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Sebastian Junger at Sanders Theater

October 26, 2011

The Cambridge Reads book of the year was Sebastian Junger’s War, and tonight he appeared in Memorial Auditorium at the Sanders Theater at Harvard to talk about it and take questions. Junger also grew up in the area (and his Mom was at the event tonight – he asked her to cover her ears at one point before he described being half a second away from being hit square by an IED). I thought some people might be interested in a lot of what he said, but I didn’t want to spam the Twitter streams of those who are not interested, so I’m sharing my notes here. To those of you who have read War, some – although not all – of this might be familiar. Please note that for the most part these are not direct quotes, but close approximations, as I was taking notes in a little Moleskine and not recording the whole talk. Where I’m sure of a direct quote, it is in quotes.

On Afghanistan

If we had dedicated the kind of energy that we did to an unnecessary war (in Iraq) to Afghanistan, I don’t think there would even be a war there right now.

We’ve only really been at war there for 5 or 6 years. There was very little violence until 2005 or so. By 2007, I knew we’d be there for a long, long time. The contradiction is now, if we left, it would get much, much worse. It would go back to a state of civil war like it was in in the 90s.

On the Korengal Valley

It was so beautiful. It looked like Colorado, this deep valley and high mountains.

In the time that Battle Company was there, 20% of all combat in Afghanistan was happening in that one six-mile valley. The 150 men in the Korengal were absorbing 20% of all combat for 70,000 NATO forces.

In their first 24 hours at Restrepo, there were 13 firefights.

On War

A contradiction: every civil war I’ve ever covered has been ended by an act of war, that is to say by the use or threat of violence. I don’t know what to think about that.

Bullets travel faster than sound. If someone is shooting at you from 400 yards, you hear the bullets before you hear the gunshots.

Tired is a choice, in a sense. Falling behind because you’re tired is saying ‘I’d rather hurt a little less and put everyone in a little more danger.’ A lot of pain is mental, a lot of limitation.

“Wars are decided by politicians. Wars are decided by civilians, by us.”

On Soldiers

The male energy of conflict, if you change its DNA by just a few sequences, becomes brotherhood. They are that close.

I had always covered war from a civilian perspective. As a journalist, I covered the human cost of war, but soldiers pay that price, too. They might look scary with their armor and guns, but they don’t have emotional armor. Your kid in high school, they have exactly as much emotional armor as he does. If your kid’s friend is killed in a car accident, what he goes through, a soldier goes through the same thing when he loses a brother. Except where it probably seems less likely to your kid that he will die in a car accident the next week, it seems more likely to a soldier that he’ll be killed.

As soldiers would put it ‘I get that this is war and people get killed, but I don’t get why it’s the best guys that get killed.’ That’s what’s so evil about it to them, that on some fundamental level, it doesn’t make sense. They struggle with the meaninglessness of that. They struggle with retaining the sense that existence has meaning in the face of that.

It’s hard for a 20-year-old to understand how to reconcile their feelings when they miss combat. War is a terrible thing. When soldiers go home and they miss it, there’s a feeling for some of them like ‘If I miss something terrible, then I must be terrible.’

Brotherhood can’t be recreated if your life doesn’t depend on it. You might have friendships – if you really like someone, and you become good friends, you’ll do anything for them. Brotherhood has nothing to do with feelings. When you’re in a firefight, you can’t be wondering if the guy next to you is going to have your back. Two guys could hate each other, but brotherhood means they’ll still die for each other.

On women in combat

It’s not about shooting a machine gun – anyone can shoot a machine gun – it’s more just carrying a heavy load. You have to be able to keep up carrying 150 pounds. That’s hard for most men, and women have 30% less muscle mass. If you can’t pass that test, you’re not going in there anyway.

It’s a self-selecting group, people that are in forward combat positions. You have to really want it. Any woman that ended up in such a position would be just the same as a man.

When you’re in combat, whatever your background, you have to conform to certain norms, very masculine norms, norms that maximize the survival of the group. A woman in a combat unit would have to conform, too, so essentially I think a woman in a combat unit would basically become a man.

A woman in a combat unit with 30 guys would be under tremendous psychological strain. The isolation of that. And there’s no privacy.

There are women helicopter pilots and actually the men loved the female pilots. They were much more aggressive than the male pilots, more protective. If we were in trouble, they wouldn’t ask questions, they’d just shoot.

On Tim Hetherington

After Tim died, I got a letter from a Vietnam vet who said, ‘you guys came really close to getting what war is really like, but you missed. The thing about war is not that you might die, it’s knowing that you will lose your brothers. You couldn’t understand that then, but you’ve lost a brother now. Now you know the one thing that war is really about.’ Once you know the one thing that war is really about, a lot of people either are drawn to it more, or want to get as far away from it as possible. I’m one of the latter.

Currently working on a film about Hetherington for HBO.

Also, in closing, after describing Hetherington’s death, Junger talked about an organization he is working on starting (and warned ‘it’s almost ready, but don’t look for it on the internet or anything. You won’t find it. It doesn’t exist yet’) in honor of Hetherington called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (or RISC), which will provide training in combat medicine to freelance journalists. It will be offered each year in New York, London, and Beirut, and will provide for free the kind of training soldiers get in basic battlefield medical care. I believe he also said that journalists who take part will be given free room and board for the three days of the training. The first such course is planned for April 20, the anniversary of Hetherington’s death, in New York.

I really enjoyed the talk. Junger is a good speaker, with good pace, good presence, and a dry sense of humor. Most of the questions asked during the Q&A period were actually quite good, and led to some interesting moments. I want to close this post with my favorite thing Junger said. He was talking about the idea of brotherhood, and about some of the challenges in transitioning back to civilian life. In regular life, he said, you are judged by many things that are out of your control – where you went to school, what your parents did for a living, whether you’re gay or straight, how tall you are, etc.; in combat, what you are judged by is within your control – it’s whether you will put your own life at risk for your brothers.

Here’s what he said:

“The decision to be brave is something that is available to all of us.” There are only two things that I believe are fully in everyone’s own control. “Everyone has the capacity to be courageous, and everyone has the capacity to be compassionate.” If you don’t choose to be, it’s just on you.


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