So today is May the third—
2011. We’re in the studios of West Point Center for Oral History with Sebastian Junger. And Sebastian, I would like to ask you—you know, there’s a lot of material we can go into, but since we’re here at West Point I’d like to focus on your most recent work, and ask you to tell me when you first got interested in war.
I mean, I just have the assumption that every little boy is interested in war. I remember growing up, you know, and all the adults that I knew had fought in World War II. And when we played war, some of the boys had to play Germans, and no one wanted to play Germans, and everyone wanted to be Americans. And the Vietnam War was going on, and so it started deploying with that. But you know, like I—since I was a little boy, I mean it’s just—it’s exciting to pick up a crooked stick and pretend to shoot it at somebody. I mean it says terrible things about the human species, I suppose, but that’s what little boys do—or a lot of them.
And—but then after Vietnam, the Vietnam War was so controversial, and I—you know, I came from a part of society—Massachusetts, pretty liberal background—that was very, very against the war. And the whole enterprise and the military and everything, I was just—found really unpleasant and distasteful, and that started to change after I started covering wars myself.
What was the first war you covered?
I went to Bosnia in 1993.
Why? What was your impulse for going there? Assignment, or a—
I didn’t have an assignment; I was desperate for any kind of assignment. I had been working as arborist, as a climber for tree companies, and I was trying to break in as a writer, but I couldn’t do it. And I hurt myself pretty badly with a chainsaw up in a tree, and I just decided, you know, I was 30 years old and I had to just like go for it. And frankly, I was drawn to the drama of the war over there. And I went over—
Let me pause you for a second. So you wanted to be a writer—you knew that.
So even when you were an arborist, you wanted to be a writer—or was being an arborist just for the sake of earning a check, or were you interested in trees, too?
Well, no. It was—I had waited tables for years while I was writing for magazines—or trying to write for magazines—and writing fiction, and all that stuff that people in their 20s do when they want to be writers. And I found—you know, I just stumbled into my job as a climber for tree companies. I was always very athletic and physically capable, and you know, I would work 80 feet in the air with a chain saw, taking trees down piece by piece. You know, lowering pieces on lines, and very athletic, dangerous—
So it was very hard work.
And it was—well, hey, then it was appropriate. I could work two days a week and write the rest of the time. And I—anyway, I just realized, at 30, like you’ve got to jump-start this thing, and I just went to Bosnia. And here is where my understanding of military force changed, and I think it did for a lot of sort of my fellow liberals—you know, sort of “anti-war” liberals. There are wars—there are civil wars, like Bosnia, and Rwanda, and Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, and Liberia—and the list goes on and on, unfortunately—where civilian populations are paying the, you know, 99% of the human cost of these wars. And the warring parties have no real political legal responsibilities that they’re willing to own up to, and it does take the threat of armed force or the use of armed force by the international community to get this stuff to stop. And—
So you believe in Bosnia, the moment you went there—in our participation in Bosnia, or NATO’s participation in Bosnia, right?
Yeah, and I believed in it because here were these civilians who were getting shelled every day, mortared every day, in Sarajevo, and my colleague, Tim Hetherington, was just killed by a mortar in Misrata, Libya, and I know what mortars do, you know? And the city was being mortared and shelled and shot at every day for years, and 15,000 people—people just like my friend Tim—were killed in Sarajevo. Civilians—innocent people—children, you know? And finally the international community—NATO—conducted a—I think it was a two-week, three-week bombing campaign? Not one NATO soldier was killed—not one—and they stopped a genocide that had killed tens of thousands of innocent people. And I just thought, “Wow—that’s a different way of looking at military force.” And then I saw it—it should’ve happened in Rwanda. I saw it in Sierra Leone—the Brits went in; they lost one guy. They stopped an awful civil war. Liberia—the U.S. warships showed up offshore—they didn’t even have to fire a gun, and they stopped that war.
And I started to get a more nuanced sort of understanding of, you know, “give peace a chance”—as beautiful a sentiment as that is, in some situations actually allows killing to continue in foreign countries, and—
This was the period of the sort of so-called humanitarian war, right—the ’90s, or whatever. But then you got involved—well, then history changed, essentially, in the 2000s, largely driven by an event we’re remembering specifically today and yesterday, 9/11, since we happen to be right on the edge of the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Where were you on September 11th, 2001?
I was on assignment. I was in the country of Moldova, Eastern Europe, the poorest country in Europe, and we—
How’d the news come to you in such a remote place?
My translator, a lovely young woman named Livia, her ex-husband, who was a bit nutty, called her and said, “The United States is under attack.” And she thought that he—he was a little crazy, and she thought he was just messing with her, and she called her mother—we were out in the countryside, and she called her mother, who did not speak English, and told her mother to turn on CNN, and just to tell her what she was looking at. And her mother turned on CNN, and just started sobbing, and we knew that it was true.
What was your reaction to that? Did you know anything about Muslim extremism at that point—are you—
Well, you know, I did. I mean I had just come back from—I was in Afghanistan in the fall of 2000, with Massoud.
Well, let’s go back to that, then. Let’s start with that.
You were with Massoud for an assignment, is that right?
I mean Massoud was a charismatic figure, right? I mean he was—
Well, on my first—yeah, I should back up even further. My first trip to Afghanistan was ’96, in August ’96. And I went in there to write about the training camps in the Tora Bora outside of Jalalabad, because guys from those camps had kidnapped some Westerners in Kashmir and killed them all, in 1994. And I was asked to write about that kidnapping, and I said, “The only way to really write about it is to talk about the camps in Afghanistan; I want to go in to Afghanistan. It was 1996, and I was there; I saw the Taliban delegation arrive in Jalalabad to negotiate the surrender of Jalalabad. Jalalabad and then Kabul fell, you know, a couple weeks later, after I left.
So give me some history, then. The Taliban arrives when, then, in Afghanistan—in 1996 is—
They started up in ’94 in Kandahar, really coming out of Quetta in Pakistan, across the border, and they just pushed and pushed. And in ’96, they suddenly made a big sweep and pushed the government—you know, “government” in quotes, but—
Including Massoud—up into the northeast corner of the country, in Badakshan, that area.
And what was Massoud’s role at that point—who was he then?
I think he was minister of defense then. And so they pushed him out of Kabul. We were shot at—I mean, the front line was right outside of Kabul when I was there, and we were shot at by Taliban gunners on the edge of Kabul. When we were in our car, the machine gunner shot at us. And then the city fell right after that, and I was already out. And then I went back, and I was with Massoud in the fall of 2000; I spent two months with him and his forces in the north, in Badakshan. He was fighting around sort of up by the Tajik border. And it was a completely forgotten, unknown war, and there was tens of thousands of displaced people from the fighting, and they were living in terrible conditions. And there was only—the Taliban had jets, you know, they had MIGs, and they had artillery, and they were—it was bad in there, and people were starving.
Give a quick character sketch of Massoud. Massoud was ’cause he was intimate—his death, we think, was intimately connected with 9/11 as well, right, so.
Absolutely. So when I—well, he was—I mean he’s always attached to the word “charismatic.” He was tremendously charismatic. I mean, I think he was more than that, though. He really had a kind of vision for his country, and it was a vision where his country’s, Afghanistan’s path was not dictated by outside powers—I mean neither Pakistan nor the United States nor Russia nor Iran—he really believed in Afghan autonomy, and he believed—as far as I could tell, I mean, maybe he was just saying things he knew I wanted to hear, but he really seemed to believe in an egalitarian society, where women had access to education and healthcare. And I was just really incredibly moved and impressed by him, as, clearly, everyone around him was.
We were coming back from the front line once. There was a big fight going on, and we were coming back, and he stopped in at this school that was being built. And he said, “You know, the schools are as important as the fighting,” like if you don’t build schools, what are you even bothering fighting for? And he stopped in at a school that was being built that he had designed—’cause he was an engineer—and he inspected the desks, and he sat at one of the desks, and he yelled at the guys who were doing the work. And he said, “Are you kidding? These desks are too small. Students can’t do their work at a desk this size. The books don’t even fit on the top of the desk.” And he really chewed them out, and he said, “Destroy all—you know, like take these apart and rebuild them, you know, decently.”
And here’s a guy—I mean he’s down, he’s micromanaging the size of the desks of the next generation of Afghans while he’s running a front line war against a superior force. I mean for me, that’s an enlightened person.
You know, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, he’s just a warlord,” yet really, warlords aren’t interested in the size of desks for children, you know? At any rate, he was warning about bin Laden and al-Qaeda when we were there, and then in April—exactly ten years ago, almost exactly ten years ago, in April 2001—he took his first trip to Europe. And he went to Paris and he spoke to the French Assembly, and he said—I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but he said, “There’s a cancer in my country, in Afghanistan. It’s called al-Qaeda. It’s religious extremism. And if the West does not deal with it in my country, the price that Afghans are paying for this cancer will soon be paid by the West, by civilians in the West, as well.” And a few months later, Massoud was assassinated, two days before 9/11—assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists, and then 9/11 happened.
And no coincidence, in your mind.
No, no, there—absolutely—I mean that’s absolutely—they were linked. I mean, what they didn’t want—they had been trying to assassinate Massoud the whole summer. What they did not want was to attack the United States the way they were planning to, and then have a capable commander on the ground, like Massoud, commanding the Northern Alliance to do the ground fighting for the United States. What they wanted to do was to force the United States to come in on the ground like the Soviets had, and get mired in a ground war. And what happened was they could not get to Massoud until two days before.
They killed him, 9/11 happened, and the Northern Alliance realized, “If we can hold our front lines long enough, the Americans are gonna come in.” And the front lines barely held, but holding—
The lines being Massoud’s—
Unit, right, or whatever it was called.
That’s right. And so when I went back there as soon as I could, and I was with Massoud’s fighters, his commanders that I had known in the, you know, a year earlier, and I was with them when they took Kabul, and you know, with U.S. air power in the air. But I mean, it’s interesting to note that hundreds of Northern Alliance fighters died taking Kabul. Seven or eight journalists were killed taking Kabul. And not one American soldier died. I mean it was a ground war fought by Afghans.
Unfortunately, tragically, the deaths of American soldiers was going to come later, but in taking Kabul and toppling the Taliban, the casualties really were entirely Afghan. And people forget that, you know—the U.S. forces were really not on the ground at that point.
You talked earlier about your being moved by the humanitarian wars of the ’90s. How did you feel about this war and this growing sense of a global War on Terror, as it was described by the president?
Well, you know, terror—I mean one of the ironies of terror in the last ten years is that it’s killed many more Muslims than Westerners. All of the suicide bombings, the car bombings—I mean the death toll among civilians from these terrorist acts is just astronomical; something like 80 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan now are from Taliban attacks. That’s one of the ironies of it. Another irony, I think, is that there was a real sense in Afghanistan—it was such a desperately poor country, totally destroyed—that 9/11—in our tragedy in the United States was—in that was actually an opportunity for Afghanistan to be helped by the world community out of its morass of violence and chaos that was triggered by the Soviet invasion. And then kept going, you know, kept going, and was—
Because suddenly there were klieg lights on Afghanistan.
That’s right. And I think there was an understanding—maybe it’s a simplistic one—but that al-Qaeda had a refuge there because it was a failed state; it was a rogue nation—there was no rule of law, there was no international extradition treaties, there was no legal accountability between the Taliban government and other countries in the world. And so you could set up shop; sort of pay for your hospitality as bin Laden, and you’re really beyond the reach of anything except a SEAL team, or a predator drone.
And so it was a great place for al-Qaeda, and it wasn’t just a cave in the mountains. They had international airfields; they had banking; they had global telecommunications—they had everything that a country has except no legal responsibility to the world community. Perfect; perfect for an organization like al-Qaeda. And I think the thinking after 9/11 was failed states are dangerous because they allow for people like bin Laden to seek refuge there, and they’re beyond the reach of the international community. And we have to go in—I think the thinking of the U.S. government, I think correctly, was we have to go in, we have to kill or capture bin Laden, and we have to reassemble Afghanistan so that it doesn’t become—we don’t just go through the cycle 20 years from now all over again.
I wish they’d thought of that in 1990 after the Soviets pulled out. We put tens, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons in that country to fight the Soviets, and as soon as the Soviet Army pulled out, we pulled out. No more money for schools, for governance, for irrigation—I mean, nothing. As soon as we won the war, we left, and that, to me—in that sense, we’re as responsible for the conditions—the preconditions that gave us 9/11 as the Afghans are; as bin Laden is. We’re absolutely part of the sort of recipe that produced that tragedy.
You spent some time recently—which created the movie Restrepo—in Afghanistan, embedded through successive months. Can you describe how that whole assignment began, and what you did to create it?
In 2005, I went to Afghanistan for the first time to be embedded with U.S. forces. I was completely against the war in Iraq. When the war in Iraq started, what I saw, what I worried about, was that Afghanistan would be forgotten. And so what had started as an easy war—huge support among the Afghans, a complete discrediting and smashing of the Taliban regime—what was victory on a platter in ’01, ’02, ’03, gradually soured, and by 2005, I realized that the United States just did not have the bandwidth to deal with a flawed war in Iraq and sustain the effort in Afghanistan. And by ’05, I thought, “We’re going to be there for a decade, and I’ve gotta know—I’ve always been with the Afghans. I’ve got to know—now I want to know what it’s like to be an American soldier in Afghanistan.” And so for the first time I did something I never thought I’d do as a journalist—is that I embedded with U.S. forces in Zabul province. I was with the 2nd of the 503rd; I was with the same unit that I was with later, and under a wonderful guy, Captain McGarry.
And I was just absolutely blown away by the professionalism and the competence and the—well, the charisma, actually, of a lot of the soldiers that I was with, and dedication. They were incredible. You know, they were carrying 150 pounds—one night they carried 150—they each had loads of 150 pounds. They carried those loads over 10,000 foot mountain paths all night long, in 10 degree temperatures, and they were working so hard—they were in T-shirts and sweating—10 degrees, all night long.
And they were doing this for Afghanistan, in some ways. I just couldn’t believe it. I just fell in love with those guys, and I thought, “Okay, that was two weeks. I want to follow one platoon, the same platoon, or the same company, at any rate. I want to follow them for an entire deployment.” And I’m in my 40s, I’m married—I can’t literally spend 15 months, you know, under deployment, even if they would’ve let me. But I knew that I could go back a lot, and probably cover enough of the deployment to get a sense of what their experience was.
And it was my great fortune to hook up with Tim Hetherington. On my second trip I teamed up with Tim Hetherington. And between the two of us—we did a total of ten one-month trips— between the two of us—sometimes together, sometimes apart. And we ran video cameras the entire time. I wanted to write a book; I wanted to make a documentary. The vehicle for this was—were assignments for Vanity Fair to turn in two articles. I also had a separate deal with ABC to provide footage, but Vanity Fair paid all the travel, and they paid all the expenses, so we really were on assignment for Vanity Fair to provide two articles about this deployment. And that was sort of the basis for the book.
Tell me who Tim Hetherington was.
Tim Hetherington is a English—was an English journalist. He—
Photojournalist, is that right?
Tim was a—
Yeah, he was a photojournalist; he specialized in still images. He’d done some video work. His first war, I think, was the Liberian Civil War in 2003. He was one of two white guys with the rebel forces, the LURD, as they moved from the Ghanaian border to Monrovia on foot. Tim went with them on foot, and he walked halfway across Liberia with them and attacked Monrovia, and they—I mean just an extraordinarily dangerous situation. And I was in Monrovia on the other side, with the government forces—don’t picture soldiers. Picture teenage guys in flip-flops, on drugs with AKs—like that’s what it was on both sides, and I was on the government, and probably the most terrifying time in my life.
And I didn’t know Tim yet, but he just—he went on to cover some of the most important humanitarian stories of the—since 2003 until now. And I hooked up with him on my second trip to Afghanistan—I knew he was an amazing photographer and had shot a lot of combat video. Tall, lean, fit guy—he was exactly what I was looking for for a colleague out there in Korangal.
Was there something special not only to the daring nature of the assignments, but also to the work itself? Did you detect something in his work that you felt was sympathetic with your same kind of vision?
You know, it was early on in the project, and I wasn’t even sure what my vision was. I knew that I didn’t want to do a political evaluation of the war, or moral evaluation, or a strategic evaluation. I wanted to show what it was like to be a soldier in combat. And I started to understand that soldiers in combat don’t evaluate those sort of like large-scale concerns; like they want to do their job, without—they want to do their job honorably. They want to go home without knowing that they killed civilians—that’s a terrible torment to many of those guys. And they want to go home, period—alive, and they want all their friends to make it home, and that’s what they’re focused on.
And they join the Army because they’re patriots, or whatever—whatever their reasons might be. But once they get out there, their perspective is like very, very narrow, and they’re like a quarterback in the middle of a football game. The are not thinking about the people in the stands; they’re not thinking about their school. They’re thinking about what’s going on in front of them right now, and I wanted to capture that on film and in my book. And Tim—once Tim got that—I’d already kind of been thinking like that, but journalists are political creatures, and I wasn’t sure, like, “Is he going to—you know, the war’s controversial, like—” and he completely got it; he was like— completely got it.
And we had this idea that in our movie, Restrepo, we would not show anything that wasn’t in the valley, so we couldn’t go home and interview the families, ’cause they’re not in the Korangal. We were trying to capture the soldiers’ experience. We couldn’t talk to some general in Bagram about, “So what is the strategy in the Korangal Valley in the Kunar province?” They couldn’t ask the generals questions. “Sir, why are we in the Korangal Valley?” They couldn’t ask that question, so we couldn’t. And even having a voice-over narration—we couldn’t do it. There’s no narrator in the Korangal. There’s no voice booming down and telling people what’s going on.
So there are all these ways—it sounds like what you were trying to do was increasingly peel away everything, so that you’re there as one of them. You’re there—the eye of the camera never departs from it, and essentially the brain never departs from it, either.
That’s right. As soon as you hear a narration—you know, Morgan Freeman and his beautiful, deep voice telling you what’s going on, I hope you [Inaudible]—you know that you’re not in danger, just unconsciously.
As soon as you’re in Bagram interviewing a general, you know that you’re learning about something rather than experiencing the thing itself. And on an unconscious level, we wanted to give you the illusion of experience.
The departure from that—because we did need some kind of commentary about things—was that we did studio interviews with some of the key soldiers three months later, at their base in Italy. It’s now—they’re safely back at their base; they—
But never anyone who was not there, still.
No, it was all the same soldiers that you know from the movie—the same faces—except now they’re talking about what had happened, from the sort of safety of three months later. And that delay allowed them much more emotional expression than they could’ve afforded at OP Restrepo, when we could’ve been attacked any time. They shut down all their emotions up there, and so what we really got in Italy was the full sort of like unfolding of these feelings in these young men.
Well, the truth of the matter is, of course, that soldiering doesn’t stop once you leave a battle site, right? I mean it continues—the mind has to process that information, and you have to—as most often happens now, there’s future deployments that are going to be informed by the previous deployments in terms of how you treat them. So—
Did you see that happen?
Yes. I mean, I think so. The—
Well, I guess I’m saying that you saw reactive elements in terms of PTSD, for instance. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah. We saw young men in agony, basically, which is not—I mean ironically, that was in Italy. We did not see agony at Restrepo. Combat’s a pretty engaging, compelling thing, and those guys were into it, you know? And I think the adrenaline, the sense of brotherhood, and the intoxication of being necessary in a group and having a clear purpose—I think that overrode some of the sorrow and tragedy that was—that’s unavoidable in war. And then they got home, and suddenly they don’t have any sense of purpose.
Guys who have never been in combat, never been shot at, are yelling at them to, like fix their shoelaces. The rules of the world have been turned upside-down. They call the base “cowards’ land.” They said, “This is where cowards run the show.” I mean this place, cowards run the show. Back there in Afghanistan, courageous guys run the show. And the more courage and responsibility you have, the more you’re respected, and it’s the reverse here, and it drove them crazy.
And so they’re in the middle of dealing with this sort of like cultural shift from front line to rear base, and it’s starting to catch up with them. They’ve gotten drunk, they’ve gotten laid, they’ve done whatever they’re going to do after they came off of 15 months on a hilltop without any women, without anything. And now it’s all starting to catch up with them, and every single guy that came into this studio was either openly crying or struggling, barely able to keep it back.
And what you don’t see—because the camera is not on me, there’s no camera on me, or on Tim—what you don’t see is that in all of the situations where they’re struggling to keep their composure, that’s exactly what Tim and I are doing. I mean they were really the most painful, gut-wrenching experiences I’ve ever had as a journalist, was in a studio in Italy, and—
More painful than being in the Korangal Valley, then.
Oh, God, absolutely—’cause there’s no—the Korangal was exciting. It was traumatic, at times, but it was exciting—and no honest journalist or soldier will deny the excitement of war, you know? It’s such an unpleasant truth, but it’s the truth. And that’s not all it is, but it is that, and in that studio in Italy, all there was, was loss. It was the guys who didn’t come home. It was—at the end of the day, that’s what you’re left with. You’re not—the excitement—
What drives the emotion, though? Is it guilt? Is it fear? Is it actually confronting some of the things that you did under pressure—or did not do under pressure?
I think for the guys—I think I was so upset because my heart was breaking for them; and I think they were so upset because all of them—I think all of them felt irrationally, somehow, that the guys who died out there shouldn’t have died, and that somehow, if they had done something different, those guys wouldn’t have died.
Soldiers invent responsibility—that’s how they deal with tragedy, is they invent a responsibility, and they hate themselves for failing. So Rougle gets killed, and Cortez is dreaming every night that he’s running up the hill, trying to save his friend’s life—to get there in time to save him from the Taliban, who overran his position. Every night he has a dream that he’s running up that hill, and he’s trying to get there in time to save his life—his friend’s life, I mean—and fails; every single night. That was the nightmare that woke up Cortez every night for months, and I always had trouble understanding that. Like okay, listen, it’s war—like you’re not god; you’re not omnipotent. You’re at the bottom of the hill, Rougle’s at the top of the hill, he got overrun—it’s not your problem. I mean it’s your problem, but it’s not your fault.
And then Tim got killed in Libya—I wasn’t even over there. I was home, you know? I was supposed to have gone, and I couldn’t. For family reasons I had to pull the plug on the trip, and Tim essentially stayed on, and he got killed, and I watch myself do the same thing. And I was trying to find a way that I had caused his death, and I was in the States. And I suddenly understood the power of that impulse to blame yourself and to find some responsibility.
It’s not even been two weeks yet, has it? Three weeks, maybe?
You must still—
Two weeks tomorrow.
Two weeks tomorrow.
You must still be feeling—you say it as if it’s in the past tense, but you must be feeling this right now, I’m thinking. How did you—
Or if not, then how did you get yourself out of that soldierly sense of responsibility? [0:31:00]
I’m older than the soldiers, and I think the older you get, the better you get at processing the experiences of life. So when you’re 18 and a girl breaks up with you, it’s like the end of the world. You have no idea how to process it, right? By the time you’re 40, you can deal with that. You know, it’s miserable, but you deal with it, you know? All of these things—you do get better and better at processing it, and I think what’s very tough for soldiers is they are processing the very heaviest things you can have happen in life when they’re 19, when they’re 20. They don’t have the practice yet; you know what I mean? Like there’s—
Yeah, but do you not see that among officers, then, who were on their, you know, eighth or ninth deployment, or something? I mean who are maybe 30, 32, 34?
I think the officers get better at it, and I don’t—I think the confusion and the sort of moral bewilderment of a 19-year-old who’s lost his best friend, I think it’s hard to surpass that. I think that’s the worst situation there is; they’re the most traumatized, and the least equipped to deal with it.
And so now I’m in my 40s, and in two weeks I’ve dealt with a lot of the feelings that Tim’s death triggered; not all of it, but you know, I found out a few days into it that—he was hit by a mortar. I thought maybe he died instantly. It turns out he bled out—and he bled out calling for help.
And what killed me was at Restrepo, we were worried about exactly that situation, and we asked the medic, Doc Kelso, at the time, to train us. Tim and I asked him to train us in how to—in battlefield medicine, so if one of us were hit—you know, if Tim were hit or I were hit, that the other could help. And so we each carried tourniquets, IV bags and a line. And so I just kept thinking: Tim bled out; I knew how to save him, and I’m home. I’m here, and I should’ve been there, and I could’ve saved his life. And it’s completely irrational, but I watch myself do it. I’m 49 years old, and it gave me a real insight into what a 20-year-old goes through—the torture he goes through as a soldier, trying to imagine his responsibility.
You started this conversation by saying that you were awakened to the idea that war is sometimes necessary and there’s a humanitarian purpose to war. But now you’re talking, also, about the incredible price that the individual pays, right, to actually fight in wars, and I’m wondering whether you see this as an inevitable sort of perversion of the mind that comes with these acts, or whether this is a necessary and noble gesture still that serves a purpose.
I think a world where the press does not cover human tragedy is unimaginable, and unimaginably bad. It was a miserable experience for me, personally, that a close friend was one of the ones who got caught in the sort of lottery, in the numbers game that war reporting is. Most war reporters do not get killed. Every year, a couple of them do, and Tim lost the lottery. And it was very, very painful; tremendously painful for me. But I can’t imagine a world where those people are not doing that work, because if that were to happen, there would be no accountability, there’d be no scrutiny. The worst war crimes and atrocities would be going on and on and on, and no one would need to do anything about it, and I just—it’s miserable to say it, but I—
Tim died doing something that, in a general sense, needed to be done. He didn’t need to be covering Misrata on that day, but all the Misratas of the world—the Rwandas, the Bosnias; god forbid you pull all witnesses out—all the humanitarian workers, all the press. You pull them all out, and that stuff just happens in a black hole. It’s an unimaginable world.
And you feel the same way, I imagine, about the soldiers who are there to prevent those things from happening.
In Afghanistan—for me, Iraq was a very controversial war that I thought was—it the wrong war at the wrong moment, and I don’t want to link it with Afghanistan, because the strategic and moral rationale for the Afghan war was completely different. But in terms of Afghanistan, which is the war that I know best, something like a million Afghans, a million and a half Afghans were killed when the Soviets went in in the ’80s, in the decade of Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan; a million to a million and a half civilians. They pulled out. In the decade of the ’90s, something like 400,000 Afghans were killed—civilians.
That era ended with 9/11, and in the decade that NATO and the U.S. have been in Afghanistan, the uppermost estimates of civilian casualties are 30,000. In other words, this is the period of the lowest civilian casualties in 30 years in that country. It’s the highest rate of economic growth in that country in decades. Afghanistan has the highest economic growth of any country in that whole entire region. That is because there are Western soldiers willing to follow orders and die, if necessary, fighting extremism in Afghanistan, and if we pulled out—I mean if we pulled out, Afghanistan’s going to suffer.
And as a journalist, my primary concern, my core sort of ethos, is what’s going to produce the least amount of civilian suffering? Which decisions will protect civilian—human dignity and civilian lives the most? And if pulling out would do that, I would say pull out in a heartbeat, but it won’t, it’ll be the reverse, and so I’m in this weird sort of like odd position of advocating war, advocating use of military, in order to preserve civilian life. But I think that’s the reality, and that’s why it’s so confusing. It’s such a confusing calculation for liberals and conservatives in this country to wrap their mind around—you pull the Army out and civilian casualties go up? In a sort of Vietnam-era analysis that makes absolutely no sense, but that is the post-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall reality.
Well, any country that’s been under the authoritarian thumb, when the thumb is lifted, it creates a lot of chaos, right?
And have—there’s nothing there to sort of control that chaos, and it results in a lot of deaths, and Yugoslavia is an example of that.
Yeah, that’s right.
Precisely. You know, a lot of cadets will be watching this, so tell—and many of them may end up going to Afghanistan. What does it look like? What are the people like? How much do they know about the world and what’s going on?
I really kind of fell in love with Afghanistan in the ’90s. It— physically it’s one of the most beautiful, beautiful, beautiful countries. It reminds me of America. You know, it reminds me of the Rockies in Nevada, and the most spectacular part of Montana; like that’s what Afghanistan looks like. It’s incredible.
The light, the mountains, the people are just—the people have this incredible dignity, you know? I mean they’re very poor; some of them are very poor, but they are tough, tough, proud people. And you can see it in their faces. And they are incredibly generous—I mean, not all of them. There are criminals over there, like anywhere, and there are people who’ll cut your throat in a second for your wallet, you know, like obviously. But when I was over there, and when I was in the north in Badakshan with Massoud, I mean the hospitality, the gratefulness, just that we were there covering their tragedy—we, as Westerners—it was just—it was so moving. We got shelled once by the Taliban; we were on a hilltop position that had just been taken from the Taliban, and they were counter-attacking, and they started their counter-attack with a barrage of katyusha rockets, and we were just getting hammered on this hilltop.
And this 18-year-old Afghan fighter, this boy—we were on the ground, and he lay down on top of me because basically like he was charged with my safety, and if I got killed under his watch, his life was not worth living. And so he just laid—and I was like I wasn’t crazy about the situation, because as a man, I feel like, hey, we all take our own risks. I don’t want to be protected by another man, you know? But that’s a sort of Western idea, and in Afghan society it’s like, “I was told to protect you, so I’m going to protect you.” And it was such a moving moment, you know? And we lost our horse—our horse got killed—but we otherwise got out of it okay—and a few psychic scars—but I just—they’re just an incredible, incredible place. And when you see it, Afghanistan, through the bullet-proof windows of a Humvee, you really—what you see is you see threat; you see an alien environment; you see potential Taliban on every street corner. But to go there as a civilian and really be with the Afghan people, that was just a profound, profound experience for me.
In doing that, do you get to know any Taliban? Have you met any Taliban? I mean what’s the Taliban look like, what’s it sound like?
They look like everybody else. We met some Taliban prisoners that Massoud had.
A lot of them were Pakistani. You know, they just—they had this idea. We asked them. We were free to ask them anything—this was in 2000.
Yeah—I understand, I understand.
And we were free to ask them anything, and they were just like, “Massoud is the devil,” you know, “he’s Satan, and he’s the enemy of Allah, and we are here to create a Muslim republic in Afghanistan.” And it was just like they weren’t even speaking their own opinions; they were repeating things they’d heard. And it was terrible. But they were—in some ways it’s easy to brainwash poor people, and I think that’s what Pakistan did. They brainwashed a whole segment.
That’s what Pakistan did.
That’s what Pakistan did. They brainwashed an entire segment of the population of Afghanistan; of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan—they brainwashed them as a way to control that country.
Where were you when you heard the news two days ago of the death of Osama bin Laden?
I was in Massachusetts, and I don’t have a television up there, and I don’t even—I’m on dial-up, so it’s like incredibly slow information. And I got a phone call from Cathy, and she said— I’ve had a lot of—the phone call that Tim was hurt, and turned out dead—also came from Cathy. So I’m now a little bit like when Cathy calls, like, “Oh, what now?” And she said, you know, “Bin Laden’s dead.” And I just thought, “Wow—ten years. Incredible.” And no one thought—no one thought it would take this long. And then I thought, “It’s a great symbolic victory and catharsis,” and I hope that that, along with the Arab Spring, really brings about real change in the Arab world, because as bad as 9/11 was, the bloody cost of extremism, of religious extremism, has primarily been borne by other Muslims.
And I really hope that our world is coming out of that era with these two twin—you know, the death of bin Laden and what’s going on in those countries now, I hope we’re coming out of that era.
|topics||War on Terror Writing the Soldier's Life Returning from War|