As the sun begins to sleep outside the Cinepolis Chelsea theatre, Sebastian Junger waits for the opening night screening of his latest project.
Effortless New Yorkers aged 20-something to retirement scuffle into Theatre 9 for “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS”, Junger’s timely documentary on an endlessly complicated subject: what the West is to do, if anything, about dictators, civil war, refugees and brutal violence in Syria.
Air perfumed with booze and criminally overpriced popcorn, the two-week long TriBeCa Film Festival is coming to a close this weekend, with Junger’s last of the three “Hell on Earth” showings two days from tonight.
The film, co-directed by Nick Quested for National Geographic, is important but painful to watch, and a depressing prelude to the time I spend with Junger.
It had been a Herculean feat to get this close to him from the beginning. I pep talk my way into a smile before approaching him, standing by for his admirers to get their shot with him. Something about being breezy after a movie about ISIS doesn’t fit. The people-watching alone is worth the flight across the country, the artsy crowd peppered with film nerds overanalyzing what they’ve come to see on screen.
A red-headed girl in a cream lace dress gushes to Junger that as a journalism student, she’s inspired by his brave work. She proudly retrieves from her satchel a paperback copy of The Perfect Storm, Junger’s first novel and the precursor to the George Clooney blockbuster, for her literary idol to sign. Graciously nodding along and smiling, Junger agrees to take a photo with her, which she immediately scrutinizes on her phone while trailing off with a friend. A line of 15 or so forms, and Junger shakes each hand, thanking people for coming out. One man asks for an autograph on his copy of Tribe, Junger’s 2016 New York Times bestseller.
Only a few feet away, I’m secretly delighted that I’ve brought a different book for Junger to sign — a fresh copy of the quintessential Junger — War.
I introduce myself after the last of the attendees have sauntered away. A firm handshake. An apology. “I’m sorry, can you wait here just a minute?” Junger tells a group of friends goodbye, including his co-director, Quested. Less than a minute later, we’re back. I scan the room briefly for a place to sit. Nothing. Leave it to movie theatre lobbies to include a bar but no chairs. I awkwardly juggle my purse, notebook full of questions, camera and recorder. The best we can do is find a space leaning up against the wall.
Junger, dressed in a dark grey v-neck t-shirt, dark wash denim and sensible brown boots, stares at me. His expression doesn’t reveal expectation. In fact, it doesn’t reveal much of anything.
Six weeks prior to our live meeting, Junger is jolly.
I can’t tell if this is his normal phone etiquette, but something tells me he’s different today, this Saturday morning in March. (My Internet research in preparation for the interview painted a sterner picture.) I can’t help but think that his ebullience could be explained by the baby cooing in his lap.
“Hey, so I have a somewhat upset baby in my arms, but my wife’s coming home in a minute, so if you hear a little screaming, it’s not me, it’s my child,” he laughs.
Curveball number one: “wife.” (Thought he was divorced.) And two: did he say baby? He did say “my” child, right? I attempt to quietly Google Junger’s Wikipedia page to double check his birthdate. January 17, 1962. Does he hear me typing on the other end?
Journalist and author of five critically-acclaimed books, he has enjoyed a 20-year career as a writer with steady work, an accomplishment in itself. Winner of an Emmy and a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for his haunting accounts of military life in the Korengal Valley, Junger is a respected documentary filmmaker. Naïve ambition made me ask his agency for a two-hour in-person interview, and somehow I had ended up with a one-hour phoner. He was traveling, busy visiting with family for the better part of a month.
He makes a point to thank me each time I mention I read something he penned. We talk about everything, bouncing easily between topics. The rhythm of the conversation reflects Junger’s mastery of interviews. He’s passionate about his book, Tribe, and the idea that the experience of American soldiers when they return home from war may have more to do with our exclusive, narcissistic societal structure than the trauma endured in combat. He tells me about his role in an organization he founded, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, which trains freelance journalists how to treat life-threatening injuries during a three-day course.
RISC pays homage to Tim Hetherington, Junger’s companion embedded with him in Afghanistan, who died covering Libya in 2011. Tim died on his way to the hospital after being hit with shrapnel; Junger maintains he might have lived if his colleagues knew what to do with a wound. Since then, he has arranged for more than 200 journalists to receive training for free so that what happened to Tim doesn’t happen again.
I ask how Junger has changed in the 20 years since The Perform Storm.
He chuckles, his ever-so-raspy, bassy voice responding: “My wife just heard the question and pointed to the baby in my lap. I had my first child at 55. Between Perfect Storm and now, I became very good at public speaking. I’m much more self assured as a writer. I don’t think my style has changed at all. I’m more comfortable using first person, venturing a moral viewpoint. I was in a lot of combat between then and now, and I stopped covering war after my friend and colleague Tim was killed. I got married and eventually divorced. And life happened to me like it happens to everybody,” he ends, that last nod to the common man a theme in Junger’s discourse.
Maybe Junger is affable during this phase of his life because his most recent book, Tribe, signals his foray out of war correspondence. He can be a different kind of author and filmmaker now, if he chooses.
Or maybe the sense of peace he’s exuding comes from knowing he can discuss his time as a war reporter knowing he never has to return. It feels really freaking good to be alive.
Because the thing is, you can’t talk about Sebastian Junger without talking about war. It’s in his blood. And don’t get that confused with one’s desire to serve his country in the U.S. military. Junger’s is an innate hunger, a guttural proclivity for the ability to tell a war’s story. That’s what compels him—to show people what combat really is, for better or worse. To show us that it’s more guts than glory. It’s mind-numbingly, earth-shatteringly depressing and ugly as sin.
And yet. It’s humanizing and uniting and bonds men together in unimaginable ways.
Junger is done with war. But the effects of it aren’t finished with him. He’s left it behind in his life as a journalist. It is in the past, but also a part of the present.
To many, Junger could rightfully be perceived as a hero, for immersing himself in heavy combat year after year, returning faithfully to the Korengal Valley for each reporting trip knowing full well he could leave in a body bag. So why in the world did he do it? And where does he go from here?
His blue eyes are fierce, not quite glowering, yet refusing to cloak the exhaustion of a man mature enough to be an AARP cardholder while navigating fatherhood for the first time. A five o’clock shadow contributes to Junger’s ruggedness, a man unmistakably strong. The lamentable yellow lighting makes me yearn for fluorescence, though it highlights Junger’s thinning hair.
He leans his left shoulder against the wall, settling his hands into his pockets. I’ve made it my mission to understand who Junger is in light of his time at war. Before you go thinking I’m transfixed on this aspect of his career, remember his work history. “Restrepo,” co-directed by Hetherington and nominated for an Oscar, is a combat documentary named after the medic Juan “Doc” Restrepo, killed in action. Its follow-up, “Korengal,” is a poignant sequel produced independently by Junger after Hetherington’s untimely death.
So far, I know this, of Junger:
He’s the guy who boxes daily, a tough guy in every sense.
He’s the guy who plays his accordion every day.
He’s the guy who wrote an entire book demonstrating the tragedy American individualism poses to veterans, who would derive substantial emotional benefits from tribal, communal living.
He’s the guy who doesn’t know his neighbors in the piece of New York City he calls home.
He’s the guy who once cried at the sight of an elderly post office worker who was just doing her job. (He had to return later to mail his letters.)
He’s the guy who is comfortable before a crowd, but in his quieter moments, he pores over the pages of his deceased father’s favorite books, pausing to read his dad’s margin monologues.
He’s the guy who embedded himself with Battle Company’s Second Platoon for a year in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan, one of the deadliest outposts during that war, dodging bullets from Taliban insurgents, filming the horrors of war, witnessing men get maimed.
He’s the guy who made a family later in life, the daddy to a newborn at 55 years old.
Junger has layers, and he has war to thank for that. It turns out, being hyper-aware of your mortality can really mold a person.
Born in Belmont, Massachusetts, Junger contends that his young life was remarkably uneventful, despite living through the Boston Strangler killings.
“I felt like I needed to be in a situation where I was aware of my physical limits … I didn’t grow up that way.”
Trying to guess what pushes a man toward war in the first place is a worthless activity; all you can do is work backwards when he’s home. For Junger, combat was fulfilling to a soul that never felt whole. Boredom has limitations, but the notion that he never paid his dues, that his life hadn’t seen enough hardship, sent him to the trenches.
Ten years after he first stepped foot in the hellish Korengal, Junger says it isn’t something he thinks about every day. But when he’s reminded of his time in the valley, like when talking to Brendan O’Byrne, a former team leader in Battle Company, Second Platoon, he thinks it was all worth it.
“I’m particularly close to Brendan. We’re like, extremely good friends. We talk almost every day. He lives sort of near me. So I’m a hundred times closer to him than the next person in the platoon, but I hear from some of those guys once in awhile.”
Junger answers questions quickly, our talk resembling a fast-paced tennis match. He doesn’t take my nonverbal cues to keep babbling while I’m figuring out my next question. He says what he wants to say and stops when he’s done; there will be no indulging the interviewer with an extended chat. He shifts his feet, angling his body toward the gold painted wall and waiting for the next question. Junger isn’t talking with his hands today, like I’ve seen him do in YouTube TED Talks.
And then it occurs to me as the lobby empties out and guests gather in nearby theatres for other screenings: Junger doesn’t want to be a hero, nor does he think himself any more courageous than a features desk reporter whose gravest danger is missing a deadline.
He isn’t too proud to admit the fear and anxiety associated with combat — that would make him a self-involved fool. Rather, Junger knows that feelings of angst mean that it matters, so he leans into it. He has always been interested in doing work that changes our consciousness in some way, be it soldiers, refugees, what have you.
In 2016, Junger said publically that he was finished writing about war.
“I didn’t want my wife to have to go through either my death or worrying that I would die while I was working. I did [worry], but I was willing to trade that worry for the occasion to work. But when I realized that I was trading her worry for the occasion to work, that didn’t seem very noble.”
Still, Junger says the cost of war reporting hasn’t overcome him. “[The benefits] definitely outweigh the cost,” he tells me, nodding confidently. “I’m not talking about Tim getting killed, but for me personally … the costs aren’t that great. Like I didn’t die, I wasn’t wounded. War reporting is not that unsafe. There’s thousands of war reporters, and thank God, only a handful get killed every year. I’ve done assignments that have lasted a few weeks or months, but I’ve had friends who were in the Peace Corps for two years. Like, I didn’t do that.”
So, what scares a man who says war reporting isn’t scary?
No, it isn’t a riddle. Besides, he wrote a whole chapter on fear for War. Sebastian Junger gets scared at the boxing gym, and he keeps going back. He says it has nothing to do with his work as a journalist. It’s just a kick of adrenaline.
“Boxing is an incredible synthesis of physical capabilities. It’s not just staying in shape. If you’re sparring somebody for three minutes, it’s scary, and running’s not scary.” He looks at me seriously, his crow’s feet glowing underneath the light. “I’m pretty normal,” he says.
I ask Junger what his weekend plans are; it’s New York City, I figure. “When you have a baby, that pretty much takes up all your time,” he laughs. It isn’t the inauthentic jest of someone who’s miserable inside. It’s a man stating a fact.
I take a crack at a question I think is destined to end the interview the moment it leaves my lips: why have a kid in your mid-50s? It wasn’t deliberate, of course, but like many unplanned events in life, it’s a pleasant surprise. Junger says the recent changes in his life make him “enormously happy.”
“Experiencing trauma expands you personally… like having children expands you, or whatever. You understand humanity a little bit better when you’re exposed to children. They’re very unfiltered little creatures, you can see the primate in us. I don’t know. I’m new at this,” he says honestly.
I’m beginning to grow uncomfortable leaning against the wall of the Cinepolis, doing my darndest to simulate ease. No grand revelations have come to mind about the prolific author standing before me. There’s no way to answer the question, “Who is Junger?” because there’s no way to answer that question for any other man.
He is himself — the culmination of decades as a journalist and man who encountered life and death and everything in between. He is contradiction and communion, wisdom and folly, consternation and boldness. Extraordinary, yet the everyman. Junger is an antithesis — in meaningful ways, he is the opposite of himself.
“I’m 55 years old. I think I’m a reasonably nice person. I’ve had a pretty safe life in a lot of ways. I’m almost always happy,” he says with conviction.
And for the first time in a lifetime, Junger has no clue what’s next, nor does he care to.
“I’ve accomplished most of what I’ve wanted to accomplish,” so there’s no rush to move forward. His future days will include the staples: reading, boxing, playing music and nurturing a young life.
I thank him for his time and ask a theatre employee to take our photo. “Don’t you want the bar in the picture?” she teases, only I don’t think she’s kidding. “Just over here will be fine,” I say. Junger slings his right arm over my shoulder and we pose. Finally, I ask him to sign War, anticipating a half-baked two-second signature.
He obliges, and I check the camera to see how our photos turned out. As I gather my belongings to travel back to Harlem, he hands it back. I flip to the title page. “To Angela — Thank you so much for the interview … it was a pleasure to meet you. Sebastian Junger.”
I close my book and look around to thank him one last time. Then I spot him, nearly to the elevator across the lobby. Just like that, he’s off into the spring TriBeCa night.
LITTLE KNOWN FACTS
He co-owns a bar in NYC called The Half King, a haunt for artists and writers.
In the early days of his writing career, he would sometimes cut down trees in residential areas for $200-$1,000 per day.
He read Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" in one sitting.
The Associated Press recently reported that the ship that was the subject of The Perfect Storm was intentionally sunk off the New Jersey and Delaware coasts to become part of an artificial reef.