Sebastian Junger's War is bound to inspire comparisons to Michael Herr's classic war memoir, Dispatches. Both authors were in war zones as magazine journalists, Herr for Esquire in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s and Junger for Vanity Fair in the rugged Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2008. Both men were delivering harrowing, first-person perspectives on the experience of war while trying to bring some understanding to conflicts raging far from American soil.
But the comparisons might inevitably illuminate more differences than similarities, as Junger is quick to point out in a conversation that takes place on a warm, sunny day at a table outside the Half King, the pub he owns in Manhattan.
“Michael Herr was covering a war that was profoundly unpopular, it was fought by draftees, the military command were alternately callous and incompetent, and there was cultural revolution going on at home,” he says, speaking in the well-shaped phrases that distinguish his writing style as well. “Fast forward to today—we have an incredibly professional army, all volunteer. Every guy in the Korengal Valley not only chose to go into the army but chose to do whatever he could to get into a combat unit. If you don't want to see combat today, you don't have to see combat today. If you want to just change the oil on Humvees, you can just change the oil on Humvees.”
Junger, 48, looks a bit drawn, his eyes the dusty blue of billiard chalk. His voice has a little rust in it, a Boston-area edge sharpened by a career of talking to working men and women in pursuit of his craft and principal interest: what it's like to live in danger. “I'm fascinated by courage,” he says, as a homeless man asks for a dollar, and gets one and a wish of “good luck” from the guy he surely doesn't imagine is the proprietor, or the author of the megaselling The Perfect Storm.
Going to War
Junger made five trips to the Korengal Valley between June 2007 and June 2008, embedded with Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne. He lived, slept, ate, hiked, fought, and commiserated with the 30-man company. He was in a Humvee that was blown up; he tore his Achilles tendon; he took fire; he shivered and broiled and endured excruciating periods of boredom with these men 25 years younger than he. And he took notes and recorded audio and video of everything from bizarre hazing rituals to frightening night patrols to assaults on exposed positions.
“I wrote this book between March and October last year,” he says, his voice sinking a little. “I wrote it very quickly. And Tim and I edited Restrepo at the same time”—the documentary made with Tim Hetherington, the videographer who accompanied him. (The title of the film comes from a fallen medic, Juan Restrepo, who was memorialized in the nickname the men gave to an encampment.) “It was so all-consuming. Every night in my dreams I was back in the Korengal. The emotional cost of writing the book and making the movie were enormous.”
Not that Junger has slowed down: he's already recorded the audio for the book, done loads of press for the film at Sundance, where it won a Grand Jury Prize; and he is now knee-deep in readying War, which Twelve will publish in hardcover on May 11, for an enhanced e-book coming in the fall. With Junger's lucid prose being illustrated with selections from the more than 150 hours of footage, it may set an early standard—a very high one—for what an enhanced e-book can be.
Junger admits to struggling with how to tell this difficult and complex story. “I'd never written anything that was substantially first person,” he says, sipping iced lemonade. “So this was a new experience and it took a while—first person is such a no-no in journalism—and at first it felt self-indulgent. Then I realized that I'm a stand-in for the reader. I'm average Joe Civilian dropped into a war zone. What's that feel like?”
War clocks in at 292 pages and is broken into three parts—“Fear,” “Killing,” and “Love.” When asked what led him to structure the book around these concepts, Junger shows how deeply his stories and storytelling are considered and felt.
“When I finished out my year over there, I began thinking out the narrative arc. The actual events on the ground did not unfold in a conventional line. This is reality, not Hollywood.”
It took Herr a decade to process his Vietnam experience, but Junger is very good at managing unconventional narratives. After all, the Andrea Gail, the Gloucester fishing boat lost in the “perfect storm,” really just disappeared at sea. Junger's riveting story about it was all conjecture, however well informed, as to what had happened. In the Korengal, the rough start to Battle Company's tour—“Most of the bad things, the dramatic things, happened in the beginning when they weren't as knowledgeable yet and weren't as good fighters as they eventually became”—was not the kind of narrative arc, says Junger, that “anyone would want to touch.”
So Junger began to consider the emotional truths of what he'd seen and felt. “I just thought very long and hard. And it really boiled down to those three—fear, killing, and love—and those dovetailed very nicely with this other agenda that I had, which was to try to understand neurochemically, psychologically, and sociologically what courage is.”
Indeed, Junger's theme is human beings facing life in extremis. Growing up in Belmont, a well-to-do suburb of Boston, and then studying cultural anthropology at Wesleyan in the early '80s, Junger has always been interested in the trials men put themselves through. He was laid up with a chain-saw—ravaged leg in Gloucester—injured while working as a tree cutter—when his mind turned to dangerous activities that men pursue. “When the storm hit, I was recuperating there, and I thought I'd write about what happened to the Andrea Gail as the first chapter of a book on dangerous professions.”
A friend of Junger's father knew the agent Stuart Krichevsky; a tragedy at sea was turned into a brilliant book proposal, a bestseller, and eventually a film. It changed his life, but not his interests. To Junger, certain elemental concepts—whether on the battlefield or at sea or high up in swaying trees—“go to the core of what life is about.” In combat, he says, “Everyone experiences those three things—well, not killing so much [laughs], hopefully not—but there is a kind of equivalent in civilian life where you act in ways to protect yourself and your family and you act in ways that may be disruptive to society, so it doesn't literally have to be killing, but basically you're saying, these are my people, they are important to me and I'm not gonna let the bank take over my house. Whatever it is, you are sort of drawing a line in the sand. I don't think anything really goes on on the battlefield that doesn't have an equivalent back home in society.”
A “Different Book”
Junger's previous three books—The Perfect Storm; Fire, a collection of essays; and A Death at Belmont, about a personal brush in childhood with the Boston Strangler, Albert DaSalvo—were published by Star Lawrence at Norton. But this time around, Junger's instinct was to talk to some other publishers about War before committing.
“I felt like I was writing a radically different book this time. I wanted to have conversations with people who know the business about how to sell a personal book about something that everyone was talking about—there must be hundreds of books on the war on terror. Star was a brilliant editor for me on my first books, but this one just felt different. I ended up having a meeting with Jonathan Karp at Twelve and it was just fantastic. I can't describe why, but something happened that needed to happen with my editor for this particular book.”
One of Junger's concerns was how to reach an essential demographic for War—the soldiers themselves and their generation. “The world comes to them through the Internet,” Junger says. “I wanted to reach those guys.” Hence, not only the Hachette audiobook CD with photographs but the enhanced e-book with prose descriptions of events and then video depictions of the same events. “Every two or three pages, there will be 60 seconds of video. I don't want it too long, I don't want to detract from the reading experience. It will be like color photographs in a book, but they will be moving color photographs. So you can read about Sergeant Kearney addressing the men, then you can see him delivering that speech after they've lost several guys. You can read about that firefight and then see it. You are having an audiovisual experience in the middle of reading. That's the world we are living in, and I'm not sure if anyone has done that with an e-book yet.”
Having met with such astounding early success, and now established as both a critically acclaimed journalist and a commercially successful author, Junger has honed his method.
“When I write anything, I try to imagine that scene visually. The Perfect Storm was my first book—I had no idea how to begin [it], so I said, okay, if this is a movie, what would the opening shot be? I had this image—this pan of the dock, then across the street to the Crow's Nest, in the back door, up the stairs into the bedroom where a guy's asleep with a black eye. Humans get an enormous amount of information visually, and if you don't write visually you lose them.”
With a 165,000-copy first printing, a 40-city tour, a rich community Web site (Sebastianjunger.com), the audiobook, a traditional e-book, a film, TV broadcast of the film (on National Geographic) and the enhanced e-book, Junger's not likely to lose any interested parties. In fact, he's not lost the guys he most wanted to reach. A soldier named O'Byrne, whose hard-boiled wisdom figures prominently in the book, is back home in New Jersey. Junger has recently had coffee with him. “He's going to be fine,” says Junger. “He's gonna make it.”
And last week it was announced that U.S. forces had pulled out of the Korengal entirely after four years of combat.