TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I‘m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of David McKean, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming, and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kenney Library Forums, including lead sponsor, Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, The Boston Foundation and our media partners, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and NECN. Programs like this one would not be possible without your support. We thank those of you who are members and ask those who are not to consider taking out a membership by visiting the Library‘s website.
Let us begin tonight‘s special Forum by asking all of the veterans in our audience to stand so that we can thank you for your service to our country. [Applause]
In a recent New York Times column, our moderator, Bob Herbert, writes, ―The idea that the United States is at war and hardly any of its citizens are paying attention to the terrible burden being shouldered by its men and women in uniform is beyond appalling. We can get fired up about Lady Gaga, fantasy football, and obsessively narcissistic tweets, but American soldiers fighting and dying in a foreign land, that is such a yawn.‖
No one has ever accused our guest speaker Sebastian Junger of writing books that would cause his readers to yawn. Attracted since childhood to extreme situations and people at the edges of things, he writes often about ordinary people in dangerous situations, from his harrowing account of the Boston strangler -- who happened to work as a handyman in the Junger‘s home in Belmont -- to his white-knuckle chronicle of the crew of the Andrea Gail in his best seller, The Perfect Storm.
And now he had set his focus -- using what one reviewer calls a laser, not a flood light -- on how modern warfare is experienced by those who do the fighting. Over the course of 15 months, Mr. Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington were embedded with Battle Company of the 173 Airborne Brigade combat team in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan, a remote outpost that saw more combat with the Taliban than any other region of that war-torn country and was deemed at the time the most dangerous place on earth.
The result is his newest book, War, a story about war that is much more than a war story. ―What elevates War out of its particular time and place,‖ writes one reviewer, ―are the author‘s meditations on the minds and emotions of the soldiers with whom he has shared hardships, dangers and spells of boredom so intense that everyone sits around wishing to hell something would happen and wishes to God it were over when it inevitably does.‖ The book is on sale in our store, and Mr. Junger will sign copies at the conclusion of our forum. We will also this evening see a sneak preview of War’s documentary counterpart Restrepo, described by The New York Times as an impressive, even heroic feat of journalism. It won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and will air nationally on the National Geographic Channel on November 29th at 9:00 p.m.
On a personal note, I mentioned to Mr. Junger that as a measure of his appeal my high school age son devoured the book and loved the film and that this is the only forum in my 12-year history here at the Library that he asked to attend. [Laughter]. Though I should note I required him to attend an event in 2006 when Senator Barack Obama spoke here, sensing it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to be in the presence of a future president. The moderator that day happened to also be Bob Herbert, so my son will now have the mis-impression, Bob, that you are as much a permanent fixture on this stage as I am. [Laughter]
If you are like me, you often learn more about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from Bob Herbert‘s columns than through the direct reporting from his colleagues overseas. A veteran himself, drafted during the Vietnam War and serving in Korea, he decided to be a journalist after returning from his experience in the military. He has won numerous awards for his reporting and commentary, including the Ridenhour Courage Prize for his ―fearless articulation of unpopular truths. And we learned earlier this evening that he is the hero of Sebastian Junger‘s mother, who is here in the front row as well.
There are many reasons to have this forum here today on Veterans‘ Day, not the least of which being that this institution honors the memory of a World War II veteran turned President. But less well known is the fact that we also house the papers of Ernest Hemingway, whose experience of war as a young man informed many of his most famous novels and short stories. At the Hemingway centennial held here in 1999, Tobias Wolf suggested that Hemingway‘s great war work deals with aftermath, with what happens to the soul in war and how people deal with that afterwards. The problem that Hemingway set for himself in stories like Soldier’s Home, Wolf concluded, is the difficulty of telling the truth about what one has been through. He knew about his own difficulty in doing that. Few have written as famously as Hemingway about the life of a writer, the importance, in his words, of writing one true sentence and how the written word can serve as a mirror for a society to see itself in a new light.
In Sebastian Junger we have with us this evening one of the great writers of our time, an artist of Hemingway‘s proportions. One reviewer writes that Mr. Junger‘s book on war refracts our vision. We see in it the good in us and regret that we are not better. Or as Dexter Filkins has written, ―In this new book Junger is aiming for more than just the boots-on-the-ground narrative of the travails of fighting. War strives to offer not only a picture of American fighting men, but a discourse on the nature of war itself. This is no small ambition. He writes some beautiful sentences about this ugly world.‖
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming back to the Kennedy Library Sebastian Junger and Bob Herbert.
BOB HERBERT: It is a great honor to be asked to participate in this program. This is an issue that is so close to my heart; it has been for so long. I can tell you right off that War is just a terrific book and Restrepo is an equally terrific film, so we will get started. I have a lot of questions, and there is going to be a period for you guys to ask some questions, so let‘s go. And, Sebastian, you can orient us by describing this project and just how it got started.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Sure. I‘ve been going to Afghanistan since 1996, ‘96, 2000, 2001when the Northern Alliance took Kabul, it looked like a very easy war in 2001. The Afghans were -- at least the ones I talked to -- incredibly grateful to the United States to be rid of the Taliban. They hated the Taliban. The Taliban crumbled in a couple of weeks. I mean, this is my opinion here but I think it was such an easy victory that the focus of the United States, particularly the Bush administration, just wandered and refocused on Iraq. And while we were focused on Iraq, Afghanistan just fell apart. 19,000 American soldiers were just not enough to keep it glued together. There are 40,000 cops in New York City. It wasn‘t going to work.
By 2005 I realized, wow, the military of my country is going to be in Afghanistan -- this country that I‘ve kind of fallen in love with -- probably for a very long time, and if it doesn‘t work, the Afghan people are going to go through another convulsion of violence and chaos and nihilism just like the 90s.
And so I decided to embed with a unit of US military. I was with Battle Company of the 173rd. I grew up in the wake of Vietnam. The military had a very complicated, frankly troubled, reputation then, and I didn‘t know what to expect. I was just overwhelmed by these guys that I was with at how professional, how great they were. I just loved them. And I thought that if Battle Company of the 173rd goes back to Afghanistan, I want to follow one platoon for a whole deployment. They were supposed to go to Iraq and at the last moment they changed. They went to Afghanistan. They went to the Korengal Valley, and I had my chance.
I wanted to write a book and make a movie. I had been shooting a little bit of video. That was the plan. I was going to go over there as much as I could afford to with my personal life back home. I wound up doing five, one-month trips to the Korengal Valley, most of it spent at this small outpost called Restrepo.
BOB HERBERT: First tell us roughly how many men there are in a platoon and, also, give us an idea of who they were, just basically the range of ages and their backgrounds.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: A platoon is about 30, 35 men. The Korengal was six miles long. Battle Company basically had about four platoons, about 150 men, American soldiers in the Korengal. The age range … God—the youngest guy was 18. He came in January. He was a replacement. He was 18, and he seemed 14. He turned into a very good soldier, but that took a couple of months. The oldest guy was 42. He was a pretty successful guy. He was bored back home. He owned a small business. I think he sold it. He got out. I think he was divorced. I can‘t remember the details but he was bored and he decided he wanted to join the Army, and so he joined at 40, and 18 months later he is on a hilltop getting shot at. I was 45 at the time, so I was the oldest person at Restrepo. The soldiers … you know what 18 and 20-year olds are like. Anyone over 30, they don‘t even realize why you are bothering to continue. [Laughter] So I was trying to explain to them that it actually was worthwhile after 30, like there was something on the other side for you.
BOB HERBERT: We have a clip from the film, and then I will have a couple of questions about the film itself. So if you could show that clip.
[FILM CLIP] [Applause]
BOB HERBERT: Now, the film starts with footage of some of the men on their way to Afghanistan, and you were with them then. What were their attitudes like? I mean, were they excited, anxious, fearful?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Actually, the first bit of footage is on a train in Italy. They are based in Italy in Vicenza. That‘s one of the very, very small parts of the movie that we didn‘t film.
That was just stuff that they had filmed. I didn‘t know those guys yet, so that was footage we got from them. I had a little, one-chip camera.
But I can speak to their attitudes. They are in the 173rd Airborne. That‘s a combat unit, and every guy that I was with -- at least in Battle Company -- had to work very, very hard and pass a lot of tests to get into a unit like that. They would say to me, ―Look. If you just need a paycheck, you can change the oil in a Humvee in a rear base pretty easily. You can volunteer for the Army and do that. To get into a combat unit, it‘s like making the football team. You actually have to want it. And so those guys when they were going over there in May ‘07, the big war was Iraq and they are going to Afghanistan. For quite a few of them their main worry was that they were not going to see any combat.
BOB HERBERT: They were disappointed they were going to go to Afghanistan rather than Iraq?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Absolutely. They were like, ―We‘re trained to fight, and it‘s going to be a really long year if we are just sort of sitting on sandbags watching the clock turn slowly‖.
So that was one of their anxieties: that they were going to spend a year over there and not actually come home with any combat experience.
BOB HERBERT: It turns out they did not have to …
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: They did not have to worry about it.
BOB HERBERT: When they did show up in the Korengal Valley, at least some of the men seemed taken aback. I mean, the young fellow we heard in the clip say, ―What are we doing here?‖ And there was another fellow who said his mind told him as he looked around the landscape that he was going to die there. What was it that was so intimidating about that place?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It was very, very rugged terrain. It was like they dropped those guys in the Colorado Rockies. And their previous deployment … I think probably half the unit had been on the previous deployment in ‘05 – ‘06 in Zabul Province, which is kind of this moonscape. That is where I had been with them two years earlier. So they get dropped into essentially the Colorado Rockies. And these guys are carrying minimum -- on the shortest patrols -- 80 pounds up to 120. On multi-day patrols they are carrying 150, 160 pounds. So when you look at some mountains like the Korengal -- it is part of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range -- when you look at those mountains, they look very different if you are just running around in them or you‘re carrying 150 pounds. It is completely different and they knew it; they knew they were going to have to walk around with those kinds of loads while fighting. And they understood how hard it was going to be.
BOB HERBERT: Right. Now you and the photographer, Tim Hetherington, you guys are right with them when you are over there. And you had an experience yourself. The vehicle you were traveling was hit with a roadside bomb, an IED. I can tell you it was traumatic in the film, and I wasn‘t there. So tell us about that.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: We had a lot of experiences that were deeply frightening. The thing about combat is that it is so random. I mean, one of the best soldiers out there, Sergeant Larry Rugel(?), was killed, and there were guys like Vaughn who showed up, age 18, who had no idea what he was doing, and he got out of it okay. They all knew that. As a journalist, if you are out there enough, you start to realize, among other things, it is completely random.
I hate telling this story with my Mom here. I haven‘t done this before, but I will proceed. Plug your ears. It was a very quiet day at Restrepo, and nothing much was happening. I was leaning against some sandbags and some dirt flew into my face. What you have to understand is that bullets go much faster than the sound of a gunshot, so if someone shooting at you from a few hundred yards or a quarter mile, the way you know you are getting shot at first is that you hear this really bizarre and pretty subtle snapping sound. It is the bullet breaking the speed of sound by your head, and then the gunshots come afterwards. So when you get ambushed, the first thing that happens is that everyone kind of looks around with a frown on their face, like, ―Are we getting shot at?‖ That‘s the first thought, and then you hear the dah, dah, dah, dah, and it‘s clear. Well, what had happened was a bullet had hit next to me against the sandbag. It was the first round of the first burst of an hour-long fire fight, and it sprayed dirt in my face. I had no idea what it was. I was like, ―God! What was that?‖ That‘s random.
Once you realize how random it is, psychologically you don‘t know what to do. Do I sit here or here? It is kind of like an existential crisis; it calls everything into question. So the footage that you saw there of the bomb going off under the Humvee, that was me; that was some footage that I shot. And it was really pretty traumatic because—hard to explain but—none of us were hurt.
We were fine, physically, and for the next few hours I remember I was just on this weird high, like I could barely sit still. I was so excited; I was completely amped up.
That night I just crashed. I got incredibly depressed. I didn‘t get scared. I got sad. I got sad about the whole thing. It‘s very easy to sort of sit here in this country and say, ―Oh, war is such a sad thing.‖ It is very easy to say that. It is sad. But you kind of know -- at least I know -- that in an abstract, intellectual way, the experience of war is many things. It‘s scary. It‘s exciting. It‘s profound. It‘s disturbing. It is every human emotion. That‘s what war is.
But the sadness about it is a subtler thing. Immediately, when you‘re over there, that sadness immediately gets trampled by these more robust emotions, like fear and excitement. You don‘t get in touch with the sadness while you are there, except occasionally. I did that night. I just had this, again, this sort of existential sort of moment. I was like, ―My God! There are 150 young men, all of whom I care about tremendously, fighting a couple of hundred young men who are on the other side, who I would probably care about, at least some of them, if I got to know them. What are we doing? This is so sad.‖ It was just sort of heartbreaking.
The feeling went away immediately, as soon as we got attacked again. It disappeared. I was not interested in the sadness. I was interested in not getting hit by a bullet and going home. But for a while—and it gave me terrible, terrible dreams for a while -- that was my first real moment of a kind of moral … not a moral; it was kind of a spiritual crisis, almost, as a war reporter. It sort of started that night. It lasted a little while.
BOB HERBERT: Explain what Restrepo means, why the film is called Restrepo and the importance of Restrepo to these men.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Sebastian Restrepo -- his name was Sebastian -- was the platoon medic. He was born in Columbia, the country of Columbia, an immigrant to this country. I think that is worth noting today. With all of the conversations about immigration, we should remember that people who have immigrated here are dying for this country. Just throw that in there. Restrepo was the platoon medic, and they were on a routine patrol down to a village called Aliabad(?). He was hit in the jaw and throat, and he was bleeding out. And since he was the medic, there was no medic to treat him. So he was in the middle of this firefight -- they were ambushed pretty badly -- and he was telling the guys around him how to save his life. They couldn‘t do it, and he died. He was just beloved within the platoon. He was just a great guy, and everyone loved him and he died and it was just devastating.
I think the main trauma of war -- at least for the guys I was with -- wasn‘t almost getting killed; it was the loss of their friends. The grief of losing their friends transcended, I think, every other trauma combined out there. A month later, they decided to build an outpost on this ridge that the enemy was using to shoot down into the company headquarters. If you ever need to fight a war, one thing you need to know is that it‘s better to shoot from high ground into low ground than the other way around; that‘s the basic tactic in war. A lot of war consists of carrying really heavy stuff to the top of the hills and shooting down at your enemy. That is basically war.
The company commander decided to put an outpost on this ridge that the enemy was using to fire into the company headquarters. So at night, the second and third platoons walked up this ridge -- a two-hour walk from the main base -- with their pick axes and their shovels and their weapons and they started hacking away at the rock. There was no sand up there to fill sandbags, so they just hacked away at the rock with these pick axes and worked furiously all night, so they would have some protection in the morning because they knew they would get attacked. The first day the enemy came at them, attacked them 13 times. They were in 13 fire fights that day. They worked straight and fought straight for 24 hours.
BOB HERBERT: They are fighting and digging, building this outpost.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yeah. It was 100-plus degrees in body armor, just working like a chain gang up there. When they got attacked, that was actually a relief because they could lie down, drink some water, shoot back, sort of relatively relaxed compared to what they were doing. They built this outpost, and it worked; it blocked the enemy from attacking the main base.
To describe it briefly: it was sandbags. They called them rock bags because that is what they were filled with: rock bags, ammunition and MREs. That‘s all they had up there. There was no running water. They couldn‘t bathe for a month at a time. Because they couldn‘t bathe, they didn‘t change their clothes. Because they didn‘t change their clothes, they didn‘t get out of their clothes. They just wore their clothes until they fell off. They went on patrol. They came back. The clothes would dry. They would lie down, go to sleep, get up in the morning and do it again, a month at a time.
They would walk back to the company base, get a shower. There was no Internet, no phone at Restrepo. So once a month they could call their girlfriends or their wives. They get a shower. They would get a hot meal; there was no hot food up there. My first or second day at Restrepo we were attacked four times. It got absolutely hammered by the enemy. They were up there for a year.
BOB HERBERT: Wow! One of your goals was to bring home to civilians here in the United States the real life of soldiers in combat under these extraordinarily stressful conditions. You started doing a little bit of it in talking about the outpost, but if you could talk a little more about the daily lives of these soldiers, and then we will talk about what it was like in combat. What was it like living out there? For them it was for 14 or 15 months.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Okay. So as it got colder, they built these plywood hooches. They were so narrow, so cramped that everyone had a little bunk, and I had a bunk. From where I slept, I could reach out and touch three other men, no problem. That‘s how cramped they were. It got very, very cold in the Korengal, subzero at night, just unbelievably cold, so they had these little gasoline heaters which cooked the people who were next to them, and everyone else froze. And these hooches -- you can imagine how they smelled.
It was just the machinery of war. It was guns. It was hand grenades. It was Playboy Magazines pinned to the walls. It was dirty fatigues, belts of ammo. It was just like this crazy, deadly locker room. Everyone would go to sleep and you would wake up in the morning and, you know, the guys took guard duty, two-hour shifts. I didn‘t; they threatened to make me but I didn‘t have to.
Some days nothing happened. You just hung out. And other days -- probably every other day -- they would send out a patrol. I did every patrol that I could. The reason that they would send out patrols is if you just sit on a base, the enemy will attack and overrun you. Your safety in a situation like that depends on the enemy not quite ever knowing exactly where you are. So they would send out a patrol at midnight. We would go out and we would creep off, down the valley, take up a position somewhere, watch an enemy-held village. We would stay out there for three hours or six hours or 24 hours or one hour. They always varied it, and they always went to a different place. They were constantly sending out these patrols, and the Taliban would find out. Okay. Wow! The patrol is over there now. It‘s over there today. They didn‘t send one out today, or did they? The Taliban never quite knew what we were doing, and that was where our safety lay. And so you never knew. Someday you might just be sitting around, and the guys smoked a lot of cigarettes and nothing happened. And other days, you might leave at midnight on a 24-hour walking patrol and get back midnight the next night, just completely, utterly exhausted. You never knew.
BOB HERBERT: So now in these periods when they are not engaged in combat, extended periods of time, what were their attitudes like? I mean, did they have fun? Were they bored? Were they riddled with anxiety? What was that like for them?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: They were all of those things. All of the attacks came when you least expected it. That is almost the definition of an attack. The enemy doesn‘t attack when you expect them to attack. It‘s stupid. So there are no peaceful moments; at least somewhere in your mind you knew, ―Two seconds from now we could be in a massive firefight.‖ There was an outpost called Ranch House, Chosen Company. They got attacked, 20 man outpost, by 300 Taliban fighters. Just like that, at 4:00 in the morning – boom! The guys were fighting in their underwear. They were throwing hand grenades. They were coming out of their hooches in their underwear, throwing hand grenades because the enemy was inside the base. The Taliban had taken over half the base. They were inside the American bunkers, using American weapons to shoot into the other half of the base.
That could happen at any moment, and you knew it, and as one of these guys said to me, ―Some of the scariest stuff out there never happened. It was the stuff we were scared of. Your fears could drive you crazy. You didn‘t even need to have an attack to experience all the fear and anxiety of what could happen five minutes from now.
So that was the base layer psychologically, and above that there were incredible amounts of boredom. Three or four days could go by without a firefight, maybe a week even. The guys would just be sitting around praying for combat like farmers pray for rain in a drought, you know. Because you have to understand, there is nothing that young men like that is out there. There are no girls. There is no alcohol. There is no TV. There are no sports. There‘s absolutely nothing to do except fight. So if you take everything else away and the most intense thing you have ever experienced in your life -- including whatever happened with your girlfriend back in high school – is in combat and nothing else is happening, you‘re going to wish for combat. It‘s a very complicated thing.
And in their boredom, you all probably know, if you take men and you separate them from the women and children and you put them on a construction crew or you put them on a fishing boat or you put them in an outpost, they get very, very vulgar and they get very, very funny. And those guys were both things to a degree that I really can‘t even quite describe. [Laughter]
BOB HERBERT: Now, talk a little bit about your guys in the second platoon in combat.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, there are sort of two different kinds of combat. There‘s the sort of easy, fun kind where you‘re attached in a place where you have good cover, basically the outpost. So if you weren‘t actually getting overrun, like Ranch House, if it was just a standard attack on the outpost, there was great cover everywhere, and the guys got to shoot off a lot of ammunition at these barren hillsides where they knew the Taliban were hiding and shooting from. That they liked. And it‘s not very complicated.
What‘s much more complicated is when you are ambushed in the open, and the enemy is maneuvering on you. That kicks off a very complicated … it‘s almost like a football play. The 240 gunner lays down suppressive fire and the saw gunners lay down suppressive fire, while the squad maneuvers to get behind cover, to get in better position. That squad starts to lay down fire and then another squad moves. It‘s a very complicated choreography, and it‘s all being run by the lieutenant who is on the radio with the main base telling them where he thinks they are getting hit from so they can drop mortars on those positions.
Sometimes they drop white phosphorous, which would send up these incredible clouds of white smoke which would obscure the Taliban gunner‘s vision; you can‘t shoot through smoke. You don‘t know where you are shooting. That would allow the platoon to get to a better place. And that‘s terrifying, being shot at in the open where you don‘t have any cover. Even if it takes you three seconds to get to cover, those three seconds are absolutely horrible.
What it means is that every time you are walking around on patrol -- there are trees and boulders and stuff -- you would be walking in areas where maybe from here to there, there‘s a boulder here and there is a tree there and you‘ve got ten feet to cross. Every time you walk those ten feet on every single patrol you think, ―If we get hit right now, I‘m screwed.‖ Then you get to that tree, and you‘re fine. Again, it is sort of this existential crisis like, ―Oh, my God. I‘m wide open. Okay. Now I‘m not. Now I‘m wide open again.‖ Guys see patrols, they see walking basically as,
―Am I behind something or not behind something.‖ It can really drive you crazy.
BOB HERBERT: But they don‘t freak out. I mean, they‘re under fire. They are firing back. They are taking cover when they can. But they don‘t lose it.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: No.
BOB HERBERT: They don‘t become hysterical. They continue to function professionally and effectively. How is it that that comes to be?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: There are several reasons. I mean, they are very, very effective. They are incredibly self-possessed. There were guys who literally were watching bullets fly around them and were continuing to fire, continuing to function. There were guys who had bullet holes in their fatigues from rounds that didn‘t hit them but cut the fabric. So there are different reasons: one is that their safety comes from their ability to function. It‘s really simple. If someone is shooting at you, you cannot stick your head up and aim and shoot back effectively.
Basically, the person who puts out the most firepower, accurate firepower, starts to control the conversation between the two sides, the conversation in bullets between the two sides. The side that puts out more firepower controls that conversation and once you have control of the conversation, you can move and you can get behind cover. Then everything starts going your way. So they know that if they stop firing, suddenly the enemy controls the conversation. All this firepower is coming in and you can‘t even stick up your head to shoot back. They know that. Okay?
The other thing that is drilled into them is that, ―If I don‘t do my job … I‘m on the radio. My job is to communicate, help the lieutenant communicate with the base. If I don‘t do my job, we don‘t get mortars. We get pinned down, someone gets killed, my best friend gets killed. I can‘t live with that my whole life. I‘d rather be dead. So I‘d rather risk dying or I‘d rather die than live out my life knowing that my best friend died because I didn‘t do my job.‖ The thing they feared most was causing the death of a brother, as they called each other, brother.
So what‘s the choice? You‘re a 19-year old saw gunner and your team leader is telling you to lay down suppressive fire because your buddy is in the wide open getting hammered, and he needs to get behind cover. ―No. I‘m just going to stay behind this tree and not shoot back, because‖… That‘s not conceivable. They don‘t think of it as bravery. They just think of it as, ―Look. It‘s my friend. It‘s my brother.‖ This is what soldiers do
BOB HERBERT: And he would do the same thing.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: And that guy would do the same thing. I mean, Brendan -- the guy I got closest to out there, Brendan O‘Byrne -- he said to me at one point, ―You know, it‘s crazy. There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we would all die for each other.‖ And I thought about that sentence for a long time. I thought about the sort of related things, like why is it that men come back from war -- and in the Battle Company it was all men. There were no women in that unit; there were no women in combat units, I believe. Why is it that they can come back from war -- such a terrible thing -- and miss it?
What is it they miss? Do they really miss almost getting killed? Probably not. Do they miss killing? Probably not. What is it they miss? And I started to understand it.
They miss the brotherhood. Brotherhood is not available in civilian society. Friendship is. Friendship is a function of how you feel about a person. What you do for a friend depends on how you feel about that person. If you don‘t like someone, you are not going to die for them. You probably won‘t even lend them ten bucks, right? In combat, in this brotherhood, it has nothing to do with how you feel about the other person. It‘s a brotherhood, and it has nothing to do with feelings. It‘s a shared agreement, a reciprocal agreement. I‘ll risk my life, and I know you will risk your life for me. It has nothing to do with whether I pissed you off yesterday.
What you don‘t want in combat is to wonder if the guy you upset yesterday is actually going to cover for you in a fire fight. You don‘t want to have to wonder that. That‘s how brotherhood works. It removes those sorts of messy, interpersonal relationships from the agreement to all protect each other with your own life.
Just sort of a final note on that: I started to think, like for a 20-year old or a 19-year old guy, you are basically at the bottom of the food chain socially. Girls are all dating older guys. You can‘t get a job. You don‘t have a lot going on, and the things that you are valued for you have no control over them -- like if you‘re born good looking, that‘s great. That makes high school a pretty nice time. But you have no control over that. If your dad has a good job, if you are from a wealthy family – whatever -- at 19 you don‘t have control over those things. So the way society sees you, the way women see you, the way your peers see you depends on things you have no control over.
Now, you go into combat and you are completely self-defining. In a platoon, nobody cares if you are ugly or good looking or what your dad does for a living. They don‘t care about anything except whether you are a good soldier, don‘t fall asleep on guard duty and be prepared to risk your life to save my life. That‘s it. And courage is a choice. It is not something you are born with. It‘s a choice. So all these guys, no matter how neglected and disempowered or whatever in society, in combat they can be exactly the person they want to be. Not all of them rise to that but it is at least available to them, and they are part of that brotherhood.
Now, for a 19-year old? What a secure place to be emotionally and psychologically. Imagine. And then they come back and all of a sudden they are judged for these things that are now out of their control. They have friends but they don‘t know the depth of that friendship. Is it profound or is it shallow? All these things are suddenly variable, and it makes civilian life actually, in a weird way, more threatening, psychologically threatening, than the worst combat situation.
BOB HERBERT: This is a big deal. One of the fellows in your unit, Sal Giunta, is going to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor next week. That‘s incredible. And you wrote in detail about the engagement in which he displayed such bravery, and he is going to get this medal. So what can you tell us about that?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: When I was out there, the enemy started to figure out ambushes, how to do them, and they got better and better at them. So there is an operation called Operation
Rock Avalanche. They overran American positions up on this ridge. They killed Sergeant Larry Rugal, wounded two other guys, grabbed their gear, their weapons, their ammunition, one of their rucksacks. I mean they were literally on top of those guys, and they made off with them.
That‘s hard to do to American soldiers. They did it.
A few days later, on the last day of that operation, first platoon -- I was with second platoon. The first platoon, I didn‘t know those guys as well; I knew them but not as well. First platoon was up on this ridge providing what is called over watch. They had the high ground. Everyone else is going back out of their positions toward the base. When you are leaving an area, you are at your most vulnerable., so they always have someone left behind to watch everyone else.
Then, once everyone else is in position, those people watch the last unit to exfil.
Well, first platoon started to exfil -- infiltrate, exfiltrate. They started to exfil at night on the Gatigal Spur, and they were walking down on the top of this ridge. The enemy had set up an L- shaped ambush. If you want to ambush somebody and you put a bunch of your guys on one side of the trail and the rest of your guys on the other side of the trial, you will just kill each other.
Don‘t do it that way. An L-shaped ambush is just what it sounds like. You have two lines like that and you are not shooting at each other; you are just shooting at your enemy.
And the first platoon walked straight into an L-shaped ambush. They walked into 15 fighters with RPGs, light and heavy machine guns and from distances of 30, 40 feet -- very, very close. The entire first squad got hit immediately. The entire lead squad got hit within seconds. Sergeant Josh Brennan was in the lead. He was walking point, and what these guys did -- they did exactly what I was talking about before -- they laid down this sort of massive … I mean, imagine, they walked at night into an ambush and they managed to not all get killed. They laid down this massive fire power. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. Giunta started throwing hand grenades and running towards the front of the line, because he knew the guys in the lead would have been in trouble because they were taking the brunt of this. He got to the second guy in line and his friend, Josh Brennan, is missing. He keeps running and throwing hand grenades. He gets hit by bullets in his plate, his vest. He runs, and he finally sees his friend, Josh, being carried off by two enemy fighters at night, on a ridge at the southern end of the Korengal Valley, dragged off alive. He killed the guys who were carrying him, and he rushed up and Brennan had been hit eight times. He sat with him and started to treat him and protect him. They brought in a Med Evac. Tragically, Josh died on the Med Evac.
Within a couple of months, there was talk Sal Siunta might be up for a Medal of Honor. I talked to him about it when I was out there. He was very, very conflicted and ambivalent about that.
He was really very uncomfortable with the idea of getting a medal. He is like, ―Look. Josh is my friend. You are going to give me a medal for trying to save my friend? Don‘t call that bravery. That‘s friendship.‖
It almost felt insulting to him. He said, ―Everyone was brave. I was just the guy who got to Josh. But I wouldn‘t have gotten to Josh if everyone else hadn‘t been doing just as heroic things to help me out. Don‘t just give me a medal. Everyone is going to hate me. Give the whole platoon a medal, but don‘t just single me out. Come on. I didn‘t do anything. I did what everyone else did.‖ He was really conflicted about it. At any rate, the medal was approved, and it will be awarded to him next Tuesday in Washington. I‘m going down for that to be with him.
I, actually, in addition to Restrepo, I directed a short film, a 14-minute film on Giunta because we had a lot of footage of him and the combat and all of that, and it is on our web site. So if you want to watch it, it is pretty interesting -- restrepothemovie.com -- if you are interested in Sal.
He is an amazing young man.
BOB HERBERT: I think I said that Sal was from the second platoon. He was from first platoon.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Sal was from first platoon Battle Company. They are all from Battle Company first platoon, second platoon.
BOB HERBERT: Right. You know, one of the biggest things that I took away from the book was what I think of as the sort of maddening ambiguities of the mission. It‘s never clear what the guys -- or it was never clear to me -- what the guys were supposed to be doing there. Second platoon is a very small unit. They are not responsible for taking over a lot of territory. They had very little contact with the local population, so it‘s not their job to win over hearts and minds. Is it really that ambiguous and to what extent would the guys themselves know what their purpose is being there?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Okay. I‘ll explain it from the top down. The roles in the military are very narrow and closely defined. Second platoon‘s job was not to win hearts and minds or win the war in Afghanistan. Second platoon‘s job was to protect the main base. It‘s very, very literal. They are shooting at us from that ridge. We need to own that ridge. Second platoon, that‘s your job. Now, with the main base there, Captain Kearney was in charge of, quote, hearts and minds, so the weekly meetings with the locals, with the elders of each village happen on the main base.
If the main base kept getting attacked, those meetings would not happen. There would be no relation. The whole thing would fall apart. The men of second platoon did not have anguished sorts of debates about, ―What are we doing here?‖ They knew what they were doing. They were there to protect the base.
So why was that base there? Why was the Korengal outpost, the company headquarters in the Korengal? The Korengal did not matter. It was six miles long. It didn‘t matter. It didn‘t matter in and of itself. Right now, I‘m going to explain military logic. I‘m not giving you my point of view. I‘m not saying if it is right or wrong. I‘m just giving you the rationale in military terms for the decision to put men in the Korengal. That‘s it. The base was there because it was a very, very good place for the insurgents to use as a launching point for attacks further north. There was the perfect valley for these insurgents to use. The Korengal didn‘t matter except as a base for the insurgents, and the insurgents were attacking, out of the Korengal, the Pech River Valley and the Pech, actually, did matter.
There was a lot of commerce, a lot of agriculture. It was a major transit route into Nuristan. The Americans were paving a road. With a road comes security, government access, rule of law.
The first thing they do is pave the road. Then you can get all these other aspects of society into these remote areas. Again, this is military theory -- then the locals, they have access to trade goods. They can sell their crops outside of their little, local region more easily, so they have an investment in the economy, in good government. The whole thing, ideally, snowballs.
So the Pech was just a shooting gallery while the insurgents, while the Taliban had the Korengal. As soon as they put bases in the Korengal, attacks on the Pech almost completely stopped. I can keep regressing if you want, right to, ―Should we be in Afghanistan?‖ Just sort of in a local sense, that was the logic of Restrepo, Korengal, Pech.
BOB HERBERT: So I‘m going to regress … [Laughter] Not infinitely … too scary for me. I‘m going to regress one step because you mentioned Captain Kearney. This is Kearney speaking to a group of elders from a nearby village. This is a quote. ―You know, five or ten years from now the Korengal Valley will have a road going through it that is paved, and we can make more money, make you guys richer, make you guys more powerful. What I need, though, is I need you to join with the government, provide us with that security, or help us provide you guys with that security, and I‘ll flood this whole place with money and with projects and with healthcare and with everything.‖ In the film, you see that the elders actually are more concerned with some locals who have been killed by the GIs. But if Kearney is actually out there talking about a road over the next five or ten years, what are we to make of this?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I don't know why he said five or ten years. They were currently working on the road when we were there. They weren‘t able to finish it.
BOB HERBERT: Even if they weren‘t talking about the road, the road wouldn‘t take five or ten years to build. But even if you eliminate the road part, it would be another five or ten years before the government -- the Afghan and US governments -- are going to be able to bring these benefits to the folks. When you hear him saying this, you don‘t get the impression that any of this is ever going to occur.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, you know, it did occur in the Pech. The Pech River, they put a road through. There is a trade school in Asadabad. They were training young Afghans to work. It is a very poor area. It didn‘t happen in the Korengal, because the Korengal was sort of tactically too problematic. There probably weren‘t enough soldiers there; 150 men in that valley, it wasn‘t enough. Kearney was sort of giving boiler plate inducements to get with the program.
In some areas of Afghanistan, it actually was happening. In Kabul in ‘96 and it was just bombed to rubble, now there are high rises. There are cell phones. It is sort of a modern-looking city. It is completely unrecognizable. The quaint old Kabul is gone. If you asked the Afghans who lived there, they are psyched. Finally, they are getting back to where Kabul was in the ‗70s before the Soviets invaded. You are right about the Korengal, but there are areas where everything Kearney was promising actually did happen.
BOB HERBERT: Okay. We are going to have to wrap it up and go to questions in a couple of minutes. Maybe I‘ll wrap it up with this. The film ends with these words printed on the screen:
―In late 2009 the US military began withdrawing from the Korengal Valley. And, in fact, by 2010 the withdrawal was completed.‖ Does that mean that the efforts of second platoon in the Valley and others who were in that Valley, does that mean that those efforts were pointless?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: In some ways yes and in some ways no. If it was important to bring development to the Pech and to the rest of Kunar, they dismantled those bases once that process was over. They felt they needed to basically block the Taliban in that Valley so that they could get those projects done. Also, commanders in every war, I‘m sure, feel they don‘t have enough men and don‘t have enough resources. They are constantly making choices about, ―Okay. Is this area in the battlefield just not as important as it was five years ago? Is this other area that we‘ve neglected, do we actually need to use our scarce resources over there now?‖
There was a general sort of revamping of the strategy a couple of years ago. It‘s called population-centric counterinsurgency, and they were realizing that these remote outposts were costing more than they were benefiting the effort. And what they needed to do was put the soldiers around population centers and bring security to a greater proportion of Afghans. These remote outposts were protecting tiny villages. There are parts of the population that will really never be engaged in government anyway.
So in that sense it was just a strategic decision by commanders on a way lesser scale than … Even if you called it a mistake, and maybe it was, even as a mistake, that‘s what happens in war. People die because of mistakes. That is exactly what war is. We lost 30,000 soldiers at Dunkirk, complete, massive blunder. So it‘s what war is. I‘m not saying we shouldn‘t have been in the Korengal. As painful as it was to pull out of the Korengal, the guys in the second platoon were just incredibly upset when they pulled out. They were beside themselves, but they also understood that‘s what it is. That is why it is all so incredibly tragic.
BOB HERBERT: Thank you so much. We are now going to turn it over to you guys to ask what you will. And if you haven‘t read the book, War, read it. If you haven‘t seen the film Restrepo, make sure that you do. Sebastian, thank you so much. [Applause]
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. I want to thank you for writing the book. I know a few young men that have been over there and they don‘t talk about what happened in the detail that you were able to. So I appreciate that. I‘m wondering what you were thinking before you went and how you justified that to your family. It had to be a little crazy to go over there and sign up for that.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: When I first went I didn‘t realize how much combat there would be. I had the same thoughts that the second platoon was having like, ―Wow! I bet we are just going to sit around for a year.‖ I committed to this project, so a decent writer can turn a story about a platoon sitting around for a year into a good book. So just do it. And then I got there and it sort of all went crazy.
I wouldn‘t say I exactly justified what I was doing. But with my wife, what I tried to do was say (a) that I wasn‘t going to do anything on this scale again in combat, which I think will be true. And (b) I just never told her how bad it was. She sort of found out at the end. I also explained that in situations like that you can be stupid and foolhardy or you can be cautious and safe. I get scared very easily. I pay attention to when I am scared. I‘m actually very cautious. I try to think in a very calculated way about what risks are worth it and what risks aren‘t.
I just had the feeling that my country is in two decade-long wars, and that there was real, social good in spending a lot of time with one unit and trying to explain to people in this country what it‘s like for those guys. Not politically, not strategically—all those arguments and discussions that happen, that need to happen, they‘re great. But I wanted people to know what it feels like to be a 20-year old man in combat for a year, how it affects him, why he misses it when he comes home, what he‘s scared of. I wanted to explain those things so that when these guys come home, we have some sort of basis of understanding of what they went through so we can get them back successfully. I felt there was a real good in that and that‘s worth a certain amount of risk.
QUESTION: Thank you. My son is currently in Iraq and I appreciate your viewpoint.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Good luck to him, ma‘am.
QUESTION: I was in Vietnam in ‘67 and some of my good friends were with the 173rd in Vietnam. My question is is there a difference in that soldier today in Afghanistan versus Vietnam. Listening to you, it sounded identical. They are known to be very aggressive. Most of their missions were removed from central authority so they were kind of freewheeling. Is that soldier today different? And also, the role that sometimes you hear the soldier today has to be a statesman as well. Especially for the vigorous fighting unit like the 173rd that can be very difficult. Your comments on that.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: In terms of the statesman role, that would really fall to the officers, Captain Kearney, Captain. Dan Kearney, the lieutenants even. The enlisted guys, they are really security for the diplomatic efforts that are happening on the grounds, conducted by Kearney and the platoon leaders. They didn‘t have privates and specialists conducting diplomacy. These guys were security, and they knew it and that‘s what they were good at.
I‘ve got to say that the officers that I knew were just unbelievably smart, motivated, thoughtful guys. I was just amazed by them -- huge cultural gap to cross and all that, but you couldn‘t ask for better men in those roles. I was very, very impressed by them. Are they the same guys, the soldiers? Yes. Combat, the essentials, the emotional reality of combat has always been the same, you know? It‘s never really changed. I think men adapt to it in the same way. I think if you had been up there with me you would be having flashbacks to your experience in the sense of, ―Wow! That guy‘s just like my buddy.‖ I think you would be remembering people in your youth from your service. You would see them all around you from that platoon.
QUESTION: I thank you for your insight. It‘s important for all of us to hear.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have a question about the poppies in Afghanistan and the consequences of this war. I understand that when the Russians left Afghanistan there was about 12 to 15% of the Army ended up addicted to heroin. Ten or 15 years later they are having all kinds of medical crises related to TB and HIV and hepatitis C related to this. You talked about these young men. They are 20 years old. Some of them are coming from disadvantaged situations. They are now in this war where they have a lot of control. They are going to come back. There are a lot of emotional issues. Does the opium and poppy and heroin issues in Afghanistan and the prevalence of it there and the fact that it supplies 90% of the world‘s population with heroin concern you with these troops?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: The poppy crop in Afghanistan plays a very destructive role in the war and in that society and, you could argue, in the world. I think very little of it gets to the soldiers. Nobody out at Restrepo was on anything. Once in a while some parents would send some vodka in a bottle of mouthwash. That was about it. There was probably a little bit of pot smoking.
A friend of mine, a wonderful author, Karl Malantes, he wrote a novel called Matterhorn, an amazing novel about Vietnam, incredible -- an outpost very similar to Restrepo except they were in about a thousand times more combat.
He was a young lieutenant in command of a platoon at a remote outpost, and he said one night he hear a kind of thumping, beating sound, going on elsewhere in the outpost. The next day he asked the platoon sergeant, ―What was that? What was going on?‖ And he said, ―Oh. Some of the boys caught one of them smoking pot, so they beat him up so he wouldn‘t do it again.‖ At those outposts, it‘s too dangerous not to have your act together. That‘s the thing. If you don‘t tie your shoelaces you get yelled at, not by the lieutenant but by your buddy. ―Listen man, if we don‘t get this right now, you trip over those things, I‘m dead. Like tie that shit. Don‘t let me down here.‖
So if they could get upset about shoelaces, imagine being stoned? Everyone‘s life is at risk in virtually everything that everyone does. Even as a reporter out there, I really had the feeling,
―Okay. We are going on a long patrol, a 24-hour patrol. I need to drink a lot of water because if I dehydrate, I‘m twice the age of these guys. I‘m in good shape but if I dehydrate and I start to have leg cramps and I slow the platoon down and we get hit, it‘s on me.‖ So everything you did you realized could have consequences, not just for you. That really doesn‘t matter as much as for everyone else. So getting stoned out there? It was not going to happen. On the big bases I can easily imagine it, but I didn‘t spend any time on those bases. I think there is probably more pot and alcohol than heroin, though.
QUESTION: Thank you. That‘s reassuring.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for your insight so far. I‘m a high school history teacher in Dorchester, and I teach 20th century and US history. We spend a lot of time on wars in the 20th century. I‘m about to start a long unit on the soldiers‘ experience and the civilians‘ experience in war. I‘m wondering what you would recommend in terms of helping students understand the realities of war, especially from the soldier‘s point of view.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: You mean in terms of what to read or watch? [Laughter] I mean, Tim O‘Brien‘s The Things They Carried is amazing. I thought Dispatches -- it‘s about a journalist really but it‘s about soldiers -- by Michael Herr is amazing. There‘s a devastating novel about World War I called Johnny Got His Gun; I mean devastating. I would humbly recommend my book, too. [Laughter]
I mean the point of my book is to explain to civilians what it feels like. That is what I was trying to do. I toyed with the idea of not even using the word Afghanistan in my book. I didn‘t want anyone to think that this was about Afghanistan and the policy issues and the strategic problems. I thought about not even using that word. I wanted it to be about the universal experience of combat. That‘s what it was for. And so your students may find some insights in there, too.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hello. I want to thank you for writing the book. I just finished reading it his week, and I have to give you a lot of credit because you got my wife to actually read a military book.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: We have a son who just recently joined the Army. He is only 21, infantry man and will supposedly be going over to Afghanistan in the spring time. And you have a chapter in your book where you write about devotion to the squad and how that really binds those guys together. I want to relate this to something that happened in the news. We read about a sergeant recently, as I‘m sure you probably read, who was targeting civilians in Afghanistan, forcing his squad to do it. And my question to you is with that devotion to that squad, how do we expect some 18 or 19-year old soldier who knows that‘s wrong -- if a sergeant goes off kilter -- to report something like that? Because he is probably going to be putting his own life in danger and that devotion to squad is so strong, especially when they are at an outpost, something like Restrepo. What would happen? I mean is somebody supposed to make that right?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It‘s a great question. You could argue that is the downside of devotion of brotherhood. It can lead you down very bad paths. It really depends on leaders acting well.
As soon as leaders act badly, that same brotherhood and devotion turns into … I mean, look at the German Army in World War II. It turns into this sort of monstrous endeavor. I‘m sure the German soldiers had exactly the same bond with each other that I saw at Restrepo. It was just towards this ghastly end. It really does depend on the leaders.
Fortunately, very few squad leaders are sociopaths. That guy is a sociopath, you know. Fortunately, very few of them are and that guy would probably be killing people in society here. It is just easier over there. He put his men in a terrible position, terrible, terrible position. And there was no way for them to win. Either they betray the trust of that unit or they become murderers themselves. It is just ghastly. I don't know what the answer is, probably better psychological screening.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes.
QUESTION: How are you doing?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Hi, there.
QUESTION: I‘m reading your book and I think it‘s great.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I‘m a student and what I was wondering is, I have to write a paper [Laughter] on whether we should be in Afghanistan right now or not.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Oh, that‘s an easy one.
QUESTION: Since you are a man of experience, I would just like your opinion on that. SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Oh, God! [Laughter] You want an A or an F? [Laughter] QUESTION: I‘d like an A.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: That‘s such a complicated thing. Okay. I‘ll try and be clear and be brief.
BOB HERBERT: And on the record.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: On the record. I‘m not stating my opinion. I just want to clarify the terms. I‘m a journalist. I don‘t tell people how to think. I don‘t tell people they should think like me. But I am in a good position to make things clearer, so that you all can make maybe better decisions, right? I can see two very, very good reasons for pulling out of Afghanistan.
One is that it is not making us safer. That would be the argument. And the other reason is that civilians are getting killed. So if you ask, ―Should we be in Afghanistan?‖ presumably you are tackling one of those two questions in your minds. I‘ll divide them up and I will try to answer them briefly.
I‘ve been going to Afghanistan since the ‗90s. The toll in human suffering and civilian death in the ‗90s was astronomical. According to Human Rights Watch, something like 400,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the ‗90s. Okay? That era effectively ended in 2001, when US entered
Afghanistan after 9/11. NATO followed soon thereafter. In the nine years since NATO has been there, the highest estimates of civilian casualties that I‘ve read are 30,000. So you go from 400,000 in one decade to 30,000 in the next one. If your reason for leaving Afghanistan is based on the welfare of the Afghans, those numbers become problematic. If I thought that civilians would stop dying at all when NATO pulled out, I would say that‘s a pretty convincing argument to pull out. Unfortunately, I‘m not convinced that that‘s the case. Tragically, I think it is going to go back to the ‗90s. I wish that weren‘t so and we had a simple solution and we could leave; it‘s more complicated than that.
The other issue is security. I don't know. No one knows if our presence in Afghanistan has prevented another 9/11. There is no way to know that. The alternative to being there, I suppose, just logically is we leave, and if we have 9/11 every ten years that may be a lower cost than being over there. I don't know. That‘s for the nation to decide. There‘s no way to know that, but that is the logical alternative. The people who say that that is a lower cost, they may well be right. Economically, in terms of blood, they may be right. As a journalist, I‘m not in a position to make that call, but I think those are the issues that we‘re trying to decide. I just don‘t know what the answers are.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
BOB HERBERT: May I interject just a quick question.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes.
BOB HERBERT: Just a very brief answer. What are your feelings about the multiple tours the GIs are serving? I just saw a story about a guy who was killed on his ninth tour. And there was a story a few weeks ago about a fellow on his 12th tour. It is a volunteer Army. Do you have any thoughts about that?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I mean we‘re overstretched. Not all tours are 50 months, by the way. Some are three months. Some are six months. Some are a year. People are not doing nine or ten tours frequently, but it is common to do three or four or five. I think that‘s happening because we went to Iraq. If you want the short version, if we had focused the amount of attention and money and resources on Afghanistan that got poured into Iraq, I think Afghanistan would be Bosnia now. In other words, it would be a sort of a troubled country that is gradually gluing itself back together after 20 years of trauma.
That didn‘t happen. We went to Iraq. I understand that you can articulate good things that came out of that war. I understand that. I don‘t want to get into that debate. Personally, I was against it. I do understand that there are two sides of the debate. But just sticking to Afghanistan, the tragedy is that we may or may not have lost the Iraq War but Iraq may have cost us the Afghan War. And now guys are doing multiple tours. Everyone in the second platoon, except Brendan O‘Byrne, chose to stay in the Army despite the multiple tours. They are soldiers and they understand that is what they are going to have to do.
Those guys, second platoon, they just finished their next deployment after the one I was on with them. They are just finishing it up now. I don't know what to do about it. We are stretched too thin. The alternative is a draft. That has other, enormous, complicated downsides. The soldiers do not want a draft, not the ones I know. They are like, ―Listen, we don‘t want someone pulling guard duty who doesn‘t want to be here. Forget it. Don‘t do that.‖ It is not going to work any better than having a draft for the police department or the fire department. You don‘t want that. So I really don‘t know what the answer is.
BOB HERBERT: Right.
QUESTION: So I was a platoon leader in Iraq and watching Restrepo, I think, we don‘t see a lot of film time with the platooners. And so I just sort of assumed that they didn‘t play maybe as active a role. But listening to you talk today, it sounds like they went on every patrol. So what made you decide when you were editing to leave out -- not that I‘m criticizing your editing, but I feel slighted. [Laughter]
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Basically, we were trying to make a movie that gave our viewers the maximum amount of emotional access to that reality, to those soldiers. There were soldiers who were great guys who we were good friends with but they just weren‘t comfortable in front of the camera, particularly. They were a little guarded. They were a little shy often. The platoon leader was Steve Gillespie. We were good friends with Steve. But you turn the camera on him and he just got a little official and a little bit careful, you know.
And so when we did our interviews in Italy after the deployment, we followed those guys to Vicenza. Three months later we did studio interviews with our principal characters, and those principal characters were basically the people that we thought could communicate emotionally in the most effective way with the viewers. Steve, as great a lieutenant and guy as he was, was not that.
So once you drop out of the group we had for the Italian interviews, suddenly the footage with the people that aren‘t in those interviews become less, you can do less with it. It is less interesting. It is a 90-minute film based on a 15-month deployment and you just make these terrible, terrible choices, I mean agonizing choices. One of them was to not have Steve in there because he was just such a great guy, but it just didn‘t quite work.
QUESTION: I thank you, also, for your book. How far out were air assets for you guys up at the Valley at Restrepo and what was available?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Air assets were … you sound like a vet.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: You are not. Okay.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Air assets were 30, 40 minutes away. So if we got attacked, they could get mortars going and artillery rounds coming from Camp Blessing within minutes. But air assets -- the Apaches, the A-10s -- took about half an hour. It basically was a fair fight for half an hour. The enemy knew that, of course. They would often attack half an hour before dusk, so they would have half an hour without Apaches. Then it would be dusk. It was this weird half-light where it is too bright for night vision goggles and too dark to not use night vision goggles. And it really messed up the Apache pilots. The enemy figured that out. Half an hour before dusk is often when they would attack. They were smart guys. We‘re fighting very, very smart people over there.
QUESTION: I haven‘t read your book, but I will now.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I‘m Charlene, and I was an Army nurse during the Vietnam era. I‘m not a therapist and I work as a volunteer with soldiers in any era that they come back in. Perhaps Mr. Herbert would have some comments, also. I came up here with one question. And then, as I listen to you, I have more. In looking at the Vietnam vets and comparing them as I hear you talk, there were not brotherhoods with the guys that were in Vietnam. They moved them in and out so quickly that they didn‘t have a time to coalesce as brothers. So I don‘t think that there might have been the same kinds of feelings that you describe, but I‘m open to some information on that.
I think we learned that to train soldiers as a group and to send them as a group may have come out of that. The other thing I think we may have learned is about welcoming people back.
Vietnam was not a popular war. People were ignored. Soldiers coming back were not treated very well. But now we welcome them, and that has also been a very healing thing for the
Vietnam vets. A couple of years ago on this day I was down at the Wall because I was living in D.C., and there has been a change. It is like a second order change. The Vietnam Veterans are now thanked. They feel better about their service. They are beginning to heal.
So I want to go back to your comment then about wanting to know what it was like for a 20-year old to be in combat. Because in volunteering to work with our soldiers, I would like to know what I can do, what I can share with my colleagues about what it is going to take, because at this point we are looking at all of the concussions and the brain damage and the after effects of that and the PTSD. Kids who are 19 and 20 have not yet formulated their ethical sense, their morals, and we know that that is a part of what went on in Nam for them to come back.
BOB HERBERT: I‘m sorry. We‘ve got to get to the end of your question.
QUESTION: That can be my statement and you can give me feedback on that. What can I do for the 20-year olds?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: There are the physical ramifications of combat like TBI. I don't know anything about that. The psychological ramifications, they depend on what happens to the guy. The Korengal fighting was up in the hills. It was not in villages. It certainly was not in cities.
The American soldiers I was with never saw dead enemy fighters and never saw a dead civilian—once. Once when a bomb dropped, it wasn‘t their bomb; it wasn‘t their decision.
So they didn‘t have the awful moral crises at these checkpoint situations in Iraq where you think you are getting attacked with a car bomb and you stop it with machine gun fire and it‘s a family. That‘s devastating. That didn‘t happen to the guys where I was. Again, as I said before, removing the inadvertent killing of innocents from the equation, probably the most devastating effect of combat is losing your friends.
Think about it this way. This is mostly an older crowd, so imagine your son‘s in high school and he‘s walking down the street with his best, best friend and a car swerves and kills the friend in front of your son. The guy bleeds out, bleeds to death in your son‘s arms by the side of the road. That‘s his high school experience. That happens to him his senior year in high school. Imagine how long it would take your son to get over that experience of seeing his best friend killed in front of him. He wouldn‘t get over it. That‘s combat. And not only does that happen, it happens over and over. And even worse, not even worse, in addition that imaginary high school boy has no reason to think that tomorrow he could be dead. It‘s a freak accident. The soldiers, not only are they losing their best friends, they are watching it happen. They are feeling guilty that they can‘t prevent it, ―I couldn‘t stop him from bleeding. He bled out and I got the tourniquet wrong,‖ that kind of thing. Not only are they blaming themselves but they are also thinking, ―Shit! That could have been me. That is going to be me tomorrow.‖ That‘s the trauma of combat. So just picture your son in high school and having that happen. That‘s a soldier coming home. That‘s what has to be dealt with. And on top of it, a lot them miss it. So untangle that one. Sometimes it takes them a lifetime, too, I think.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
BOB HERBERT: One of the things we can do as civilians is pay much more attention to what‘s going on in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and War, the book, helps us. And Restrepo, the film, helps us. So we are aware of what these young troops are going through, and when we vote or when we talk to friends or neighbors or representatives or whatever, we speak from a position of awareness and care what is going on. That would be a big help. It upsets me to see the degree to which people are tuned out to the wars overseas. Yes.
QUESTION: The trauma that you absorb and you observe and the information that you gathered during this period and your own exhaustion from these 24-hour patrols and your own feelings of fear, can you talk about the process of writing, what you took for supplies, how you got the extra reserves to write and remember all these details to write such a book.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: That‘s a good question. I‘m a journalist. I write down everything of relevance that I see, hear, experience or think on assignment. I would just keep filling up notebooks. Thank God I‘m not just relying on my memory. I kept my notebook. I would write notes as things happened. I would also, at the end of the day, I would sit on the ammo hooch, which looked north over the Korengal over the Pech, a very beautiful spot, and I would sort of keep basically a very deep journal that included my thoughts, my own emotional reactions to things, my questions, things that bothered me; they killed a guy at one point, a fighter, they killed a fighter and they sort of cheered. I understood the need to kill the guy. He was shooting at us.
The cheer troubled me. I wrote many pages about it and eventually interviewed Steiner, ―What was that about man? That didn‘t look so good.‖ And Steiner explained it to me. So that‘s the journalistic process. In addition, I was shooting a lot of video. Tim and I each had a video camera. Sometimes we were there alone, sometimes together. We shot video continually.
I didn‘t write my book out there. I chronicled the experience out there and I came home and wrote it very, very quickly, in about six months, summer before last. It was a very emotional, extremely emotional process for me. For the first time in my life, it was an extremely emotional process.
QUESTION: Thank you for your book and your film.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I‘m a veteran with 28 years in the Navy, retired three years ago. I am also a gay man and I come up here somewhat reluctantly and nervously. I know you are not a politician and you didn‘t write the book and produce the movie because you wanted to influence policy. But having lived your experience, do you think there is a valid concern about openly gay men serving next to soldiers and Marines in combat? Is that a real issue or needn‘t it be.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: A great question. Well, okay, how could I put it? Out at Restrepo, everyone kind of became the same. I don‘t mean in terms of their personalities but in terms of their behavior. The situation was so extreme and so hard and everyone depended on each other so much, that they all became a certain kind of soldier person. I think if you had had a woman out there she would have become that. You could have a Harvard educated soldier – whatever -- he would have become that. You could have a farm kid from Georgia, he would have become that. I became that, except I didn‘t have a gun. I think if you had a gay man out there, he would have become that.
So the term ―openly gay‖ I think would cease to be relevant out there. Those social markers that are so important in this society, those social identities that are so important in this society, Harvard grad, woman, gay man, whatever it is, they just get obliterated out there out of necessity. Everyone is necessary out there. And I asked those guys, I put the question to them, because they are always joking around about being gay. They were always accusing each other of being gay. It is just a sort of male humor, straight male humor. That was part of the humor out there. The joke was, ―How long would we have to be out here until we actually started doing it with each other?‖ [Laughter] That was kind of the thought process, right? They didn‘t see any women for a year. Some of the guys were better looking than others and some of those guys were like, ―This deployment better end quick because you‘re starting to look pretty good.‖ [Laughter] It was all just brotherly love, really. It was humor.
But I asked them at one point, ―Listen, man, seriously, if there was a gay guy out here, would it be an issue or not?‖ And the answer was really interesting. The answer was, ―Out here, no. We all need each other. We have a lot weirder things going on out here than someone being gay.
That is just like the beginning of the spectrum of behavior out here. We would have no problem with it.‖ On the big bases, they would. At Restrepo, you don‘t really have the pleasure of your prejudices. You can‘t indulge your prejudices. You don‘t have the luxury. I didn‘t mean to say pleasure, I meant to say luxury of your prejudices.
On the big bases he said it would be more of an issue, it would absolutely be an issue. And in training, yeah, absolutely, back in Italy or boot camp, absolutely. To be openly gay in those situations would be problematic. It‘s ironic, though; the military‘s rationale for don‘t ask, don‘t tell is that in situations where the group bond is so important, you don‘t want it threatened by that. The irony is that those situations are only and precisely where it would not matter. And it is in the rear bases in Italy where it is not life or death. And so these other things become, unfortunately, problematic.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I appreciate your response.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you. [Applause]
BOB HERBERT: We are going to wrap it up, and there‘s one woman behind you, so we‘ve got time for two, very quick questions.
QUESTION: Well, I‘ll just leave some food for thought. There is a page in The Globe last Sunday about Sorensen and Kennedy‘s speech writing. And I will just mention that Kennedy wrote about not being omniscient and omnipotent as a country that, paraphrasing, there is about six percent of US and 94% the rest of the world …
BOB HERBERT: Very fast.
QUESTION: Okay. We can‘t solve everything. And you don‘t even have to comment. I just want people to look that quote up. I hope your book will be the start of a talk, debate, that people will pay attention to what‘s going on.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I just have an experience in Vietnam. I was there in ‘71, ‘72 when the troops were being pulled out and the officers were being killed by the enlisted men, the fraggings that were going on. After I got out of Vietnam -- I have to thank everybody who protested against the Vietnam War. You saved my life because I only had a five-month tour there, seven-month tour. So thank you very much. I was just thinking, the soldiers who die lose the war. There is no winning or losing. It‘s the soldier who dies. And I cannot believe this country is not protesting this war. We plan on pulling out 2011. And I was lucky enough to go over to the Soviet Union. I spoke to the Soviet soldiers who spoke in the Afghanistan War. They were telling me exactly the stories you were saying. And I said to myself when the US went into Afghanistan, ―We will be in and we will be out. We will learn from the Soviet situation.‖ Well, we haven‘t learned from the French, from Vietnam, from the Soviets in Afghanistan. I have just one more statement to say.
Smedley Butler said, ―The war is a racket. The few profit and the many pay.‖ We are all paying for it no matter how you look at it. So I would like to have this as my last one.
Oh, my question is [Laughter] …
BOB HERBERT: Very quick.
QUESTION: Very quick, my question is how do you look at the pullout of Afghanistan, which the US plans on starting next year?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: If we pull out, it will be way worse than it is now for the Afghan people. So I don‘t have an answer. Those are my worries. One or the other isn‘t true. I can‘t see the future. I think there is a good and a bad way to proceed if we stay. That‘s a different conversation. But I don't know what decisions will be made, obviously.
BOB HERBERT: Thank you so much everyone for coming tonight. I really appreciate it.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
BOB HERBERT: Sebastian, thank you very much. Thank you.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: That was wonderful.
BOB HERBERT: It was really good. [Applause]