War reporter and best-selling author Sebastian Junger has seen it all. He's lived in some of the most dangerous war zones in modern history and now, after losing his close friend and colleague, he looks back on his life and forward into what may come next. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report in June 2011.
Best-selling author and longtime war reporter Sebastian Junger is at a crossroads.
"I am trying to figure out what is as intense as war and doesn’t get you killed, you know?” Junger said. "And my fear is that there is nothing."
Junger has reported from Bosnia, Sierra Leone and from Afghanistan, where he did work for his book "War" and the corresponding, award-winning documentary "Restrepo."
However, it's partly because of "Restrepo" that Junger is at this crossroads. His friend and collaborator on the film, photojournalist Tim Heatherington, was killed in April while covering the war in Libya.
Junger said he was scheduled to go as well but couldn't for personal reasons.
On the day Junger got the terrible news, he received an email from a Vietnam veteran.
"You and Tim, with your book and your movie, you got very close to understanding war," Junger recalled the vet telling him. "But the ultimate truth about war, you might not die in war, but the ultimate truth is that you will lose your brothers. That's the ultimate reality of war. In some ways, until today you didn't know the first thing about war and now you do."
A memorial to Heatherington hangs on the wall of the restaurant Junger co-owns, The Half King.
Junger and Heatherington spent much of 2007 with a small unit in the Korengaal Valley, an area that at the time was labeled by CNN as "the most dangerous place on earth."
The unit named the outpost Restrepo in honor of a fallen comrade.
That year, Junger would spend a month at Restrepo with no running water, no electricity, no internet, and then spent a month back home with his wife in New York.
"Sometimes I look at my life here and sort of yawn and think, like, wow, this doesn't feel of much significance, but that's kind of an illusion," Junger said. "The bonds that we all create with our families and with our friends and our neighborhoods and society that is human life, it's not as dramatic as combat, but in some ways it's way more important."
In his books, whether it's his breakthrough 1997 best seller "The Perfect Storm" or "War," Junger often connects the reality he see on the ground with the anthropological theories he studied in the 80s at Wesleyan University.
"Every tribal society I’ve ever studied, they use young men for a certain thing," he said. "They use young men to send them out and do the stuff that was dangerous but necessary, and they get killed doing this stuff. This goes way way back into our evolutionary roots. It has to do with hunting and warfare, and I found out watching 'Restrepo,' wow, I'm watching our evolutionary past."
The soldiers Junger lived with in Afghanistan occasionally come through New York and visit his restaurant.
"I’ll get a call saying, 'hey there are some soldiers down here, they say they know you,'" Junger recalled. "I say okay, get them whatever they want to drink and keep them away from the plate glass windows."
Junger is deadly serious when discussing a soldier's powerful notion of brotherhood and the willingness to die for a comrade that sustains one in combat but might be his downfall at home.
"They experienced at age 19 a form of bonding with their fellow soldiers that most civilians will never experience in their life, except perhaps with their spouse or children," said Junger. "That's what they miss."
The combat zones Junger has reported from are a world away from the quiet of his hometown outside Boston.
"It just really made me want to experience something different," said Junger. "Maybe someone else would have decided, 'well that's the life I want to have,' but for me, it produced the opposite reaction."
He spent much of his twenties trying to write novels and working as a climber for tree companies.
Eventually he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and with a father who served in World War II, he also had questions about the nature of war.
"What is it about? And how will I do in a war? As a person, as a man? Will I conduct myself okay? Am I a coward? There are these questions you have as a young man, and I wanted to answer them. I grew up in a suburb where there's no way I could have answered these questions," Junger recalled.
In-between trips to war zones, Junger holed up on Cape Cod to work on "The Perfect Storm," the story of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. which was lost at sea in 1991. The book was eventually turned into a big-budget movie.
The book came out in 1997, just after Junger had moved to New York, and he was immediately cast into the spotlight.
"I had been doing foreign reporting since '93, went to Bosnia in '93," he said. "I really felt like that is where my heart was. The book was a weird aberration. I didn't think it would explode like that, and it did, and in some ways I couldn't wait to get away from it. It felt like it was swallowing me whole."
Junger found his entire lifestyle, not just his work, started to come under scrutiny from the media.
"What had been just a normal way for me to live — the 30-something-year-old vagabond — suddenly started to look like a performance for the media," he said. "Someone thinks you’re doing that on purpose to look like an average guy. Even if that's a ridiculous charge, you still have to answer it. And so eventually it's easier to not sleep on the floor. I also got married. That ended that."
This spring, Junger was busy making public appearances to promote the paperback edition of "War," but he did find some time for reflection on his life.
"I’m just starting to think about having a family now," Junger said. "I’m 49, so yeah, I sacrificed the chance to see my children go through their adulthood and to have grandchildren. I sacrificed that. It's not the end of the world, but it is something. But then, had I had children at 25, I wouldn't have had this experience."
Junger has also spent a lot of time thinking about the death of his friend and colleague Tim Heatherington, a loss that may mean the end of Junger's career as a war reporter.
"What I went through emotionally losing Tim, it was so ghastly, so shockingly bad, that I suddenly got it," Junger explained. "I was like, I don't want to do this to anyone I love. The light bulb went on. Pretty quickly I just decided, I’m 49, I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, I haven't paid a price yet. I just paid a price with Tim, and that's it. I’m out. I’m out while I’m ahead. I feel like I left the poker table after the first really bad hand."