Battlefield truth reverberates through Junger's latest work, 'War'

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; E02

He looks a bit weary when he arrives at the Afghan Grill in Woodley Park for a late, late lunch.

Marching all night in the jagged hills of Afghanistan or dodging sniper rounds doesn't overtax Sebastian Junger, but the terrain of a book tour, well now, that's exhausting. "All stress," he says convincingly.

Before taking his seat, Junger pauses to survey the landscape. He's a solidly built man's man, with a square jaw and penetrating eyes. When he sheds a light jacket and lifts his arms, biceps perk up beneath a snug black tee-shirt.

A photograph on the far wall catches his eye, and he gazes for a moment. It's an image of horsemen at the foot of a snow-crusted mountain in Afghanistan's breathtakingly foreboding Hindu Kush. The same image, he says, transfixed him long ago, when he was 12 and saw it at a bookstore with his parents.

"I had to go to that country," Junger, now 48, remembers thinking at the time.

And so the narrative begins. Junger, whose substantial storytelling gifts have made him one of America's most successful adventurer/writers, sets the stage without a trace of pretense. And he leaves it at that.

Handed such an easy prop, a less sure-footed author might have leaped at the chance to roll out a clich├ęd script: young, earnest boy falls in love with far-off country, realizes dream, writes book. Yadda, yadda. But Junger, as he demonstrates so deftly in his new work, "War," is a master of economy.

And he -- most definitely -- doesn't do yadda, yadda.

He is hungry, however. It's 2:30 p.m., after all. He settles in at a table for six, with a couple of publicity guys doing their best to be invisible.

Junger traveled to Afghanistan five times on assignment for Vanity Fair and to write his book, an intimate, vivid account of battlefield life in the Korengal Valley. But the menu at Afghan Grill might best be described as haute Afghan, and Junger isn't much help deciphering the choices. He sampled Afghanistan with poor villagers -- "Not much more than rice," he says -- and U.S. soldiers, whose diet consisted mainly of decidedly non-gourmet MREs. Junger speaks in a low rumble, and even when reviewing the menu his face sets in a no-nonsense mien.

He suggests everyone pick an entree and share. No one argues. Junger selects sauteed eggplant, but later digs into the lamb and shrimp, as well, passing the plates as he reminisces about firefights and that time he tore his Achilles tendon out on patrol.

After getting hurt, he skipped a planned return trip to recover, not wanting to hold up the troops -- not something he worried about when he was healthy. He's a former marathoner and, even though most of the soldiers were less than half his age, he was confident he wouldn't fall behind. "I knew that wasn't going to happen," he says matter-of-factly.

Since the release of "War," Junger's been getting the usual political questions from interviewers. He obliges, though reluctantly, lamenting the reductionist view of the American soldier: "To the right wing, they're heroes and patriots and that's it. The left wing doesn't even know what to think of them. Their actual experience drops out."

Junger would rather focus on the men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's Battle Company, a brave, rowdy and -- in his hands -- utterly human bunch of young soldiers who accepted him and photographer Tim Hetherington into their world. They're tough guys who crave armed conflict and chose this life of hardship and danger. "It's like crack," a rifleman in Second Platoon named Kyle Steiner, who survived a bullet to the helmet, tells Junger. "You can't get a better high."

Steiner's words call to mind to the opening quote in "The Hurt Locker," winner of this year's Oscar for best picture: "War is a drug."

Junger figures the film has some redeeming qualities, but in the final assessment, he doesn't think much of it, nor do the friends he made while writing "War." He chafes at the depiction of the character played by Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner, a brash bomb specialist who unnerves his colleagues by taking hair-raising risks to defuse roadside explosives.

"What the movie failed to get is that if you're just looking for adrenaline, you can go sky-diving," he says. Junger detected something more complex in the men of Battle Company, a yearning not just for a buzz, but also for relevance and connection. "That whole cowboy act that guy had? It would never happen.

"Part of the experience is being absolutely necessary to those nine other guys," Junger adds. "That's the real drug. It's a drug of emotional connection."

Many of the soldiers Junger got to know so well were just little boys when he lived his own Hollywood moment, back in 2000 when his book, "The Perfect Storm" was turned into a hit movie. (The soldiers were more impressed, Junger says, that he is part-owner of a bar -- The Half King -- in New York. He'd hand out business cards and invite them for drinks on the house if they were ever in New York.)

Junger co-directed a film about the soldiers he met in Afghanistan called "Restrepo," which releases on June 25 and won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. But the prospects for parlaying his book into a hit film, a la Perfect Storm, look iffier.

"Director after director, and producer after producer" have told him they're reluctant because so many films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done poorly at the box office. Junger, though, thinks the problem isn't the subject of the films, but the execution of the films. "They all sucked," he says.

This is no surprise to Junger, who says the films generally suffer from being "written by people who've never been to war."

He doesn't have to say, "like me." "War" says it for him.

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