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AUTHORS & IDEAS

Sebastian Junger bands with soldier brothers to document 'War'

Embedded with an Army unit in a fierce part of Afghanistan, the author of 'The Perfect Storm' witnessed the bonds of faith and love that make soldiers a family.

May 16, 2010|By Marjorie Miller, Los Angeles Times

Soldiers, he discovered, generally don't worry about the politics or moral basis for war, or even necessarily the long-term prospects for its success. They are consumed with the job they've been sent to do. Junger would sometimes lie awake at night thinking that everything could end at any moment. Often he worried that a mistake on his part could endanger the others, so even though he abided by the unwritten rule that correspondents don't carry weapons, he violated another by wearing a military-issue camouflage shirt. What if someone died during an ambush, Junger asked himself? He would always wonder if he had triggered the attack. He was determined, he wrote, "not to become a liability." According to Rueda, he didn't. "He never panicked," Rueda says. "He'd always get out of the way when he saw you move with purpose."

Junger realized that this need he felt of protecting the group was central to the soldiers' experience. "In combat, something awakens in men that is compelling and intense and confusing to them," he says. They develop a bond so strong that they are willing to put the security of the group above their own, to risk death to save others.

"I'd never been in a situation where my life depended on other people, and the other way around," he says.

Junger's book variously describes this bond among soldiers in terms of family, religion and love. "You're necessary to everyone else and everyone is necessary to you," he says. This is a part of what makes the return to civilian life so difficult for soldiers. Another is the fact that while every action in combat may have life-or-death consequences, that isn't the case in civilian life: "You don't tie your shoes, you don't drink water, nothing has consequences in civilian life and if it doesn't have consequences, it doesn't feel important."

Junger found himself deeply affected by his experience with Battle Company. "I was incredibly emotional writing the book," he says. "People think you get emotional because you're upset and traumatized. In this case it wasn't that. I just felt a lot of connection with these guys.''

Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington also have produced a documentary about the unit, "Restrepo," which refers to a satellite base named for a popular combat medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed in the early days of the deployment. The film, which won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, will be released in theaters this summer and will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel in the fall with a hybrid e-book to follow.

"It was important for me that the movie not come out with the book. I wanted each to be considered on its own merits," he says, adding that he wanted to make sure to reach out to soldiers, who get much of their information on the Internet. He believes the visual media will help ensure the survival of the kind of narrative writing he does, rather than undercut it.

For Rueda, the hope is that the book and documentary will convey the sense of brotherhood that he and his friends developed, the sense of accomplishment they felt in the Korengal Valley, even though a new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has since decided to abandon the zone after nearly 50 casualties there.

"The biggest thing for the guys was being able to tell people what it was to depend on each other," Rueda said. Junger "got a lot of it. Some parts are missing, the parts that are harder for civilians to understand, but, yeah, he got it."

Miller is a Times editorial writer and the paper's former foreign editor.

marjorie.miller@latimes.com

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