The editor and writer, James Heidenry, talks to Sebastian Junger about his recent book, our troops.
What was the genesis for War?
Well, in 1996 I was asked to write a magazine story about some westerners who were kidnapped in Kashmir. They’d been kidnapped by former Mujahideen who continued training in Bin Laden’s camps. I said I’d do the assignment if I could go to Afghanistan to report on the broader problem. That was my first trip and I just kept going. Then I wanted to see what it’s like to be a soldier in the U.S. military.
How much time did you spend there?
I did five one-month trips with the platoon.
What was your take on the civilian population in Afghanistan?
When I was there in 2001 after the Taliban was tackled it was extremely positive, but a lot of goodwill was squandered by some pretty bad decisions. By the time I went back in 2007, the Afghan perspective was that it was only a matter of time until the U.S. pulled out—so they weren’t going to stick their necks out and get themselves killed.
What do you think of the gear the troops have?
If there is one complaint it’s the amount of stuff they have to carry. They are pretty loaded down and stuff just keeps getting added and the vests they wear are really heavy. They talk a lot about how it would be a different fight if they were more mobile. The Taliban probably moves 8 to 10 times faster than America soldiers. Basically it’s a naval battle where the U.S. is a sailboat and the Taliban are speedboats. Our troops have incredible firepower. They just cannot move, they literally cannot run.
How much gear are we talking about?
On multi-day operations each soldier was carrying upwards to 150 – 160 lbs, and on a regular patrol needed 100 – 120lbs just to leave the wire. Soldiers under all that weight break their ankles, their knees go. I mean they lost more guys in the platoon to broken ankles than they did to bullets.
What kind of trauma care do they get on the ground?
The medics were great. My friend Tim broke his leg and got taken out of there by Medevac. The army surgeon put a plate in his leg and did a superb job—Tim’s doctor back home was really impressed.
Col. Hackworth thought that generals too often got in the way of the men on the ground. What was your impression of the chain of command in Afghanistan?
The captain in my platoon would not have complained to me about the generals. So it’s hard for me to assess that. But I do know that the guys thought it was hysterical that the brigade commander had this sort of directive that the outpost wasn’t allowed any real tools. It was a matter of definition on paper, like “We don’t want that kind of outpost there.” But the guys were like, “It’s a 15-man outpost and we need to live somewhere.” So they ended up having to cut plywood with one guy’s Leatherman saw. The rule and the reality were not corresponding.
What did you learn from writing War?
You always hear about the sort of group bonding that happens in war and I had never really understood it until I was around it. It was somewhat of a collective experience, a shared fate. And even though I wasn’t a solider, whatever was happening to them was going to happen to me. And there was something about that which was extremely reassuring and calming. As a result—bad as it was out there—when the guys came back to the base, they all kind of missed it. There is sort of a weird question that society has trouble confronting, which is when men come back from war, why do they miss it? But it is an important one because it impedes. If the soldiers are missing something it impedes their ability to reintegrate, and if society can figure out what they’re missing it will be that much easier to reincorporate them. You can’t just say they’re adrenaline junkies now. This is not what it is. There are actually good, psychologically healthy things that they miss. My book is essentially trying to answer that question: What is it they miss?
Is it a brotherhood?
Yeah, that kind of brotherhood is a function of the danger they are all in. As a result it cannot exist back home because there is not that danger in society. That brotherhood is a very secure thing to belong to and it’s very hard to give up. They’re also totally self-defining. In society you’re seen a certain way if your dad has a certain job, you’re seen a certain way as a teenager, et cetera. But in combat it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, ugly or poor. All those 19-year-olds are able to completely define themselves in the group and gain the respect of the men around them simply through their actions. That for a young man is such a godsend.
Your documentary, Restrepo, which chronicles a year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan, has received an enormous amount of critical acclaim. What was it like to make it?
I loved using the camera and editing the film. The whole process was very hard but it was amazing. I hope audiences can leave their politics behind for 90 minutes and are able to sit down and appreciate and understand what soldiers go through.
An interview with Sebastain Junger by James HeidenryShare