Junger: We Must Understand Many Troops Miss War

In the New York Times, Sebastian Junger, author of War and co-director of the documentary Restrepo, argues civilians need to understand troops' complex feelings about war. If we don't, he warns, "we won't do a very good job of bringing these people home and making a place for them in our society."

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NEAL CONAN, host: Since the war began almost 10 years ago, more than 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan. Nearly that many Afghan civilians died in the first six months of this year alone. In a recent piece in The New York Times, writer Sebastian Junger talked about soldiers who miss the war even though they know better than anyone that war is hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MISHA PEMBLE-BELKIN: I - I'd rather be there than here. I'd rather be deployed right now just because the war is still going on over there. So that's the part that I miss. It's like - I don't really miss it. I just wish I was doing something instead of just sitting around still. Like I feel like I'm doing nothing right now, except sitting here. I'd rather be over there fighting against the Taliban and al-Qaida or whoever we were up against that day, instead of just sitting here while some other guys are over there doing what we were doing.

CONAN: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, one of the people Junger talked to for the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Restrepo." In his piece, Sebastian Junger argues we need to construct a monument in Washington to honor the civilian dead of Iraq and Afghanistan, that they, too, are victims of 9/11.

What do you think? We'd especially be interested to hear from those of you who served in those wars. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sebastian Junger joins us now from a studio in Eastham, Massachusetts. His most recent book is called "War," and it's good of you to be with us today.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Hi, there. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And we know that this is the first time we've had a chance to talk with you since the - your co-director for the film "Restrepo," photojournalist Tim Hetherington, was killed earlier this year while on assignment in Libya. And we're so sorry for the loss of your friend.

JUNGER: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, part of your piece is about the same thing that drove Tim Hetherington to another conflict in another place, the sort of attraction that war has for men.

JUNGER: It's a very easy thing to pathologize . There's a lot of adrenaline in combat, and I think the public tends to think of that reaction that many soldiers have - and certainly many journalists have - of sort of longing to be back in the action. I think many people in the public sort of think it's just a kind of a adrenaline addiction. I think there is a component of that.

I think the more profound draw to combat is the sense of utility, the sense of purpose and, above all, the incredible unity in a group, in a platoon in combat. It's something that can't be duplicated very well in society, and I think it really goes back to our evolutionary past, these hunter-gatherers in small groups in a very dangerous world. And I think it resonates on a very deep level with these young men.

CONAN: You say in terms of the political divide, liberals have a hard time accepting that part of war, while conservatives have a hard time accepting the fact that war is always terrible and that more innocents die than bad guys.

JUNGER: Well, it's so funny. If you spend time with soldiers, you realize that the people fighting these wars are the people who are the least political about these wars. I mean, a soldiers basically - you know, they're really not Democrats or Republicans out there. They're soldiers, and they're sent there by our country to do a job, and they more or less keep politics out of it. But, of course, you discuss war back home in the civilian population and it becomes extremely political.

I have a lot of very liberal friends. I'm a longtime liberal myself. I've always voted Democratic. And what I hear among my friends is this idea that the - basically, the military industrial complex has manipulated the lowest levels, economic levels of society and drawn them into the military as a kind of cannon fodder.

It certainly was not true in the platoon that I was with. I mean, it was mostly middle-class kids. It was white and Hispanic kids. There was one black guy in the platoon. And they were all extremely proud to be out there. They were smart guys, and I think they had a lot of choices in life. They chose to be combat infantry because they wanted that experience. They wanted that sense of purpose and importance and utility.

CONAN: There's an interesting quote that you used in the piece. It's another quote from your film "Restrepo," the reference to Brendan O'Byrne. He says he misses almost all the aspects of war. He also sheds light on the two complicated worlds troops live in: The one where they face validation and praise from their country and the one where they must come to terms with what they've done.

BRENDAN O'BYRNE: Everyone tells you, you know, you did an honorable thing. You did all right. You're all right. You did what you had to do. I just hate that comment, did what you had to do, because I didn't have to do any of it. That's the hardest thing to deal with. I didn't have to go into the Army. I didn't have to become airborne infantry. I didn't have to do any of that. But I did, you know? And that comment - you did what you had to do - just drives me insane. Because is that what God is going to say - you did what you had to do, good job, welcome to heaven, you know? I don't think so.

CONAN: And one of the reasons you wrote that so many people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have difficulty coming back into civilian society is that the rest of us have not had any exposure to those things that they did, that either they or someone they knew, yes, they think they think they did honorable things, yes, they had those wonderful aspects of combat that you just spoke about, but yes, either they or somebody they knew - the example you used is emptied their rifle into a truck of civilians that they thought was about to explode on them.

JUNGER: Yeah. I mean, war is unbelievably violent, and that violence touches everybody. And the soldiers that I was with, they were extremely careful about civilian casualties, in part because they're normal human beings and they don't want to commit murder, and in part because they knew that civilian casualties would lead to more aggression and more deaths in their own ranks by an enraged local population. So they were very, very aware of that, but war in its terribleness produces dead civilians.

And I think what's so hard for these guys and - I keep saying men because it was all men in the platoon that I was with in the Korengal Valley. What's so hard for these guys is they follow the rules, they obey their orders, they obey the rules of engagement, and even so, civilians get killed, sometimes by their own hand, by the hand of these young soldiers. They come back to this country, they are wrestling with the - a real moral heaviness of having killed innocent people. And they come home to this country and people here really don't want to engage with just the raw tragedy of that fact.

And you know, I have to say, as a context for this, you know, I was in Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was a complete bloodbath there. The level of civilian casualties now since NATO and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has dropped off by maybe a factor of 10, and most of those civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban. So you know, in terms of should we or should we not be there, I think Afghanistan is far better off in those terms of civilian death than the Afghans were in the 1990s during the civil war.

But it sort of doesn't matter for the young man behind the gun who, you know, who shot up a car full of civilians thinking that they are insurgents about to blow him up. That doesn't matter. They come home. They killed innocent people, and they don't know what to do with that fact emotionally. And the public doesn't really want to hear about it. I think the left wing kind of uses that as a rationale for we need to leave immediately, and I think the right wing just simply doesn't want to engage with that tragedy at all.

CONAN: We're talking with Sebastian Junger, his most recent book "War," and co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Restrepo." And he's suggesting that maybe one way to help us all deal with those situations would be to erect a monument to commemorate the civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Pat's on the line, Pat calling from Muskegon in Michigan.

PAT: Hi. Thanks for taking the call. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAT: My comment is, as to the memorial, I think it's - I never thought of it, but I think it's a great idea, but not just for these two wars but for all the wars we've fought at least since Vietnam but probably all the wars and maybe a description of what we were fighting for and why these people died. But one other thing I'd like to mention, then I'll get off the phone and let you guys talk about it, is I'm politically against the war. As he's talking about, back home it's a political thing.

But I feel for the soldiers, as the former military person, that it's sad. These guys, I mean you don't want to leave a war unfinished if your brothers have died, hopefully for a cause. And you don't just want to walk away and feel like everybody that you knew, your friends, they all died or got maimed for nothing. So I understand the feeling within the military of we got to stay there.

Unfortunately, I feel like that that's got to be overlooked, but we need to do something to help them get past those feelings because that's got to be a terrible thing. And I'll listen off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call.

JUNGER: You know, I think a monument would have two great benefits. And I'm putting this in the context of the Vietnam Memorial, which was so controversial when it was first built, and then wound up being tremendously therapeutic for Vietnam veterans who could go find the names of their brothers who lost their lives. I mean, first of all, a monument would allow a place for veterans to go, veterans who had a heavy heart for maybe causing civilian deaths that they had no intention of causing, but it happened, and they don't know what to do with it psychologically, morally, emotionally.

There'd be a place to go to sort of grieve and ask forgiveness for something that, you know, they didn't intend to cause. The other great benefit is, I think it would signal to the rest of the world that if we had a monument that just acknowledged the tragedy of death - civilian death in war, it would send a great signal to the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world, that we understand the consequences of war. I mean, war is the most serious business there is. And I think in our unacknowledgment of the civilian cost, there is this idea out there that we just, as a nation, don't quite get it. We don't quite understand the seriousness of all this.

And I think a monument - not one asking for forgiveness, but one simply acknowledging the tragedy of human death, I think it would go a long way towards shifting perception and shifting our own perception of ourselves.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And some critics would say such a monument would, first of all, be an acknowledgment of - that these were killed by - that we were responsible - this - there would be some terrible wrongs that we were acknowledging by erecting such a monument. And others would point out most of those civilians killed not by us but by the Taliban, as you said.

JUNGER: I mean, you know, in Afghanistan - I've never been to Iraq. It was a war that I was against and - but I feel like there are some parallels. But in Afghanistan, you know, there's - there - the Afghan people, they don't want war. Most of them do not support the Taliban. They certainly don't support al-Qaida. And they are struggling very hard to establish a peaceful and democratic or at least a stable country. And those efforts are being undermined by Taliban fighters who are blowing up people in marketplaces and blowing up cars and planting roadside bombs and killing hundreds and hundreds of civilians each year.

And you know, as presidents are fond of saying, our troops are - overseas are dying for - they're fighting for freedom, and they're dying for freedom. If that's true, if we take that to be true, then these Afghans are also dying for freedom. They're dying for the same noble concept that our soldiers are fighting for. And I think they need to be thought of in the same terms in some ways. They're paying a cost as well, and we all hope that it - that this experiment works.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rick, and Rick with us from Nashville.

RICK: Hi. I think that it's kind of absurd to think that we would have a monument to the German civilians that were killed in Dresden, and the Japanese might have a monument, people - civilians that were killed in Pearl Harbor. War is war, and you kind of get what you pay for. I'm sorry. Somebody just slowed down on the highway and I had to slow down. It's just - I don't think that we ought to really think(ph) that we should be involved in any war. I think we're over there doing the right thing and trying very hard.

I have a son-in-law who's in the Marines, and he told me - and I asked him. I said, what do you all day? And I thought they went out and, I guess, killed bad guys. And he said, 90 percent of the time he's out there trying to build a well, trying to, you know, talk to the leaders of the community and get them to believe that we're there trying to help them. So I think there's a bigger picture here. And America is not always the bad guy.

CONAN: Sebastian Junger.

JUNGER: Yeah. I mean, I think the listener didn't - I think he - maybe he just tuned in. I'm not sure. But, I mean, I, you know, I was in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and it was horrible. And I believe the country is far better off with NATO and U.S. involvement now. So I definitely do not see the U.S. as the bad guys in any way right now. And our involvement there was triggered by 9/11, much like Pearl Harbor was not - we were attacked, and we did have to respond in some fashion. I - and the idea that war is war, you get what you pay for, I mean there are laws of war. I mean war is not war.

I mean, there are, you know, there are civil wars in West Africa. They're almost completely lawless, and the cost to the civilian population is unspeakable. And then - and there are wars which try to sort of stay within the rules and end up - and civilians are, to some degree, protected. But nevertheless, those civilians are dying, and they're dying like civilians in New York City died on 9/11. And I think any civilian death should be lamented and should be recognized and ultimately used as a way to maybe heal this world which is in such conflict.

CONAN: Rick, thanks for the call. Drive carefully, OK? I think Rick hung up so he could drive carefully. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is another Rick, this one from Jacksonville in North Carolina.

RICK: Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hi. Can you make it quick, Rick?

RICK: Oh, yes, I can. I just want to caveat what Mr. Junger was saying. I agree that Afghanistan - I just got back not too long ago - that a lot of locals have a symbiotic relationship with the Taliban there, and it's not a traditional war in any sense. And you can't really understand it until you're there. And a lot of them do suffer and are casualties by the Taliban's hands more often than not, and that's not really something you can understand until you see it, you know, with a Taliban stronghold, a village, or you know, makes farmers pay out to them kind of like in a Mafia sense.

And then when you have to go try to protect them, how impossible it is because their relationships are so close together, how they kind of rely on the Taliban for money and protection. Yet the Taliban is always, constantly, you know, aggravating them and trying to use them as a shield against the Americans that are there trying to help them.

CONAN: Well, Rick, thanks very much for the call and welcome home.

RICK: Thank you.

CONAN: Very quickly, this is email from Charlotte in Bexley, Ohio: I was struck by your opening remark about the draw war has for men. My 31-year-old niece is an army captain JAG, served 15 months in Iraq. She was eager to go to Afghanistan and is currently serving there. I agree with your guest; it is unity of purpose that draws them, male or female. Sebastian Junger, thank you very much for your time today.

JUNGER: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Sebastian Junger, the author of "War," co-director of "Restrepo." You can find a link to his New York Times piece, "Why Would Anyone Miss War?" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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