It was a 25-year-old woman on her first war who wasn't touched. She was right next to them. I don't think they should have been out there, where they were. It's easy to say that in hindsight, but I do wonder what they were thinking.

Well, it was a fluid situation. Does it make you rethink your line of work?

Oh yeah. I don't think I'll cover any more wars.

I was having this conversation with a roomful of journalists recently, and there's always that moment when somebody says: "Well, what the hell else am I going to do?" Do you have a sense of what will replace this for you?

Journalistically, it's easy. Most of my books have not been about war. But what will replace it emotionally? I don't know. The experience of war is a very particular thing and it becomes weirdly important. I don't know what idea I'll have about myself after I've completely closed the door on war reporting, after it's no longer part of my identity. I don't know. It's like athletes who finally decide to quit the sport. It's who you are, and then it's not. Journalistically, it's easy. But on a personal level it's more complicated. But that's part of aging. I'm 49, and your identity changes continually as you get older. You're always shedding a more youthful version of yourself and adopting an older, more mature version. That's part of it. I knew it was going to happen some day. Now the dangers of war reporting are not theoretical and abstract, they're very concrete. I don't want to do that to my wife. I'm pretty okay taking risks with my own life, but having seen the aftermath of Tim's death among many people he loved very deeply, and the incredible pain they're still going through, you can't love someone and subject them to that.

Do you have any kids?

No kids.

Any plans for kids?

Absolutely. I've just been moving around too much in the last few years.

What kind of legacy would Tim have wanted to leave behind?

He was trying to see beyond the drama of guys shooting guns. He was trying to see deeply into the male psyche, the soul of young men - because it's almost always young men who fight - and to the sort of connection between war and society. He had this amazing video called Diary...

I love that piece, yeah.

... So there's this image of embers from a burning stump in Afghanistan, set on fire by American ordnance during combat, drifting up into the night sky. And those specks of light become lit apartment windows at night in a skyscraper in New York. And he was saying to me, "Don't you get it? It's all the same power. The economic power, the social power, it's all the same juice." The juice that created that bomb is the same juice lighting those windows.

He had this way of seeing profound connections between things, without judging them. He wasn't for or against the war in Afghanistan, but he wanted to understand it. I think his legacy will be one where people's minds have been awakened to seeing the world in those kind of very profound ways.

A special screening of Restrepo will be held Saturday at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 at 3 p.m. Sebastian Junger will speak about his friend Tim Hetherington and host a Q&A session after the film ( www.hotdocs.ca/film/title/restrepo ).

 

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