Movie Interviews
9:47 am
Thu April 18, 2013

Sebastian Junger: 'Which Way' To Turn After Hetherington's Death

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 9:53 am

War photographer Tim Hetherington said he thought war was wired into young men. And he risked, and ultimately gave, his life to capture these young men in photographs and video — in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and other war zones. Hetherington was killed by shrapnel from a mortar round while taking pictures in Libya in 2011, during the uprising against President Moammar Gadhafi.

A new documentary about Hetherington premieres Thursday night on HBO. It's called Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. Sebastian Junger, the director of the film, talks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the years he spent reporting from war zones and his time working with Hetherington.

Junger and Hetherington co-directed the documentary Restrepo, which followed one American army platoon through their deployment in a remote and dangerous part of Afghanistan. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. Junger first became known for his book, The Perfect Storm, which was adapted into the film of the same name.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sebastian Junger, has reported from many war zones. He's been kidnapped; he's been nearly killed. But his own close calls with death didn't have the impact of the death of his friend, photojournalist Tim Hetherington. Hetherington and Junger had collaborated on the documentary "Restrepo," which followed a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2011.

Six weeks after they attended the Oscar ceremony, Hetherington was killed by mortar shrapnel in Libya while traveling with rebels trying to overthrow the Gadhafi regime. Junger was originally supposed to go to Libya with Hetherington. Junger has made a very moving film about his late friend's life and work called "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?" It premieres tonight on HBO.

You may also know Junger as the author of the bestseller "The Perfect Storm," which was adapted into the film of the same name. The new documentary begins with archival footage: outtakes of an interview with Tim Hetherington in which he's trying to sum up his motivation for working in war zones.

TIM HETHERINGTON: I think the important thing for me is to make work that is connected to people. You know, I like to (beep), sorry man.

(LAUGHTER)

HETHERINGTON: Blah, blah, blah, blah.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

HETHERINGTON: I (unintelligible). I think the important thing for me is to connect with real people, you know, to document them in these extreme circumstances, you know, where there aren't any kind of neat solutions or where you can't put any kind of neat guidelines and say this is what it's about or this is what it's about. It's not.

I hope that my work kind of shows that.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yeah, that was strong.

HETHERINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: Sebastian Junger, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film. I think it's a beautiful testament to Tim Hetherington and just a very moving and revealing portrait of some - you know, of a war, photojournalist who did really important work. He was obviously really kind of self-conscious describing what he did and why he did it. I feel like you did that job for him in this film.

Would you describe for us why you thought he was such a great photojournalist?

JUNGER: Frankly I think he was a great photojournalist because ultimately he wasn't that interested in photography per se. The camera was almost the excuse that he used to engage with people. And I would watch him engage with people even when he didn't have a camera in his hand, you know, in a taxicab in New York City.

He'd be talking to the driver and trying to understand what country he came from and what's it like to come to America, and he just did that all the time with everyone. He was really curious and deeply compassionate, as well. We're always curious about the human experience, American soldiers, I mean the powerful, the weak. It didn't matter who it was. He just had a great curiosity.

And that meant that he had - very quickly he would develop an emotional relationship with the person he was talking to in seconds, even. What he captured with his camera was that emotional relationship, and so his photos were extraordinary, but I think in his mind they weren't even really the point.

Tim's focus, I've been struggling to come up with words to describe his focus in life and in his work, and the phrase I've come up with, and I think it describes it quite well, is the quiet dignity of the human struggle. I mean, that is what Tim was focused on.

GROSS: Would you give an example for us that either you saw through watching clips that he - watching, you know, video and film that he'd shot over the years or an example that you witnessed yourself while making "Restrepo" of how he once risked his life to get a shot or a scene even though he said he knew he shouldn't risk his life for a picture?

JUNGER: Well, my main experience with Tim happened in Afghanistan, in a small outpost called Restrepo. He and I made a movie by that name documenting the lives of a platoon of soldiers at a remote outpost for a year. And everyone up there was almost killed, you know, in very specific ways.

I mean, I had a bullet impact a few inches from my head at the beginning of a firefight. We all had an experience like that. And so it was just understood by Tim and by myself that being up there meant that you were - on some level you had to be prepared that - for your own death. The understanding was that if you were going to be out there, you had to make peace with the idea that you might die.

It wasn't likely that we would die, but it was absolutely a possibility, and we both felt that what we were doing, and I think more generally journalists feel that what we're doing in war zones and documenting essentially a massive tragedy, that what we're doing is incredibly important to the world, to the people involved in the tragedy and that it's worth some risk to our lives.

That doesn't mean out on a front line that you should be a complete daredevil and cowboy, and, you know, I know journalists like that, and you really stay clear of them because they're dangerous. Tim was not that way. He was very calculating; he was very cautious. He was an interesting combination of very, very brave, physically brave, and very cautious, almost to the point of sort of fearfulness. It was a very funny combination.

GROSS: How did you meet him?

JUNGER: I was doing a project that I brought to Vanity Fair of following a platoon for a year in combat, and I was there on my first trip out there in the Korangal Valley with a photographer friend of mine, actually, and it just wasn't quite working. I was shooting all the video, and it just wasn't quite the collaboration I wanted.

So we started looking for other photographers. Tim was sort of top on the list. I interviewed him. He's an amazing photographer. I knew he'd been in combat. I asked if he was in shape because what the journalists out there have to do is physically very, very hard. And he said, well, when you meet me, you'll see that I'm rather lean, sort of typical British understatement.

And so I said, well, in addition to the Vanity Fair assignment, I'm writing a book about this, and I'm trying to make a documentary, and I'm hoping you'll become interested in it and shoot some video. And so when we went out there together in September '07, he was just entranced by the story. He thought it was incredible. And on his following trip in October, he started shooting video, as well, and we starting collaborating.

And eventually when we got home after the deployment, we pulled all of our - all of the money that we had that we could spare, and we hired an editor for a year. The film was completely self-funded, and at the end of that we managed to sell it to National Geographic. And by the end of that process, we were extremely close friends.

GROSS: Toward the beginning of "Restrepo," the documentary that you made with Tim Hetherington in Afghanistan, the camera is rolling, and it's a Jeep or a tank, I'm not sure which.

JUNGER: I was in a Humvee.

GROSS: A Humvee, yeah, it was Humvee, and it's rocked by an IED explosion. Was that you or Tim behind the camera?

JUNGER: That was me shooting that.

GROSS: Would you explain the - describe the experience of shooting that?

JUNGER: It was really odd. The captain, who was in the front passenger seat, said to me, you know, we're getting into kind of a tricky area. If we're going to get attacked, and I think we will, it'll probably be RPGs, and it'll be in the next, you know, half mile or so. And so, you know, I just - you know, I had the camera rolling, right, because I was shooting a lot of stuff. I was in the back seat.

And all of a sudden, everything, there was this enormous sort of crunching sound. And everything turned orange and then dark. And the dark came from all the dirt that came down on the windshield and sort of enclosed us in darkness. An IED had gone off under the engine block. So it wasn't directly under us, the timing was a little off, which spared us injury, I'm sure.

The IED was actually made from a pressure cooker, exactly like the terrible bomb that exploded at the Boston Marathon a few days ago.

GROSS: No kidding, wow.

JUNGER: Yeah, it was a pressure-cooker bomb, that's right. And in Boston, you know, I was right down the street on Commonwealth Ave. at B.U., waiting to premiere my film about Tim at the JFK Library. You know, here's this horrible situation in Boston, several people killed, multiple amputations, many, many injuries from an explosion. It's exactly the kind of attack that Tim died in, except with Tim it was in a warzone, and it was an 81-millimeter mortar.

But it was the exact same kind of thing, and it was really - all those different connections really - you know, I've stopped war reporting, but all those different connections really kind of rattled me, actually.

GROSS: So the Humvee is rocked by an IED explosion. You're in the Humvee shooting it for your film. And the camera keeps rolling. I mean, you keep shooting.

JUNGER: That's right. I mean, I forgot, I did keep shooting, didn't I? So here's the thing. If you're in danger, if you're putting yourself in danger in combat, if you don't keep reporting what's happening, you're putting yourself in danger for nothing. It's utterly stupid. And so it's actually easier to keep rolling when you're in combat because at least it gives the risk you're taking some meaning.

It's very, very hard. The only time I've been really scared in combat was when I couldn't get to my camera because it was 10 feet away, and there was too much gunfire to get to it, and I had nothing to do, and I just felt stupid. And so in the back of the Humveee, we're there, the Humvee's on fire, and I'm rolling, and I'm - you know, you go into shock a little bit.

Like combat's not that scary, actually, because you - it's scary beforehand, the anticipation is very scary, and afterwards the fear catches up with you. But in combat you're really very calm, or at least I am. And I adjusted the filter setting on the camera because it was darker in the Humvee, and it was - I thought I'd been - I was so not scared. I thought I'd been wounded.

And I sort of felt my way down my legs to make sure everything was there, and I was all right. I - my heart rate I don't think went above 60 beats a minute. I mean, I didn't - I had no physical reaction to the shock at all. I thought I have to be wounded, I'm in shock, this isn't possible. In fact I was just really calm, and I kept shooting and waiting for the RPG impacts.

I thought we were going to get by RPGs, eventually they'll penetrate a Humvee. I was like oh my God, this is it. There was a lot of shooting outside. I'm like God, we're going to have to bail out and run through that stuff. Like - but I wasn't scared at all. I was scared - I was very scared later, about six hours later. I really kind of crashed, actually.

GROSS: So this is a creepy question, but as you were shooting and thinking maybe this is it, were you also thinking: And if this is it, and I die, I'll be leaving behind really interesting footage of the thing that killed me?

JUNGER: I'm not sure the footage would have survived what could have killed me, you know. I mean, maybe I suppose.

GROSS: Good point.

(LAUGHTER)

JUNGER: No, no I wasn't thinking that, and I thought - I didn't think we were going to die. I've been in a situation where I thought I was going to die, and, you know, it's like someone unbolts all your joints, and you can't move. That's what that feeling feels like. I just was - it's hard to describe. There was so much gunfire outside, and I was just kind of thinking oh, this is going to not feel good when we open the door and run, and we have to because the Humvee is on fire. I'm like God, this isn't going to feel good.

I mean, it was more - I was more like I was bracing for someone to punch me or something. You know, it was like that kind of feeling.

GROSS: And did you leave the camera on when you were running?

JUNGER: Oh yes of course, yes. The audio cut out because I had a - I had a remote mic, and it was wired into the radio headset that I was wearing, and that got - as I bailed out of the Humvee, it got caught on something, and the wire ripped, and it killed the audio in the camera. So you get this - immediately after I bail out, and I'm running for cover, everything goes sort of static-y quiet. And then later I watched it, I'm like oh, God, what bad luck, you know.

And then I realized that's exactly the experience of combat. You get so focused on one of your senses that other senses drop out, and it's a known phenomenon. And you can get these strange experiences of tunnel vision, just looking at one thing or not hearing anything. Like very strange things happen in combat.

And so what happened because of a technological mistake actually produced, reproduced the experience, the subjective experience of combat quite accurately.

GROSS: So where was Tim Hetherington, your co-director and co-cinematographer on "Restrepo," while you were in this Humvee that was hit by an IED?

JUNGER: He was in New York City.

GROSS: Oh, he wasn't even with you then?

JUNGER: No, we alternated trips a lot because we kept getting hurt. Like on my second trip, Tim's first trip, I ruptured my Achilles' tendon on a patrol and was sort of laid up for a while. I had sort of a bit of a hard time out there for a couple weeks. And then I got home, and I had to sort of rehabilitate it. Tim took the next trip. He broke his leg in combat on Operation Rock Avalanche, which is obviously featured in "Restrepo."

So I took the next trip. That's when I got blown up. He took the next trip. We eventually caught up with each other that spring. We were finally out there together again.

GROSS: Huh, and so how would you compare notes when each of you would get back from a trip?

JUNGER: Well, after the IED, I called him on my satellite phone. I was really shaken up. And, - but I was also quite excited that I had this footage. And I called him, I said you won't believe me, man, this is what happened. And he said: Don't play it back. Try to resist the urge to play it back because if there's dirt in the hedge, you'll ruin the tape. Like don't play anything back. There was a lot of dust out there.

I played it back anyway, and I had the strangest experience, and this is where the fear came. I mean, I was - after that attack, I was just on this crazy high for the rest of the day. I could barely sit still. I was completely jacked up, almost kind of ecstatic, you know. And then I tried to play the footage back just on my camera, on the monitor in my camera.

And I knew exactly where the explosion was going to come, and we're creeping along in the Humvee, and I know where it's going to come, and it's getting closer and closer. And my heart rate shot up to, you know, 150 beats a minute. I could - I actually couldn't watch it. I was experiencing all the fear reactions that I should have had then when it happened, when it actually happened. I was experiencing those reactions trying to watch the footage.

And it's still quite hard for me to watch that footage. I obsessed with how small the margin was that kept us safe. I mean, it went off under the engine block, not under us. It was a few feet, it was 10 feet, it was half-a-second in the timing of when the guy pushed the detonator. And I was just kind of horrified that such small things can have such enormous consequences, and it made me paranoid about everything, like walking across the base.

You know, when I went to go to get a meal, or all of a sudden everything seemed like it could be life or death, and it was kind of paralyzing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Junger, and he's reported extensively from warzones, mostly for Vanity Fair, and along with the photojournalist Tim Hetherington he co-directed and co-shot the documentary "Restrepo," about an American platoon in a very dangerous part of Afghanistan. And now he's made a documentary about Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and that was in 2011.

The documentary will be shown tonight on HBO. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more with Sebastian Junger. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Junger, and he's a journalist who's reported extensively from warzones. He's written books. He's reported for Vanity Fair. He co-directed a documentary with the photojournalist Tim Hetherington called "Restrepo," documenting an American platoon throughout its tour of duty in Afghanistan.

And now he's made a documentary about Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in 2011 while documenting the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi during the Arab spring. So one of the people you interview for your documentary about Tim Hetherington is James Brabazon, a journalist who worked with Tim in Liberia.

And he's also - James Brabazon is also one of the producers of the documentary about Tim Hetherington. And Brabazon's grandfather was a professional soldier, and so Brabazon says in your documentary that his grandfather used to say war is the only opportunity men have in society to love each other unconditionally.

Now I guess he's talking about straight men, but...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But I thought that's, you know, it's an interesting thought, and does that square with your observations of war?

JUNGER: Well, the thing about combat is it feels like, and maybe it even actually is, a bit of a rite of passage for young men. I mean, it really, it demonstrates that you're a man, that you're allowed to see yourself as an adult man. And, you know, some of these guys are 18 years old. So that's an important point. You know, at 18 I wasn't sure that I was a man yet. Well, in combat you're actually quite clear about it.

Their masculinity is so sort of florid and outrageous and unarguable that there's no - there's no sort of ambiguity about who they are, what they are. And so it allows them to be unbelievably affectionate with each other, I mean, in ways that, you know, if you did that, you know, back home in high school there might be questions. You know, but out there, there's no questions.

And it's a kind of pure - I think this is what the guys miss about it. It's kind of pure, you know. And, you know, one of the guys in the platoon, Brendan O'Byrne, said to me at one point, you know, he said there's guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other, but we'd all die for each other. And the emotional security of being in a small group where everyone feels that way about each other, even if they don't like each other, the emotional security is just overpowering.

And it creates a sense of emotional freedom, I think, that you really can't get back home.

GROSS: Tim Hetherington called the outpost in Afghanistan "Man Eden." What did he mean?

JUNGER: Well, it was this strangely idyllic place. All the annoying complications of life back home are absent, right. There's no fights with your girlfriend, no bills to pay, no hassles. It's really simple out there. You just have to not get killed. You have to do your job, you have to not get anyone else killed, and you've got to keep your weapon clean. I mean, it's really simple.

And so the guys, you know, I don't know what - how women act in groups by themselves because I'm not obviously in a situation like that. Men in groups by themselves get incredibly funny, really, really funny, and they get very, very closer. And three men, five men, 20 men, I mean a platoon is really, it's a sort of ongoing comedy hour.

And there's a lot of hard work, and they sort of test each other in that way, with pickaxes and shovels. And there's this incredibly intense thing going on called combat that sort of visits you every once in a while. And it sort of plays to all the sensibilities of young men in this sort of outrageous way. And it is a kind of Eden. The only thing that's not out there of any importance that young men like is women, and otherwise it - in a sense, it's a pretty perfect place for these guys at this age at this point in their lives.

GROSS: Sebastian Junger will be back in the second half of the show. His new documentary about Tim Hetherington, "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?," debuts on HBO tonight. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sebastian Junger. We're talking about the documentary he made about his friend, Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who worked in warzones in Africa and the Middle East. Junger had worked with Hetherington, co-directing the documentary "Restrepo," which followed a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. Just a few weeks after they attended the Oscar ceremony, Hetherington was killed in Libya while traveling with rebels trying to overthrow the Gadhafi regime. Junger's new documentary, "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington," debuts tonight on HBO.

We've been talking about the documentary that you made with Tim Hetherington in Afghanistan, "Restrepo," and you've been telling us about some of your experiences while shooting that documentary. I want to get to something that Tim did there that is so different from the kind of, you know, war - the war documentary that we've been talking about. He did it from photographs of the soldiers in this platoon sleeping. And I've never seen a series like that. It's remarkable. I'm really glad you included it in the documentary. What was his motivation for photographing them while they slept?

JUNGER: I remember when he shot those photos, it was one of the trips when we were together. It was a very hot day, boring day. We hadn't been in a firefight in at least a week, if not more, and the guys were just zoned out. And they were, soldiers are going to sleep as much as they can. One of them said to me, you know, if you sleep half the time it's only a six-month deployment. And so they were sleeping in the middle of the day, sprawled on the ground in there bunks in these little plywood hooches that they made and the flies were buzzing around and Tim was scuttling around photographing them. I was like Tim, man, what are you doing? I mean for me it was the ultimate situation where nothing is going on journalistically and you can just space out. And he said, don't you get it? Like all the photos you see of soldiers they're all geared up and they've got their weapons, they're all tough looking, but when they're asleep they look like what they really are, which are little boys. They did. They all looked like they were about 10 years old. So vulnerable, you know, and no nation wants to think that their soldiers are vulnerable too but, of course, they are.

And Tim saw that and he saw the photographic possibilities and he saw the truth in it. And what for most journalist would have been a boring day with nothing going on, for Tim was this, his opportunity to do something that had never been done before - which is to photograph the vulnerability of soldiers as they lie asleep in a combat outpost. And I, you know, I think it captures the truth about war as much as any photo of a guy shooting a gun. And I think they are in some ways kind of iconic photos, you know, now iconic photographs of war.

GROSS: There's a scene in your documentary about Tim Hetherington that's shot in Afghanistan while you were making "Restrepo" and this scene I think is an outtake of a scene that you used in "Restrepo," and it's a scene where one of the men in the platoon has been killed. And we see another of the soldiers just like breaking down and weeping and other soldiers - one soldier shouting out, it's not your fault, it's not your fault, you know, don't look. And some of that is in "Restrepo."

JUNGER: Yeah.

GROSS: And then I think the outtake is when Tim is taking photos of all of this and one of the soldiers starts hollering at him, you know, basically like turn off the camera or I'll, you know, I'll throw it in your F-ing face. And I'd like to play an excerpt of how you handle this in your documentary about Tim Hetherington.

JUNGER: Yeah.

GROSS: And we're also going to hear Tim Hetherington talking about this moment and what it was like for him. He's talking about this in retrospect and what it was like for him to witness one of the men losing his best buddy. Let's hear the clip. And this is a scene from the new documentary "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington," which was directed by my guest Sebastian Junger. It will premiere tonight on HBO.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE? THE LIFE AND TIME OF TIM HETHERINGTON")

HETHERINGTON: What for me was the real tragedy was seeing a young man who sees his best friend get killed. Seeing that young man go through that was really upsetting. I mean, I knew it was going to happen because I'd been in a war before. I know what it's like to see somebody die in front of you. But for them to see that and then that's something you know that they will forever live with.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is what we're going to do, we're going to take those two wounded and I want you to get in the back to (bleep) LZ eagles. You know where that's at?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Roger. What are we (bleep). I drop over there.

HETHERINGTON: At one point during the ambush I was filming and one of the colleagues of Sergeant Rougal, who had been killed, he came up to me and started swearing at me and told me to stop filming.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's over that way.

HETHERINGTON: What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's over that way where we've got the body bag.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They've got his weapon, knives and (bleep) the 240.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The bad guys?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You got a good picture? (Bleep) smash that camera off your (bleep) face. Get the (bleep) out of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SCUFFLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right. Hey. Let's (bleep) go.

HETHERINGTON: But later on he came up to me and he said look, I'm really sorry for shouting at you, you know, I could understand that you got a job to do. And, but it was really strange to kind of film people, you know, who I got close to in such a kind of moment of trauma.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISES)

HETHERINGTON: And I remember at one point the Afghan army tried to drag away Larry's body and one of his friends started shouting at them like you can't drive off his body. I'm not seeing them, you drag his body off like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Out of here. Let's go.

HETHERINGTON: And...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

HETHERINGTON: You know, those are very traumatic events for me and, you know, you try to kind of digest them but it takes time to work over them.

GROSS: That's a really remarkable moment from your film, Sebastian Junger. And, you know, I just find it so interesting how Tim Hetherington starts off in that clip saying, well, I'd seen this before, you know, I'd seen men die in front of me before, these men hadn't, but I'd seen it. But by the end of what he's saying he's just, he's just in tears.

JUNGER: Well, he is in tears because he felt guilty that he'd filmed it. And there's a difference between seeing someone die and filming it, and filming the reaction of the people who loved him. But he understood that the soldiers were glad he was there. It wasn't that, you know, there was a tense moment with a guy who didn't know him. The guy who yelled at him was in a different unit and they later became friends. But, so it wasn't a problem with the guys who were there, they wanted us there, you know? It was an internal problem. It was a moral problem, like, you are making your living documenting the pain of other people. And even though it's a good thing to do and a necessary thing to do, it creates moral confusion in a person, in a sensitive person. And Tim was incredibly sensitive and it took him a long time to work through that.

GROSS: Was that the only time he experienced that sense of guilt for documenting somebody else's pain?

JUNGER: Oh god, no. I mean, I think that started immediately in Liberia. I mean he and James were with the LURD rebels as they attacked Monrovia and it was just a complete slaughterhouse and a lot of people got killed. I mean, a rebel fighter who was carrying some of Tim's gear just as a favor, you know, got shot and took a bullet in the forehead. You know, I mean it was a horror show and I think Tim's sense of guilt and moral responsibility probably started there.

GROSS: My guest is Sebastian Junger. His documentary about photojournalist Tim Hetherington, "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?," debuts on HBO tonight. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Junger. And he has a new documentary about the photojournalist and war correspondent Tim Hetherington. It's called "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington." It will be shown tonight on HBO. And Junger collaborated with Hetherington on the documentary "Restrepo," which is about a platoon in Afghanistan.

In your documentary about Tim Hetherington you said that he was ready to give up war, you know, at least one of the interviews he says that and seemed to be ready. But after you went to the Oscars as nominees for "Restrepo," he decides - and this was in 2011 - he decided to go to Libya during the Arab Spring. Why do you think he went back, went back into war?

JUNGER: I think he went back into war because war has a tremendous gravitational pull which is really hard to resist. I think he wanted to think of himself as capable of stopping because he wanted a life back home and a family and all that. But I think he worried that he wasn't going to be able to stop, and he was right in that moment of trying to figure it out. Tim and I were supposed to be on assignment for "Vanity Fair" in Libya and at the Oscars we saw all this exploding overseas and we thought we're going to get back out there, we're journalists, what are we doing here on these red carpets - as fun as it was. And we had an assignment and at the last minute I had to change my plans for personal reasons and Tim continued on his own to do a project that didn't involve front lines, actually. He wanted to shoot portraits of the rebel fighters, you know, sort of behind the front lines, just almost formal portraits of them all geared up, in what they thought they should look like.

This is their first war. They don't know how to dress for it. You know, these are young kids, right? They've never fought before and they don't know how to dress for their first day on the frontline, you know, and so they dress - Tim realized that they would dress themselves up and act and pose in ways that mimicked what they had seen in Hollywood movies and in other images of other young men in other wars, and he became really interested in that kind of feedback loop, and he wanted to do a series of portraits of these guys using a large format or a medium format camera and film - he was shooting film out there, right? I mean who does that in a war zone?

That was his project. And he got out there and that gravitational pull of the frontline started to exert his influence on him and all of a sudden he was in a burning building, you know, with rebel forces - rebel fighters - who were fighting room to room with hand grenades trying to clear Gadhafi's soldiers out of the, you know, out of the building. Incredibly dangerous situation and suddenly there he was and he died later that day.

GROSS: From shrapnel from a mortar round. And it sounds like he basically bled out.

JUNGER: Yeah. Later that afternoon, there was a lot of shooting, it quieted down, but they're out at the frontline and a single 81 millimeter mortar came in, they were clustered unfortunately, they were clustered in a group, a bunch of journalists and rebel fighters, and a mortar came in and detonated and mortally injured a wonderful photographer named Chris Hondros. He was hit in the head with shrapnel. I don't think there was much anyone could have done for him, actually.

Tim, on the other hand, was hit in the groin with shrapnel and he had a femoral artery bleed and he started bleeding heavily and he died over the course of the next four or five minutes in the back of a rebel pickup truck racing for the Misrata Hospital. The particular tragedy there was that a femoral artery bleed is very dangerous, but it's not necessarily a mortal wound and had there been a combat medic nearby, Tim might have lived. I mean, you just have to slow down the blood loss enough so that you can deliver the person to real medical help at a hospital alive. And then once they're in the hospital they can get blood transfusions. Now you're back in the game. But none of the journalists there knew anything about combat medicine or were equipped for it.

So when I learned that I decided to start a group called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, RISC - R-I-S-C - and it's a nonprofit. It's entirely devoted to training experienced - not hopeful - but experienced freelance war reporters. The journalists who are on staff at the networks, etcetera, are all medically trained because it's mandated by their insurance companies, but the freelancers do probably 90 percent of the war reporting out there and none of them have any training because they're not supported by any organization, they're just out there on their own. So I started this group. It's a four-day intensive medical training course in New York City. It's completely free, the hotel, the training, the medical kit, it's completely free for the people that are accepted into the program. They just have to get themselves to New York.

GROSS: Yeah. It's - I'm really glad you're doing that work for freelance journalists. You've said that it's not that traumatic to nearly get killed - although, you've described how dramatic it is a few minutes ago. But you said deep trauma comes from the pain of others, you know, from losing others. Were you prepared for the trauma of losing Tim, for somebody who you been so close to because you worked in war together, even though you were often in Afghanistan at separate times, you were there together as well.

JUNGER: The times that I've been in real danger, I don't think back on with any emotion. They don't make me sad. They don't make me upset. It's just a memory, right? The things that I think back on and get quite emotional about is when other people were hurt and other people were suffering. Tim's death was a really deep shock and trauma to me. It finally connected in my mind the inescapable tragedy of war. And I know it sounds strange to say that.

And I know it sounds strange to say that. But when you go to war, you're bombarded by so many different experiences and so many of them are meaningful and intense and even pleasurable. I mean, the camaraderie in a small group in combat is very pleasurable. You know, the excitement is very intense. I mean, it's a lot of - a lot of good stuff happens out there, too, and stuff you can't get back home.

So it's possible to miss the central point, which is that it's all just awfully tragic as well. And when Tim died, that point was driven home in a way that I couldn't avoid and ultimately didn't want to avoid. And within an hour, I decided not to cover combat again. I didn't want to risk traumatizing everyone I loved by getting killed myself.

I mean, you go to war, you think you're gambling with your own life and I realized what you're really doing is gambling with everyone else's lives, everyone who cares about you. You're dead. You don't matter. It's over. Like it's everyone else who has to deal with it. I hadn't really gotten that, either. And when Tim died I did and I also just ran headlong into the central tragedy of war which is that good people get killed. And I sort of didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore.

GROSS: For you it seems like you had an interest in extreme, in exposing yourself to extremes. And when you started as a freelance journalist you made money by being a high tree climber, you know, pruning trees that needed to be cut. And you would climb, what, climb - I mean, you'd be up 40 to 60 feet high. That's pretty high.

JUNGER: Oh, god. I mean, on a big white pine you'd be up at 100 feet. Yeah.

GROSS: Really? OK.

JUNGER: Yeah. We'd climb up. I didn't use a crane. Like, yeah, I'd climb them.

GROSS: You actually had to climb them?

JUNGER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That's right. That's how it works. I mean, if you take a tree down you can use climbing irons and a harness and you sort of stomp your way up. And otherwise you'd rope your way up and you're swinging around with a chainsaw cutting pieces, sections, of the tree down and lowering them by rope.

You know, if it's a big tree in a small space, you know, behind a house or something, you have to use a lot of rope work. And so that was my job for years. And I actually hit my leg with the chainsaw. You know, I was, like, 29, I think. I hit my leg with the chainsaw. I opened it up pretty well at the top of a tree.

And that started me thinking about - I was a struggling writer also, of course, on the side and very struggling. And I thought, man, well, maybe I'll write a book about dangerous work. I mean, you know, we're quite distracted, and rightfully so I think, you know, from all the casualties in war. But what we don't forget - I mean, what we don't remember is that there's a lot of industries in the United States that the country depends on which are incredibly dangerous as well.

Commercial fishing, logging, oil exploration. I mean, mining. I mean, it goes on and on - farming - it goes on and on and on. There are enormous casualties in the workforce in those occupations. They get none of the sort of glory of war. None of the attention. And they're just as deadly. And I thought I'd write a book about dangerous work. And that's 'cause I cut my leg.

And the first chapter was going to be on commercial fishing because I lived in Gloucester. There was a big storm that sank a local fishing boat named the Andrea Gail and that's how my first book, "The Perfect Storm" came to be.

GROSS: I almost feel like apologizing before I ask this question.

(LAUGHTER)

JUNGER: That's OK.

GROSS: But do you ever ask yourself, like, had you been able to go with Tim Hetherington to Libya where he was killed that maybe he wouldn't - like, maybe things would've been different and he wouldn't have been where he was on the day that he was killed by the mortar?

JUNGER: Oh, I was tormented by that question. I thought had I gone maybe we wouldn't have been there, or if we had been there maybe I could've saved his life. I'd had a little bit of medical training from the combat medic out at Restrepo, as had Tim. I felt very, very guilty that I'd abandoned my friend and that I should've been there with him. Or maybe that it should've been me, and, you know, I should've been killed and he shouldn't have been.

I mean, I felt incredibly guilty. And suddenly I understood the guilt of soldiers. I remember talking to these guys who - like when Sergeant Larry Rougle was killed, a friend of his was so guilt-ridden about it. He thought that he could've prevented Rougle's death. I'm, like, but Larry was shot in the forehead. Like, what could you have done?

He said, well, you know, when the shooting started I was running up the hill trying to help those guys and maybe if I'd run faster I would've gotten there and helped them before Larry got hit. You know, he was turning a situation into something that was his fault. It was absolutely ridiculous and I didn't understand it. And he was like it should've been me. Larry was a good man. You know, like, the bullet should've hit me, not him.

I didn't understand it. And then when Tim did, I understood it. When Tim got killed I understood it completely.

GROSS: I bet when you were making the movie you wanted to collaborate with him in parts and talk to him about it.

JUNGER: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

JUNGER: Oh, absolutely. But I kept checking with my sort of, you know, the mental Tim that I carry in my head about: so, listen. I mean, "Restrepo" was such a collaborative process, and we argued all the time about "Restrepo." I mean, you know, it was push and pull, whatever. I mean, it was probably a typical movie, editing process. But, yeah, I was constantly going to check in with Tim in my head about, you know, are we doing this right? Are we getting this right? You know, this might be the last word on you, man. Like just tell me now if we're missing an important point. It was funny.

GROSS: My guest is Sebastian Junger. His documentary about photojournalist Tim Hetherington , "Which Way is the Frontline from Here?" debuts on HBO tonight. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sebastian Junger, who has reported from many war zones. He's directed a new documentary about war photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was killed in Libya while traveling with rebels trying to overthrow Kaddafi. That was in 2011. Hetherington and Junger had worked together co-directing "Restrepo," a documentary about an American army platoon in Afghanistan.

Because of your reporting in Afghanistan, you've been exposed to IEDs. You told us that the IED that blew up under the Humvee that you were in was similar to the one that went off at the Boston Marathon. It was a pressure cooker. And you were actually in Boston on Monday when those two bombs went off at the marathon.

And so before you tell us, like, where you were at the moment I'm just wondering, like, when something like that comes home to your country and you're actually in the city, something that you had seen in Afghanistan, what does it make you think about in terms of what's happening in our country now?

JUNGER: Well, it was very odd, personally, to have an explosive device that has touched my life a few years ago, you know, come to the city I grew up in. And to have the injuries reminded me of the injuries that I knew had happened around Tim when Tim was killed. And I find it really interesting that the bomb was placed precisely in an area where they must've known there would be a huge amount of video coverage for the nation to re-traumatize itself over and over again with these images.

You know, the awful massacre in Aurora, Colorado, you know, we don't have images from that massacre. So visually we don't have anything to be upset by.

GROSS: Along with the perceptions that you had, you know, with somebody who wants pictures, did adrenaline kick in, too, as if you were back in a war zone?

JUNGER: Yeah. A little bit. Because I didn't know what was coming, you know? Like in the Humvee, I didn't know it was coming. RPGs, what's going to happen? I mean, so, yeah, I definitely geared myself up. But I almost found myself a couple days later was, you know, I saw an awful scene in Afghanistan. I was there in 2000, but before 9/11 with Massoud's forces, the Northern Alliance.

They were fighting the Taliban really desperately. And I was at a frontline situation. It was a nighttime battle and a group of Northern Alliance fighters had run through - straight through a minefield and a dozen of them had been blown up. And, you know, they were carried back onto a flatbed pickup truck.

And this is in the hell of combat. It's at night. It's screaming. It's awful. And so I was sort of in the middle of this scene and we got back to - they got back to a medical tent, like a frontline medical tent that was lit with kerosene lanterns. And they carried these guys in and their legs were just shattered and they were in a daze.

And there was a dozen - you know, everywhere I looked there was limbs missing and bones and flesh. And it just was an absolute horror show. And it was very interesting psychologically. I was having a conversation with someone and they said at one point I just checked out. And I - what had happened was I started...

GROSS: They said that you had just checked out?

JUNGER: Yeah. We were talking about Boston and it triggered - I started thinking about that scene in Afghanistan and that that same scene had happened in Boston. And I went back into Afghanistan. This is now 13 years ago and I forgot - someone was talking to me. I forgot where I was and I was, like, right back inside that scene. And I was just almost in a trance, you know. And it lasted about 30 seconds. And then I sort of snapped out of it. It was really, really interesting.

GROSS: Well, I think it's a great insight into what a lot of veterans must experience too.

JUNGER: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, you step through this sort of, like, porthole, you know, into another reality, an older reality, and I think it's hard to get back out, you know, to where you actually are.

GROSS: So the men you got close to in the platoon that you followed at the Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan, are you still in touch with any of them?

JUNGER: I'm in touch with some of them. I mean, I was closer (technical difficulties) I'm very, very good friends with Brendan O'Byrne and I communicate, you know, less often with some of the other guys, but yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: And how is he doing?

JUNGER: Brendan is doing great. I actually taught him how to do tree work, and...

GROSS: No kidding.

JUNGER: Yeah. I loaned him my gear and I taught him how to do tree work and I helped him get a job as a climber and now he's a far better climber than I ever was. And I thought I had been pretty good back in the day, but he - Brendan is really amazing. And, you know, it's the right amount of sort of adrenaline and, you know, whatever. It's a really great job for a young man and for a combat vet, I think.

And so, yeah, we're - he lives in Massachusetts and I see him all the time. Yeah. We're really close.

GROSS: Well, Sebastian Junger, I really appreciate this conversation. Thank you so much. And I'm glad you make the documentary about Tim Hetherington for somebody who didn't know him. It's just a really interesting movie but I think it's also a very moving tribute to him as a person and as a photojournalist. So thank you.

JUNGER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Sebastian Junger's documentary "Which Way is the Frontline from Here?: The Life and Time of Time Hetherington," debuts on HBO tonight. You can see some of Hetherington's photos on our website freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.