Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Steve Hindy in Conversation with Sebastian Junger

Steve Hindy in Conversation with Sebastian Junger
Junger speaker series

Sebastian Junger received international acclaim in the late ‘90s, after he wrote The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, which was later adapted into a movie with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. But, the majority of his career has been devoted to conflict zone reporting. In 2010, he published the best-selling book War, an account of his time in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley where he was on assignment for Vanity Fair with the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington, reporting on the experiences of the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Platoon Battle Company. Based on their work in the Korengal, Junger and Hetherington directed the documentary Restrepo; the film won the Grand Jury Prize for the best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for the 2011 Academy Award Best Documentary. Shortly after the Academy Awards ceremony, Hetherington was killed by a mortar shell in Libya, and Junger’s latest documentary film, Which Way is the Frontline from Here?, focuses on his friend and colleague’s life and work.

As a reaction to the Hetherington tragedy, which could have been prevented had Hetherington or anyone around him had basic first aid training, Junger, who has since retired from conflict zone reporting, founded RISC—Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues—a nonprofit organization that provides free four-day trainings for freelance journalists in conflict zones.{{1}} On May 8, 2013, as part of the War Correspondents at the Brooklyn Brewery series—a joint production between RISC, Togather, and the Brewery, with all ticket proceeds going to RISC—Junger sat down for an interview with Steve Hindy, President of the Brooklyn Brewery and a former Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press (you can read more about Hindy in Construction’s full-length interview with him).

Below is an edited transcript of that evening.

—Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Steve Hindy: I once read a joke headline in Columbia Journalism Review, mocking the way Americans think about foreign news. The headline was: “Brooklyn Woman Injured in Kazakh Earthquake,” and the subhead was: “Ten Thousand Kazakhs Perish.” And that’s sort of the way it works when you’re covering foreign news, you’ve got to get the American angle. Sebastian has worked in areas with Americans on the ground, but he’s also worked in obscure places like Liberia. I just read a short story Sebastian wrote called “A World Made of Blood.” It’s fictional, but I’m sure there is a lot of reality there. You’re with a bunch of rebels, and you can’t really tell which faction, or who’s who, and they’re crazy, and it’s very dangerous. I’ve been in situations like that and I’m always thinking, “Does anyone really care about this? Why am I doing this?” Why did you do it?

Sebastian Junger: That was based on an experience in Sierra Leone. It was the first time I’d covered a civil war in Africa and it was amazingly terrifying. And not so much that the combat was so intense, but the people that I was with—the government fighters—were so volatile and hard to predict—on edge and drunk or high or whatever—that you got the feeling that anything could happen at any moment.

The story is fiction. It’s the only time I’ve ever written fiction about any of the experiences I’ve had as a journalist. Way back in the front lines I was with a couple of Sierra Leonian soldiers, who were nice enough kids but not good for much, and a couple of western reporters. We were on the drive back to the capital, to Freetown, and a rebel faction called the Westside Boys—who were just straight criminals, kind of doing their own thing, sometimes allied with the IUF, very tough guys—like fifteen of them stepped out of the jungle on this long deserted road and stopped us, and surrounded us. They were the enemies of the government soldiers and they were getting ready to kill us. And then they sort of argued about it, and one guy cocked his gun and leveled it to shoot, and one of the other ones grabbed it and pushed it up in the air, and they literally couldn’t figure out what to do. Obviously they didn’t kill us, but I sat there for about fifteen minutes trying to prepare myself because I thought that there was a really good chance that we were gonna die.

I’ve been in situations where I could have been killed; I’ve never had time to think about it. And it was unbelievably traumatizing. That incident became the centerpiece of a short story I wanted to write, just to explore that moment a little bit more. It affected me for a very long time.

Steve Hindy: Sebastian’s book War is a deep and almost scholarly study of what it is like to be at war. The brotherhood that develops. Early in the book, he explains something that I never quite understood. When you are in a situation where people are killing each other—a gun battle or a massacre—it’s like the air gets thick. It’s like the whole atmosphere physically changes. When you think back on it, it’s almost like looking through a telescope; it constricts your brain in a very strange way. You explain that really well, with some actual physiological evidence, in the book War. Can you tell us about it?

[pullquote_right]While in the middle of something very dangerous, fear is often the one thing we actually don’t experience. [/pullquote_right]

Sebastian Junger: Now I have to try to remember my science; I wrote it years ago. Basically, as organisms we’re designed to survive, and one of the ways we do this is by being very apprehensive before a dangerous situation, and traumatized and very scared and jumbled afterward. But while we’re in the middle of something that’s very dangerous, fear is often the one thing that we actually don’t experience. It’s a pretty weird experience, but I wouldn’t say it’s fear. You do get this very strange kind of tunnel vision. I think your mind is switching from sense to sense, trying to perceive things as accurately as possible so you can make good decisions, so sometimes all you’re aware of is your sight and you’re almost deaf. The first ambush I was ever in with American forces in Zabul in ’05—I’d been in plenty of wars, but I’d never been with American soldiers in a war, and growing up after Vietnam I never thought I would be, and suddenly it was happening and I kind of couldn’t believe it—we got ambushed and I was right next to this soldier, and he stood up and fired one round out of his M4 and got back down. There was really almost nothing to hide behind—there was a rock and the soldier had taken the rock, so I took the soldier—and we were stacked up behind this rock, and this kid was over on our left and he stood up and fired one shot and got back down. And I thought, “Oh my God, he’s so well trained, he’s got a full magazine, and he’s only taking one shot, really aiming,” etcetera. Later I said that to him, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “I emptied the whole mag, what are you talking about?” The other twenty-nine rounds, I didn’t even perceive. They were just blocked out. I was focused on something else. I actually can’t at this moment remember the brain physiology behind what leads you to do that, but clearly it’s a survival mechanism.

I shot a lot of video footage out of Restrepo in ’07 and ’08, when Tim and I were there. Video is great for a writer who is covering combat because no one can take notes in a firefight. I mean, you can try, you feel really silly, and then you can’t read them. It’s a complete waste of time.  A video camera is perfect for situations that are too dynamic to take notes in. So I started shooting video, and even badly shot video of combat is still pretty intense and kind of usable. We were in a lot of firefights out there, and the difference between my memory and what I saw on the videotapes later was absolutely extraordinary. Maybe I retained half of what was happening.

At one point, I was in a Humvee going into the valley. I usually went in by supply helicopter, but at this point I had to go in on a supply convoy because the weather was really bad—it was during winter—and I was in the second Humvee in the line, and they just happened to pick that one to blow up. The detonation went off—it was a pressure cooker bomb just like in Boston—just under the engine block and rocked the Humvee pretty badly, but we were all okay. The Humvee was on fire, there was a lot of stuff going on, and a lot of smoke. Just by coincidence I was rolling with my camera before we got hit. I had this amazing footage, and I was dead calm. I was so calm that I was worried I’d been wounded, that I was in shock, so I felt my way down my legs to make sure I was all there. My mind was suppressing my reactions. My heart rate probably didn’t go above 70. But when I tried to watch the videotape later that night, it triggered the most unbelievable anxiety attack; I was way more scared watching the video than I was then. I still have a really hard time watching . . . I actually kind of look away in that moment when I watch the movie. I can’t really bear it.

Steve Hindy: I got it into my head I wanted to go cover a war in the late 1970s for a lot of complicated reasons I usually don’t talk about until I’ve had about four beers. I’ve only had half a beer, so I’m not going talk about them. But, you know, I regretted missing Vietnam. I know how that sounds. . . . I didn’t agree with the war—it was not a just war, I don’t think—so I didn’t want to be part of that, but I felt I had missed something. So when I had the opportunity to do it with Associated Press, I started studying Arabic and said I wanted to go to Beirut. And I learned that there are too many people who want to go cover wars in Beirut, so about a year after I said I wanted to go, I landed there as the Middle East correspondent, and it was quite an amazing almost six years of travelling around the Middle East covering wars. Sebastian, when did you get the hankering to cover a war? When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What do you want to be when you grow up?

[pullquote_left]I spent my twenties trying to write short stories and waiting tables.[/pullquote_left]

Sebastian Junger: Well, I don’t know if it’s relevant or not, but every eight-year-old boy I knew played war. Back then, it was 1970 when I was about eight, the Vietnam War was going on. We all knew that it was kind of controversial, so we just made it World War II, which was morally a lot clearer.

I think war is inherently fascinating to a lot of boys. I know it sounds complicated and ugly to put it like that, but I think it’s the truth. My father grew up in Europe and left during World War II—he was in Madrid when the civil war broke out and then he was in Paris when the Germans came in. His family was tremendously affected by war, and I’ve always been curious about it.

I spent my twenties wanting to be a writer, a fiction writer, which was just a monumentally bad decision. There were fiction writers out there like Raymond Carver who made it look so easy and so appealing, and a lot of people who were not as talented as those people fell for it, and I was one of them. I spent my twenties trying to write short stories and waiting tables and I was even worse at waiting tables than writing short stories. My twenties were pretty disappointing. I got a job as a climber for tree companies, I started taking trees down. That was kind of cool. Then there was a war in Bosnia and I injured myself pretty badly with a chainsaw—I was like, thirty years old at this point—and I thought, “I gotta get my act together. If I’m gonna be a journalist, a writer, I gotta do something radical.” So I just went to Bosnia. I didn’t have any connections, I had nothing. I had notebooks and pens and a sleeping bag and I went to Sarajevo. I started hanging out with freelance reporters. I started by doing thirty-second radio spots; they paid thirty bucks a piece. I spent a lot more money than I made. It was basically like going to journalism school.

But, I should say, the other reason I wanted to go—and again, it feels a little too complicated to put it like this—is that I grew up in a really affluent suburb outside of Boston, and I felt like I was never tested as a person, as a man, in any significant way. And, for lack of a more complicated explanation, I didn’t feel like a man. I felt like I had not quite become an adult, and that that required some kind of test, some kind of passage, and that war, I think, is a kind of archetypal situation where young men, or boys, feel that they can become men. It’s worked that way in human society for an awfully long time, and the guys that I was with out in Restrepo, they wouldn’t quite put it like that, but for many of them that was the sense that Tim and I got, that it was a kind of rite of passage, and it was one that they had always wanted to go through, and now they were doing it. It was a little bit of that for me as well. And once I got there . . . you’re so overwhelmed by the humanitarian disaster of a situations like that, that on top of your personal motivations—and it’s fine to have personal motivations—you kind of glue on a much more noble . . . people need to bear witness to these things, they need to know what’s happening. The world was finding out fine what was happening without me there, but in principle I felt that this was a really important thing for people to do, and felt incredibly lucky that I was becoming one of those people.

Steve Hindy: Before we came up here you were talking about being in Afghanistan before 9/11, getting to know some people, and then after 9/11, going in with the Americans and the first wave, and how you were welcomed by the Afghans and how things might have been different had we not invaded Iraq . . .

[pullquote_right]If we’d put the energy that we put into Baghdad into Afghanistan, I think there would barely be a war there right now.[/pullquote_right]

Sebastian Junger: I was there in in 1996, during the civil war—a terrible, terrible time. I remember I was in Jalalabad, and I had dysentery, and was almost incoherent with fever, but was sort of staggering around trying to do my work, and this guy pointed up to the mountains outside of Jalalabad and said, “There are Arabs up there running training camps. I’m Afghan, this is Afghanistan, and I can’t even go up there because they’ll kill me.” And he said, “That’s not gonna end well, that is a bad thing.” I always remembered that.

A few years later, I was with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the North while he was fighting the Taliban. I saw war on a scale that I didn’t even think existed anymore. Tank battles. There was a frontal assault. Three mine fields up a ridge into entrenched positions; they overran the Taliban trenches on top of this ridge. I mean, straight World War I, and pretty disturbing to see. I had my first real case of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] after that trip. This was before 9/11, so it was before there were American soldiers fighting, and no one was talking about PTSD; I didn’t even know it existed. I remember coming back to New York, and I couldn’t take the subway, because every time I was under ground and it was too crowded down there, I’d panic and have to leave and take a taxi or something. I thought I was going crazy, I had no idea. I didn’t connect it to Afghanistan at all. And someone finally said to me, “Oh, that’s combat stress.”

At any rate, Massoud was killed, I went right back to Afghanistan and joined the commanders that I’d met when I was with Massoud when they took Kabul. There were no Americans on the ground. There were some special forces, but there were no American soldiers. Eight journalists died in the days leading up to the fall of Kabul; not one American soldier was killed. And an awful lot of Afghans died—Northern Alliance fighters, obviously. We’d sit out there in the frontlines, the American bombers would come over, and the Afghans would all climb onto the Americans’ bomb at predictable times, I think to increase anxiety or something among the Taliban. They would fly at an altitude where you could see the contrails, so these Taliban guys in the trenches would see these two white lines coming toward them for like ten minutes, knowing what was coming. It was sort of psychological warfare. At any rate, the Afghans would all be up on their rooftops cheering the American bombers, saying, “Kill the Pakistanis! Kill the Taliban! Kill the Pakistanis!”

I wasn’t quite sure what we were doing; is it good or bad? How do the Afghans feel?

When we got into Kabul, I’d been sleeping out in the frontlines for a month in the same clothes. We tried to get a taxi to the hotel to take a shower, and the guy in the taxi, the taxi driver, wrinkled his nose, sniffed, and said, “You’ve gotta get out, sorry, you just smell too bad.” After we cleaned ourselves up, we were in Kabul for a while and people were flying kites and playing the radio, and dancing in the street, it was a big party, a big citywide party, and people would come up to me when they found I was American, they would come up to me and hug me—this happened several times—and thank me for what our country had done, liberating them from the Taliban. And you have to understand, I grew up in the wake of Vietnam, and I did not think that the U. S. military was capable of creating goodwill anywhere in the world by dropping bombs. It was inconceivable to me, and it was really shocking and actually pretty inspiring to have that experience. At least in those early days, the feeling of goodwill was pretty amazing. But we managed to squander all that.

We went on to Iraq and left fifteen thousand soldiers in Afghanistan and just paid everyone off so that we didn’t have to leave more people there. And the years went by, and more and more casualties mounted, and we went off to lose a war in Iraq and by doing that we lost the war in Afghanistan. And it didn’t need to happen. I really think that if we’d put the energy that we put into Baghdad into Afghanistan, I think there would barely be a war there right now. It’s a tremendous tragedy that that decision was made by the Bush administration.

Steve Hindy: The environment you describe in the book War and the film Restrepo struck me as being very similar to a Samuel Beckett play. This little outpost fighting these people that they rarely have any human contact with, and certainly they have no ability to speak the language, and Afghans don’t speak English. It was an absurd situation, wasn’t it? At a certain level?

Sebastian Junger: The Korengal Valley is six miles long. It was really kind of a backwater, it was like a little mountain valley in Tennessee or something. Even Afghans in other parts of Afghanistan would say, “Why are you in the Korengal? Those people are crazy; we don’t even understand the Korengalis. What are you doing there?” But at any rate, you can’t train the entire U.S. military to speak Pashtu, or whatever. If you are going to be in another country, you’re going to have a foreign language problem, which means that you’re going to rely on translators, and some are very, very good, and very brave, and very honest, and some are corrupt and inaccurate, or outright sabotaging you. And the big problem from this is that it’s very hard to tell how good your translator is, and everything depends on it because the locals really need to know what your intentions are. If the translator is not communicating your intentions with enough subtlety or honesty, whole battles could be lost. It really is crucial; it really is the weak link in the chain.

[pullquote_left]If the translator is not communicating your intentions with enough subtlety or honesty, whole battles could be lost.[/pullquote_left]

I was out there with a platoon—it was thirty men—they rotated twenty at a time through Restrepo. It was a two hour walk from the main base, which was already a very, very isolated fire base. The two hour walk . . . walk! “Walk” doesn’t describe it; it was straight up this ridge. No internet, no phone, no running water, no hot water, no cooked food, no TV; for the first three months there was no electricity. It really was sandbags and ammo. And it’s just incredibly isolating, and the guys were up there in those conditions for a year. No women; basically nothing that young men like was up there, except, arguably, combat, which the guys really got into. I mean, just to make sure you understand, this is the 173rd airborne, 2nd Platoon Battle Company, arguably the best company in the 173rd, which is already a really elite airborne unit.

If you just need a job, it’s really easy to get a job in the U.S. military, like, changing tires on Humvees. The units that experience intense combat are very, very few. All the guys out there wanted that job—it’s like wanting to play football in high school and being glad that you made the cut. Something like three percent of the units experience 80 percent of the casualties. The guys in the battle company 2nd Platoon, they never complained about the fact that they were there because they were there as a matter of personal choice. It wasn’t like the war in Vietnam where the government decided to go and draft a lot of people. These guys, often their fathers fought in Vietnam, their grandfathers fought in World War II. They were like, “Look, this is what men in my family do: they fight wars, and I’m glad.” They would say, “I’m glad that I was in my twenties when America had a war to fight, otherwise I wouldn’t have this experience.” Guy after guy would say that; it was something that they really personally wanted to experience. They may regret it—sometimes they were miserable out there—but I didn’t have the sense that any of them were there because they were coerced either economically or psychologically. I think that was probably a huge difference between my experience and [that of] a journalist in Vietnam.

Steve Hindy: I think the funniest line in War is when you ask the one guy if he would ever have sex with one of the other soldiers, and he says, “Hell yes, to not do so would be gay.”

Sebastian Junger: Do you want me to elucidate? Or do we just leave it there? This was Bobby Wilson, and he was a complete unreconstructed Southern redneck, except that his best, best buddy was the only black guy in the platoon. These two were inseparable. And he was unbelievably smart, and insanely strong; he just didn’t look strong because he had this thick, kind of rubbery body. If you saw him, you’d think, “Well, he’s just overweight.” And he didn’t have muscles, he had hydraulics. He was incredible, and totally fearless, and he just had this thing . . . it got really weird out there . . . it did not get sexual, but it got incredibly weird. He would go up to some of the, frankly, cuter guys in the platoon, and say, “You know, if this fourteen month deployment turns into a fifteen month deployment, you’re in trouble, cause I may not be able to make it much longer.” And it was sort of, I don’t know, very, very edgy humor, but he made that joke quite a lot, and I don’t think he had a gay bone in his body, frankly, but at any rate, this sergeant finally said, “Hey, Bobby”—and I’ll clean up the language a bit—“seriously, would you have sex with someone up here, for real? Like would you really?” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, Sir, it’d be gay not to.” And his point was that, quote: “Real men have to have sex, and who they have sex with matters less than whether they have sex or not. So, if you’re choosing not to have sex with anything, you’re not a man.” That was his point.

Steve Hindy: We’re really here tonight because of what happened to Tim Hetherington, the photographer you worked with a lot. And actually, Sebastian just premiered a film about Tim Hetherington called Which Way is the Front from Here? It’s a wonderful story about this really great man and great photographer. Maybe we can show clip one from the film?

[quote]

Hetherington: You know, what’s interesting about war is that there’s all sorts of generalizations made up about it, but going to these extremities, what’s interesting is that even in these terrible times, these terrible moments, and these terrible extremities, people are still human. I think that, for me, is the redeeming factor of the human experience.

No, that sounds too fucking bullshit.

I think the important thing for me is to make work that is connected to people. I like to . . .

Ah shit, sorry man, blah blah blah blah blah.

I think the important thing for me is to connect with real people, to document them in these extreme circumstances where there aren’t any kind of neat solutions, so you can’t put any neat guidelines to say this is what it’s about, or this is what it’s about—it’s not. I think that my work kind of shows that.

[/quote]

Steve Hindy: Tell us about Tim.

Sebastian Junger: So that was kind of classic Tim, he overthought everything. And it created a very complicated life for him, but it also created incredibly good work. In that clip, he realized that there is a certain kind of boiler plate humanistic language that you can deploy to explain why you do the noble work that you do. You know what I mean? It’s easy, your interviewer is thrilled that you said it, they expect you to say it, no one questions it, but it doesn’t push the conversation into any new areas and it doesn’t really get at any kind of useful truth. What I really liked about this clip was that Tim had far higher expectations for himself than anyone else had for him, and he could have coasted by in his career at the equivalent of his first answer, and nobody would have blinked, and he would have been quite good at it, but he just kept revising himself until he got to what he thought was the heart of the matter.

If you cover war, the obvious thing to shoot video, photos, write about—the obvious thing is combat. It’s the most dramatic, the most consequential; frankly, it’s the most exciting. It’s also the most scary; it gets all the attention. There was a lot of combat out in Restrepo. Our first day out there, they hit the outpost four times very intensely. Guys coming up into the wire, trying to get close enough to throw hand grenades. That was our first day. So after a few days of this, Tim and I were pretty rocked by it, a little bit shocked, and after a while, Tim said, “You know, I’m realizing that the least interesting thing about combat is combat.” He said, “It’s just kind of repetitive, dramatic, but actually not all that interesting.” He said, “What’s really interesting, is what’s going on up here emotionally between the guys.” Twenty guys up on a hilltop, which, had the Taliban decided they had to overrun Restrepo, no matter what casualties they took, they could have done it. They would have lost forty guys, but they could have wiped out that outpost and killed everyone in there. And everyone at Restrepo, including Tim and myself, knew that. And every time you went to sleep . . . sort of like a guy up there once said to me: some of the scariest stuff up there never happened. It was the stuff that you worried about when you went to sleep.

They often attacked right at dawn, when it was just getting gray. You never knew when you went to sleep, if the next moment of consciousness was going to be an absolutely insane firefight that you were going to get killed in. You never knew. So you never had a good night’s sleep. That never happened, but in some ways the possibility took an enormous toll on everyone. And so, Tim decided to focus on the emotional connections between people. How do you represent that on film? Or digitally? How do you shoot emotions? How do you capture that? And we can play this in a second, but he wound up with this series called “Sleeping Soldiers”; it was just portraits of soldiers while they were asleep. I would say that’s an example of Tim doing what he was doing in that first clip, of revising his thinking. Ah, he finally got it. We were out there to find out what it feels like to be an American soldier at a small outpost not knowing if you’re gonna live through the next morning.

Steve Hindy: Could you run the second clip?

[quote]

Hetherington: The war machine isn’t just technology and bombs missiles and systems, this kind of CNN, TV-mediated world. The war machine is, put a group of men together in extreme circumstances and get them to bond together, and they will kill and be killed for each other. At the end of the day you realize that they were all young men just put together on the side of this mountain and all they were trying to survive and look out for each other so they all got back down the line, and that was it really, nothing to do with war, nothing to do with politics.

Sebastian Junger: One day it was this incredibly hot, boring day and everyone’s asleep, except the guys on guard duty. I mean, this is the ultimate situation where nothing’s going on, and you can just switch your brain off because there’s no work to do as a journalist. And I see Tim scuttling around with his camera, and he’s photographing the soldiers, who are asleep. And I say, “Tim, what are you doing?” And he said, “Don’t you get it?” And of course I didn’t, I never did, often, with Tim. “This is what the American public never gets to see because any nation is self-selecting in the images it projects and we want to see our soldiers as strong. We don’t want to know that they’re also these vulnerable boys.”

[/quote]

Steve Hindy: Tell us about how you came to start RISC—Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues?

Sebastian Junger: Well, within about an hour of getting the news that Tim had been killed in Libya—he was hit by a mortar fragment, not a big piece of metal, it just happened to hit his femoral artery—you know an inch to the left and he would have lived, he would have had a fairly minor wound, actually, but he bled out, and nobody around him—there were a number of other journalists, some wounded some not, and obviously none of the rebel fighters, who were mostly teenagers—no one knew what to do about a femoral artery bleed.

It’s a very, very dangerous wound, but I found out later from an English combat medic whom I met at Tim’s memorial that there are things you can do in the field to at least slow down the loss of blood. Battlefield medicine is basically slowing down the dying process long enough to get the person to a trauma surgeon. You’re not saving people’s lives out there; you’re just stopping the process of them dying. You open up their air passageway, you slow down the blood loss, and you get them on a helicopter or whatever. Tim died a few minutes from the Misrata hospital, a hospital that, tragically, had gotten quite good at operating on very wounded people. He was in the back of a rebel pick up truck, and had someone just put their knee in the wound—the wound was in his groin—if they’d just put their knee in the wound, and bared down as hard as they could, Tim would have been screaming in pain, but if you do that right, it collapses the artery, you cut off the blood flow, and it’s a temporary solution. No one knew how to do that. And, I didn’t either, I realized . . . I mean, I was supposed to be with Tim on assignment for Vanity Fair in Libya, and at the last minute I couldn’t go for personal reasons, and he went on his own, and I felt kind of responsible for him, and I thought, “God, if I’d been there, I couldn’t have saved his life.” I would have watched him die, because I didn’t know how to do that either. And, in fact, no one I know would know how to do that, no journalist I know has had any medical training at all. Some have had a little, and these are the sort of network correspondents, the sort of salaried journalists who have jobs with corporate media. Basically, those companies are insured and the insurance companies mandate that people who go out into the field get trained medically. It’s pretty sparse training, but it’s something. The freelancers get nothing because they’re freelance. They don’t have a lot of money, and freelancers are doing probably 90 percent of the frontline war reporting right now, and before it was like Syria and Libya, that’s a guess, I don’t know, but it’s probably high.

So they’re providing most of the risks, and they have zero medical training, so I thought, “I want to start a nonprofit devoted exclusively to training experienced freelance war reporters.” Not people who come out of J-school and want to be war reporters; people who are already doing it. The idea is to sort of bring them back from the frontlines, give them a four-day training course in New York City—eventually we’re going to go to Istanbul and some other cities—and it has to be free. We pay the hotel, we pay the training course, we pay the medical kit, and we train these people and then send them back out. And we completely depend on people’s generosity; we don’t have a corporate sponsor. We are very, very efficient, we can train someone . . . we can lodge them in New York at a hotel and train them for four days for $800. It’s really cost effective, and we’re slowly, 24 people at a time, working our way through the freelance war reporter population of the world.

Steve Hindy and Sebastian Junger at the War Correspondents at the Brooklyn Brewery Series on May 8, 2013

Sebastian Junger and Steve Hindy at the War Correspondents at the Brooklyn Brewery Series on May 8, 2013, Photo courtesy of RISC.

[[1]]According to Junger, the majority of the journalists covering combat zones are working on a freelance basis (as were he and Hetherington). Freelancers pay their own overhead costs, and few of them can afford the medical training to prepare them for life-threatening situations. The grueling aspects of this work are poignantly portrayed in Fracesca Borri’s essay on her experience as a freelance war reporter for the July/August 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.[[1]]