No stranger to danger, the author and journalist prepares to brave the worldís latest storm
BY TAMARA WIEDER
ITíS A WARM October afternoon in Boston and Sebastian Junger is holed up at the Swissôtel, talking on his cell phone, enjoying a wild-mushroom pizza, and relishing a few quiet moments in what has become an extraordinarily hectic week. In the midst of a book tour to promote Fire (Norton, 2001), a collection of his magazine essays on the frontlines of danger in such war-torn regions as Macedonia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone (not to mention the fire-ravaged forests of Idaho), Junger is suddenly an intensely sought-after commodity for an entirely different reason: his knowledge of Afghanistan.
Last year, on assignment for National Geographic, the Belmont native and best-selling author of The Perfect Storm spent a month in the battle-weary country with renowned National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek photographer Reza Deghati. While in Afghanistan, they traveled with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic guerrilla leader of the Northern Alliance, the group now fighting the Taliban for control of the country. Along the way, Junger witnessed many of the atrocities of war firsthand ó and found himself in the midst of a shelling campaign in the process. But his Afghan journey, detailed in the final chapter of Fire and on the National Geographic Channelís Frontline Diaries: Into the Forbidden Zone, was not to be his last. On September 14, Massoud died of wounds suffered in a September 9 suicide-bomb attack by two men posing as journalists. Meanwhile, the world watched and waited as US military forces in Afghanistan grew in advance of an expected retaliation for the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
And so, instead of continuing with a lengthy book tour, Junger now finds himself preparing for a likely return to Afghanistan ó this time not as a writer planning to chronicle his experiences in print, but as a correspondent for ABC News.
Q: It seems like you werenít really recognized by the mainstream public as a journalist until very recently, even though thatís your background.
A: Oh, I know! People kept thinking of me as an author, and I identify much more with being a journalist. Itís a more exciting job, and it feels more relevant and it feels more important and more current, and itís more stimulating. And it was one of several reasons that after The Perfect Storm, I didnít write another book. I went back to the kind of magazine reporting that had just started to gain some momentum when the book came out. And now itís incredibly gratifying ó like, now, finally, Iím known as a journalist. I think one of the reasons I wanted to publish this collection was to really plant the flag on Mount Journalism and say, " This is me. " It was very important to me. I donít know why. And Iím very proud of it. Partly, I think, a successful book is partly a crapshoot ó you can write a good book and it doesnít do well and a bad book and it does do well, and I feel I wrote a good book, but the fact that it did well was, to some degree, arbitrary. But with journalism, it doesnít matter whose cousin you are; nothing matters. You just have to give them good work. If you donít, you fall by the wayside. And I wasnít getting by on anything but my own hard work.
Q: How did you choose these particular essays? Whatís the glue?
A: Itís just all my work of significance in my 30s. So the first one is on forest firefighters, and that was back when I was working as a climber for tree companies, and I hurt myself, and it got me thinking about dangerous work, and how I wanted to bring peopleís attention to that instead of extreme sports. Itís sort of interesting now, me wanting to honor the people who do dangerous work, and bring some attention to it, and some admiration to it; I mean, now this tragedy in New York has done that in a way that my work never could have. My little grandiose fantasies ó I never could have brought the American publicís attention to that issue the way that tragedy did. And theyíve finally gotten their due ó it cost them a couple hundred lives, but theyíve finally gotten their due. Those guys, the split between extreme adventure sports and dangerous jobs ó that split, and the difference in attention they get, is a class issue. It really is. Adventure sports, college-educated; dangerous work, not college-educated. Really cleanly divided. There we have a situation where 300 firemen ó who make, what do those guys make, $30,000 a year, something like that? Most of them, many of them probably didnít go to college ó running up 100 flights of stairs to save people who make 10, 20 times that amount, without even a second thought. Itís incredible. And people, understandably, got all depressed about the human race after these attacks; I was like, " Fuck bin Laden. Look at those guys. There are wonderful things about the human race, too. Just look at those guys. There are 300 of them, thereís one of him. Look at those guys. Cheer yourselves up. " It really was an amazing thing.
Q: This trip you may be making back to Afghanistan ó how and when did this all come about?
A: Before all this, I wanted to go back to Afghanistan, because the country had really grabbed me, and the Northern Alliance and Massoud ó he was still alive then ó I just really wanted to go back there. And then all of this happened, and I couldnít believe that my country and the country Iíd sort of adopted journalistically were intersecting in such a crazy way, and I really wanted to report on it, but I had this book tour. And then I realized that the book tour ó if we really were engaged in a war, the book tour might become a moot point. And the best way to salvage what would sort of be a gutted book tour would be to try and do TV over there. Itís my passport back, it salvages something out of the book tour, and so just in the past week, weíve been scrambling to put this together. But itís still not sure. Weíve talked to two different networks, but I think itís going to be ABC. And Iíve got really good access to the Northern Alliance, because they like the work that I did, so theyíre liking the idea of me having access that maybe the 500 other journalists over there donít have. Which of course is great, but is going to piss some people off. But the thing is, I earned it. I was there, those guys werenít.
Q: So youíre not just hopping on the hot thing.
A: No. I mean, I went over there because it was a completely forgotten country. And of course some of those [foreign correspondents] have been over there, but most of them havenít. So frankly, I donít really mind cutting in line, because I feel like Iíve paid dues a little bit. Not because of who I am here, but because I was over there.
Q: Having been there and seen it for yourself, how much fear do you have about going back?
A: Less this time. Last time it was sort of an alien situation I was going into, and your imagination is always worse than reality.
Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001