Sebastian Junger Looks Back

On Oct. 7, 2001, almost a month after the attacks on America, the much-awaited, and for some, much-dreaded retaliation finally began.

As Northern Alliance troops, aided by U.S. air power began their assault on the Taliban, journalist-author Sebastian Junger entered northern Afghanistan on special assignment with ABCNEWS to cover the war in the ravaged Central Asian nation.

A year after the military campaign in Afghanistan began, he spoke about his experience covering the war with's Leela Jacinto. One year after the military campaign in Afghanistan began, how would you assess the situation there?

Sebastian Junger: Well, the good news is that the country is still — basically — at peace. It's not a unified democracy the way we think of it, but it's so much better than at any point in the last 23 years. I think that will continue — and improve — entirely dependent upon the international community, specifically the United States.

The last two peacekeeping efforts we've been part of — Kosovo and Bosnia — have been wildly successful. And it was partly because we flooded those countries with a massive amount of reconstructive aid and peacekeepers — there were about 50,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, it's a country of 2 million. There's only something like 5,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, and it's a country of about 20 million.

I don't know why ... it's a completely self-fulfilling prophecy: Afghanistan is too chaotic to risk peacekeepers, so you only put a few in. Well, that guarantees that chaos will eventually take over again. It's totally self-fulfilling and it breaks my heart for the Afghans, because they've suffered enough in all this. You of course covered the war in Afghanistan last year for ABCNEWS. Looking back on that now, were there any particularly memorable experiences?

Sebastian Junger: Well, the most obvious memorable experience was taking Kabul. We were with them, some of the lead Northern Alliance units. I didn't know what we would get. I mean, I was an American and the American Air Force has just finished bombing them and civilians had died, I mean by accident, but still...

And we got in there and the Northern Alliance was cheered wildly. They were received incredibly warmly and even Americans were cheered. People were shouting "America, America" on the streets because they knew that without the U.S. they would not be liberated from the Taliban.

To see a city in that kind of jubilation ... it's something that as a journalist, as a person — and frankly as an American because we played such an important role in that — was incredible. It was an experience I'll never forget because I don't think it will ever be repeated, for me. So you've never watched a city being liberated before?

Sebastian Junger: No, no. And you recommend it?

Sebastian Junger: I recommend it, yes, yes (laughs). My father grew up in Paris and he came to this country in World War II. Of course I heard about the liberation of Paris and all that. These are things that are in the realm of myth for me and I finally got to see that. It was a very powerful experience. Did you get a sense that you were watching history?

Sebastian Junger: Oh, absolutely, completely. Does that put a pressure on you? To convey the history of the present to the world?

Sebastian Junger: Yes, but I don't know if it's a pressure. You really feel more infused with the importance of the moment and I think it comes out of you naturally in a broadcast or in your writing.

There was a moment right before the attack began, we were up in the front line, there'd been a lot of shelling, very, very close to us. We heard that three journalists had just been — this was wrong — but we heard that they'd been caught and executed by the Taliban further north. In fact, they were caught in an ambush. But the Northern Alliance were about to attack and some of the news crews pulled out because they felt it was too dangerous to follow the attack and we were just in a very bad place.

And I was extremely nervous. I really thought this might be a massive mistake on my part to be following these guys. And one of the reasons that I stayed and went forward with it was because it just seemed like such an important story. And if something happened to me while I was reporting that story at least it would have been during a decisive moment in history and not some awful little brushfire war in Africa, that to Americans meant very little. So, when you are in a dangerous situation, you do have a sense of is this worth it and if it's some small brushfire battle in Africa, it's probably not worth it?

Sebastian Junger: Well I mean to the people in Africa, it's important of course. But I mean that's not my war, you know. That's their war and my job is not to get killed in it. In Afghanistan, it sort of did feel in some part like my war. Partly because I had great concern for what was happening in Afghanistan and I thought the Northern Alliance — although there were problems — would improve the lot of the Afghans, would improve their situation.

But also of course as an American, my interest was very real in what was happening. So, two things coincided at that moment. My interest as an American and as someone who's concerned about Afghanistan, who had been there before and who was pretty heartbroken about what that country was going through. Speaking about problems with the Northern Alliance, you of course met Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir, before he was killed. And you've written about that encounter. Have you faced any criticism about the piece given that Masood had a pretty mixed track record while he was the Afghan Defense Minister in the 1990s?

Sebastian Junger: Well, he himself didn't. I mean he made terrible political blunders. But he was also fighting, or he was caught in a situation where there were factions armed and supported by Pakistan who were trying to destabilize his government. It was an incredibly chaotic situation and the standards for respect for human rights had sunk so low that you sort of have to keep that in mind when you evaluate not his conduct personally, but some of his commanders.

And my experience of Masood — and hearing stories about even of how he treated Russian prisoners during the '80s — I find it absolutely inconceivable that he could have ordered that kind of atrocities. But I can easily imagine in the chaos of that situation, one of his commanders doing it in a way that he either wasn't aware or couldn't fully control. That absolutely could have happened. But I've never heard anything that he was directly, personally responsible for, that would qualify as real human rights abuse. Any plans to go back to Afghanistan to find out how things have changed?

Sebastian Junger: Well, yeah, there is. It's just that I have a lot of things on my plate and I have to juggle them and I just haven't got back there yet. I would like to go back there frankly, not as a journalist, but as a tourist ... it's a lovely place. People there are incredibly nice and I would love to be able to go back there and not have to report on the latest horrors. Now that everyone seemingly knows everything about Afghanistan from a pakul (turban) to a loya jirga, do you want to move on to another country — Iraq maybe?

Sebastian Junger: I have, I've been doing other assignments. Right now, I wouldn't be going back to Afghanistan as a journalist — not enough is happening there — thank God. You know, I'm glad there's not much of a story there, but that's also why I'm not going back there.

Iraq ... uhhh ... it doesn't particularly tempt me's a war ... I mean I absolutely supported what the U.S. did in Afghanistan. I wish we'd done it sooner, I wish for the sake of the Afghans, we had done something that would have enabled democracy to take hold there.

In Iraq frankly, it's not that I don't approve, I feel that our government has not given us honest and compelling reason to go in there. I'm sort of reserving judgment. I wish they were putting the evidence on the table, that there's a compelling reason to go. What they're mainly saying right now is there's a risk of something bad, so we've gotta do it. But if that's the standard for military action, there are dozens of other countries in the world we would have to invade. How do you respond to criticisms of parachute journalists — who jump into the latest conflict without knowing the local language, as opposed to reporters based in a region for years?

Sebastian Junger: Well, I think you sort of need both. I mean you can't learn every language in the world. That should not be a criterion for allowing you to cover a country. That's ridiculous, I think. Also, a person who's been in one country for years and years and years, I think can really lose perspective ... I think it's great to have both.

I mean, you have people with a tremendous amount of experience, who do very in-depth reporting, I mean really thought-provocative pieces — either for television or print. And then you have the whatever, the parachute journalists, who've been to a lot of places and actually have an interesting perspective that's also very valuable.

I should also say that one shouldn't confuse parachute journalism with not caring — or not having a basic humanity to what you're seeing. I mean there are callous, exploitative people in every business and journalism is no exception. I would say the vast majority of the journalists I know who have been in these war zones, far from being sort of hardened or even entertained by the chaos ... it's almost as if they've been oversensitized. I mean those are the people who, at dinner, you find them ranting about how can the West ignore these things. I find that most of the journalists, the longer they do it, the more upset they get. Which is nice and not the image the public has of journalists particularly. Any of these journalists ranting at dinner that have influenced you?

Sebastian Junger: Uh, you know in the world of television, I don't know that many TV journalists. But in the world of print, uh, oh God, there are so many that are good. I mean, I have a lot of friends ... so I don't know if I should start naming my friends, but one woman who really struck me in Africa, in Sierra Leone, was Janine DiGiovanni, from the Times of London, I mean she's great. In the afterword to your book Fire, you mentioned a friend who calls herself a human rights reporter, not a war reporter?

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, that's Janine. Well, how would you define yourself? Are you a human rights reporter or a war reporter?

Sebastian Junger: Well, I put it in the afterword because what she said made great sense to me. I never thought of it like that. The thing that makes war very important is the potential for civilian suffering. So, you do end up being a sort of human rights reporter if you're a war reporter. For me, good war reporting is human rights reporting. I mean it's other things also, but it has to include that. So, I would kind of say both. One is a sub-category of the other. In terms of good war reporting — or human rights reporting — you think one year later, a good job was done covering the war in Afghanistan?

Sebastian Junger: Yes. I was very impressed with the level of reporting — television and everything else in that war. The other ABC crew, I know you're not supposed to pat your own back — but the other ABC crew that we worked with, I mean we lived with them in the same house ... I can't tell you how impressed I was with the quality of their work.

You know, TV gets a bad rap for being shallow, but they were doing work that had depth that would have been good in print. I mean you can't put all that on TV because you don't have that much time. But I would see the preparatory work that they were doing and boy, they really knew what they were doing. What are you doing these days and in the days to come?

Sebastian Junger: I'm researching a book that I really can't talk about, but it's a domestic topic — it has nothing to do with storms or war. In other words, it's something I'm not really associated with as a journalist. I just got back from South America where I was writing about terrorist cells in South America. I have vague plans to go to Sudan. The war in Iraq ... I don't think I would cover it, if I did I think I would go to the northern Kurdish area — that for me would be much more interesting than getting bombed by my own Air Force in Baghdad.