“War is Sadness”: An Evening with Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger speaking at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sebastian Junger speaking at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sebastian Junger’s reflections on what it means to document war, experience war firsthand as an intimately personal event, and to tell the stories of those who are sent to war on our behalf—all of this made for a deeply profound and thought-provoking evening with one of America’s most experienced and philosophical war reporters.

Junger spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a presentation in conjunction with the new exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War.  The exhibition is a stunning collection of images of battlefields, soldiers posing proudly for the camera, soldiers fallen and lifeless after combat, generals posing at a moment of either triumph or defeat, even a living President Lincoln next to the image of the hanging of conspirators who contrived his assassination.  All of these photos together prompt deep questions–what is war? why does it fascinate us? why do young recruits flock to it? how do seasoned leaders wage it? what does war do to the fabric of who we are as people, as a nation?

“War is a big thing,” Junger said candidly.  It is cruel, inhumane, and is, in and of itself, morally wrong.  Yet he became a war journalist because he wanted to see it for himself and to understand it.  He shared this observation: “There is a moral wrong in killing people.  But there is also a moral wrong in watching people being killed and not doing anything.”  The press, he said, has a vital role in this equation.  And a democratic and free society is absolutely contingent on the free flow of information.

But what is war, exactly?  Junger had many answers.   “War is everything,” he said.  There are ancient human narratives that take place in war, just as war takes place in ancient human narratives.  War forges bonds in tribes, in society.  The bravery humans have shown in war over time is not unlike the bravery shown in childbirth, perpetuating human survival even against tremendous odds.  It is global, universal, but war is also deeply personal.  When Junger first began covering war in the Balkans in the 1990s, he found that freelancers (as he was at that time) made up the vast majority of war reporters, and often they go to war for very personal reasons, and also because it gives them an opportunity to do something big and important—and to learn to do it well.  The journalists he found in the Balkans were all men–and made an immediate connection with them because it seemed that all had, in some way or another, recently broken up with a girlfriend.  He had, too.  “War is a way to find out if you’re a man–and it will conceivably make a man of you if you don’t feel like one,” he said.

He made a name for himself as a journalist by covering the Balkan conflicts, and after September 11, 2001, he had a profound mix of emotions.  On one hand, he said he remembered thinking, “finally the agony will stop” for the people of Afghanistan.  He was in Kabul during the US breakthrough in November 2001, and he covered it excitedly.  But as the war went on, he grew more and more to understand and take interest in US troops as the story themselves.  He embedded with various units, and saw firsthand what troops were willing to take on and do–from carrying packs of 100+ pounds of gear up mountains at elevations above 10,000 feet to living and working in freezing conditions, he was astounded.  He and photojournalist Tim Hetherington chose to embed with an Army platoon in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan for a year, resulting in the award-winning documentary “Restrepo.”  They wanted to show what it is like to be an American soldier, what they experience, and what so many of them–no matter how they may try not to–end up missing once they’re home.  Junger said these are the things American society must know so we can help troops come back home where they belong.

Did embedding cause Junger to lose his objectivity?  “I don’t think objectivity is possible,” Junger said.  Like justice, it is something we must strive for, but for regular people this is something more aspired to than ever fully attained.  But even if objectivity can’t be reached, he said, “it is completely possible to be honest.”  Junger felt sincerely that he has succeeded in being completely honest and sincere with his audiences.  And this was maybe the most sincere public talk I’ve ever witnessed.

He talked about a time when he was at the tiny outpost called Restrepo, and he was sitting down, talking with people on a normal day.  Then he noticed sand flung against the side of his face.  A split-second later, he heard the gunshot that caused it–he’d been missed by no more than an inch or two by a shot from a sniper’s rifle.  Insurgents opened fire, and the outpost was embroiled in yet another firefight.  But he kept returning to that moment that the sand hit his face.  He thought of the math–what was the arc of the bullet’s trajectory, what was the mechanical calculation that the sniper had gotten wrong so as to miss hitting his head?  “Everything is random,” Junger said.  “Nothing keeps you safe,” he said.  “Nothing keeps you safe and alive but that unspeakable math,” he said.

Over the years, what Junger said he realized is that going to war never involves gambling with your own life: “What you gamble with is the lives of those you love.”

Junger spoke briefly about Tim Hetherington’s death while covering the war in Libya, from wounds that, had those around him had basic medical training on, he might otherwise have survived.  Since Hetherington’s death, Junger has founded a nonprofit called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), which provides just such training in hopes of saving lives.

More than anything, what Junger said he learned about war is this:  “War is sadness.”  The sadness is fragile–it is often trampled by fear, excitement, or any number of emotions that go along with war.  “But in the end, you have sadness,” he said.

8 thoughts on ““War is Sadness”: An Evening with Sebastian Junger

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’m curious what you think of this article, written in 1984 by a Vietnam veteran who went on to write the screenplay for Cast Away. Nbd.

    To me, it captures war and why I was attracted to it (and now appalled). I’ve talked to others and they agree, this is as close as we can get to understanding it for now.

    It is very male centric, I think, and I wonder what your take away is. It’s long, so I warn you. But I think you will enjoy it.



  2. It took me a bit to read through it all, but it says so much in not too many words. I wanted to cull out some of the passages I found moving, but I’d end up pasting in most all of the essay.


    • Glad you read it. It reminds me that we’re not discovering anything new through these experiences. There is nothing new to discover. We’ve been fighting wars forever and we all suffer through trying to “figure it out.” That essay I think is as close as we’re going to get.

      The real luxury that we have as veterans who are more or less privileged is that we can wax nostalgic about “what it all means.” That, I think, is relatively new.


      • I think western literature, in many ways, has a major theme of parsing out what war means. The Iliad even is maybe the first surviving narrative that looks for meaning in so many of these commonalities. Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” spells a lot of it out, although it’s well worth reading the Iliad on its own. You can even see classic Greek drama as a means for war veterans to write these cathartic stories for other war veterans to see and experience–the last time I taught “Oedipus Rex,” that’s how I framed it. The play itself isn’t about war, but it is about chaos and loss in a community, and hidden atrocities that resurface and take down a hero. These are ancient truths that resonate today (if we let them) because they speak to the human experience.


  3. “Every good war story is, in at least some of its crucial elements, false. The better the war story, the less of it is likely to be true. Robert Graves wrote that his main legacy from World War I was “a difficulty in telling the truth. ” I have never once heard a grunt tell a reporter a war story that wasn’t a lie, just as some of the stories that I tell about the war are lies. Not that even the lies aren’t true, on a certain level. They have a moral, even a mythic, truth, rather than a literal one. They reach out and remind the tellers and listeners of their place in the world. They are the primitive stories told around the fire in smoky teepees after the pipe has been passed. They are all, at bottom, the same”


  4. “Most people fear freedom; war removes that fear. And like a stern father, it provides with its order and discipline both security and an irresistible urge to rebel against it, a constant yearning to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. The midnight requisition is an honored example. I remember one elaborately planned and meticulously executed raid on our principal enemy–the U.S. Army, not the North Vietnamese–to get lightweight blankets and cleaning fluid for our rifles repeated later in my tour, as a mark of my changed status, to obtain a refrigerator and an air conditioner for our office.”


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