Sebastian Junger's dispatches from the trenches

After Oscar nominated Restrepo, the war reporter pays tribute to a photojournalist extraordinaire

Arts+Culture Q+A
Sebastian Junger
Photography by Andrew Elliott

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check back on our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley was considered one of the most dangerous places on earth in 2008, when author and war reporter Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington spent months with a platoon of US soldiers to make the Oscar-nominated Restrepo (2010). On April 20, 2011, just two months after attending the Academy Awards, Hetherington was killed by mortar fire while reporting from Misrata, Libya, during that country’s civil war. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? (named after Hetherington’s last words on camera) is Junger’s intensely moving film tribute to his friend, a photographer with a rare ability to locate the humanity in the most harrowing conflicts. It’s also a viscerally powerful portrait of the lives of photojournalists in war zones – the risks they take to cover combat and the demons they battle in doing so. 

Dazed Digital: It must have been difficult to make a film about such a close friend.

Sebastian Junger: It was. I was devastated by his death. But ultimately, I had a dead buddy and I wanted to do a good job. Any journalist who writes about war is used to turning off feelings and getting the job done. Tim would have done exactly the same with me. I wanted to treat his death as honestly as he treated other people’s.

DD: When did you decide to make it? 

Sebastian Junger: I was organising Tim’s memorial in New York and spoke to three people who were in the attack, just to know personally what happened that day on Tripoli Street. And once I saw the footage shot by Tim’s own cameras, and Mike Brown’s, who was injured, I realised I had a very powerful film. 

DD: The footage Tim shot that day is unbelievably scary. What drives war reporters to do that job?

Sebastian Junger: I think in combat Tim saw a test of himself. He felt a responsibility to document the horrors of the world. It was exciting and intense. None of that made him unique – it was the way he did it with such sensitivity and artistic integrity that made him different. For example, he went to Yemen and did a series of mosques and gas stations and put them side by side. Gas stations in Yemen are these big, lit-up things, and it was a brilliant comment on religion and oil. Tim was also amazing at making people feel comfortable – it was extraordinary. He was truly interested in people.

Sebastian Junger
Photo courtesy of Tim Hetherington

DD: You were both interested in why soldiers miss combat coming home...

Sebastian Junger: My whole book War (2010) tries to answer that question. If you’re in a four-man gun team, your role is very clear; if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, other people will die. And frankly, it’s hard to then come home to the groceries and give a shit. In combat you’re never more than a few feet from someone else and that someone else would die for you. Back home, you’re alone in a crowd of people who not only wouldn’t die for you, they probably wouldn’t even give you a buck if you needed one. 

DD: It’s kind of taboo to admit there’s an appealing aspect to war.

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, it sounds so impolitic, but war is complex. It’s life-and-death, so of course you derive some good from it, if only an appreciation of life. A friend said that you can find all the elements of religion in combat. The mortality, loss of self, a devotion to a larger cause... But it makes people’s skin crawl, particularly liberals – politically I’m liberal, so I know them well – to talk about it.

DD: What drew you to war reporting?

Sebastian Junger: This is gonna sound antiquated, but I didn’t feel like a man. I’m from a smart (Boston) background, I went to a good school. I didn’t feel like I’d passed any kind of test. My father lived in Europe in the run-up to the second world war – war had affected my family so I was curious. I went to Bosnia partly as a short cut to a career by spending a year in a war zone instead of five at a local newspaper. 

Sebastian Junger
Photo courtesy of Tim Wetherton

DD: One soldier in Restrepo says he prefers not to sleep than deal with his nightmares. How do you deal with what you’ve seen?

Sebastian Junger: I’ve woken up on my feet thinking I was in combat. It’s how the mind deals with stress. I have a friend who had a lot of issues before the army, an alcohol problem, and his father shot him twice with a rifle during an argument. So it’s hard to sort out what comes from war and what doesn’t. 

DD: What role does humour play?

Sebastian Junger: Humour gets you through. They’d insult each other’s sisters and mothers and everything else. I made the mistake of revealing I had a phobia of spiders – and they’ve got tarantulas in Afghanistan. They planned to put one in my sleeping bag but worried they’d give the ‘old man’ a heart attack, so they made it out of pipe cleaners.

DD: Tim was thinking about quitting, but he went to Libya. Why?

Sebastian Junger: Being a war reporter, you have an identity that’s very appealing, a get-in-free card to society. It feels very meaningful, and you wonder, ‘If I give that up, who am I? I’m just another cog in the machine.’ Tim decided he was gonna give it a break and then kinda balked a little and went out to Libya. Then in Libya – and he said he wasn’t gonna do this – he went straight to the most active frontline he could find. And Tim wasn’t a cowboy. But basically, the surfer was out there with his surfboard and he couldn’t bear to stay on the beach. 

DD: Was it his death that led you to create RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues)?

Sebastian Junger: Tim bled out in the back of a pick-up truck and his wound wasn’t necessarily mortal, but nobody knew how to deal with an arterial bleed. It was a dangerous wound, but there are things you can do. He died of a loss of blood ten minutes from a hospital where they might have saved his life. I realised, if I’d been there, I couldn’t have saved his life. So I created Risc to give that training to freelance war reporters. 

DD: You also quit working in a conflict zones. Was that a snap decision?

Sebastian Junger: I’d started to move in that direction, but I didn’t really believe I’d stop. Then Tim died and I instantaneously realised, ‘I’m not doing this any more.’ Ever since I’ve felt increasingly good about that decision. But the experience never leaves you. Particularly after the Korengal it was painful, I spent a year or two crying all the time and I didn’t even know why. But it made me a full human being.

DD: Tim seems to have struggled with the moral complexities of capturing images of war. Have you?

Sebastian Junger: Bad things happen and society needs people who deal with bad things. We need trauma surgeons who treat people after car accidents – plenty of people make a dignified living from misfortune. If a photograph from a war zone informs and helps the world to act responsibly, it doesn’t bother me the guy’s making a living. I mean, Jesus, he’s risking his life, he should be making a living! I think what happens is the photographer themselves starts to have moral doubts. It’s an internal thing that every war reporter wrestles with. 

DD: Did the soldiers from Restrepo get in touch following Tim’s death?

Sebastian Junger: Everybody. At Tim’s memorial, four soldiers from 2nd Platoon, our buddies, presented the American flag folded like at military funerals to Tim’s family. It was very moving, I’m told. I didn’t see anything because I was crying so hard. 

DD: Had you planned to work together again?

Sebastian Junger: We were gonna walk along the railroad lines from Washington DC to Pittsburgh as a way of encountering America – the railway goes through slums, woods, suburbs, and it’s all illegal trespassing, so it’s sort of high-speed vagrancy. And then Tim got killed. So I’m doing it with two combats from Restrepo and Guillermo Cervera, who was with Tim when he died. It’s a 300-mile walk, talking about war, why war’s so hard to leave, why it’s so hard to come home. It’s called The Last Patrol.

DD: What’s a favourite memory of Tim? 

Sebastian Junger: Being in the Korengal with him was the best time of my life. He was so funny. And our complete shock and delight at winning Sundance – there was this moment where we realised we’d done it! We had our arms round each other for 20 minutes, we were just so thrilled. 

DD: Seeing you both on the red carpet seems so incongruous after the life-and-death experiences in Restrepo

Sebastian Junger: Here’s the thing. Experiences aren’t life-and-death, generally. But that doesn’t mean they’re less meaningful. That’s what I’ve come to realise.

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