TEDSalon NY2014

Sebastian Junger: Why veterans miss war

Filmed:

Civilians don’t miss war. But soldiers often do. Journalist Sebastian Junger shares his experience embedded with American soldiers at Restrepo, an outpost in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley that saw heavy combat. Giving a look at the "altered state of mind" that comes with war, he shows how combat gives soldiers an intense experience of connection. In the end, could it actually be "the opposite of war" that soldiers miss? 

- Journalist and documentarian
The author of "The Perfect Storm" and the director of the documentaries "Restrepo" and "Korengal," Sebastian Junger tells non-fiction stories with grit and emotion. Full bio

I'm going to ask and try to answer,
00:12
in some ways, kind of an uncomfortable question.
00:14
Both civilians, obviously, and soldiers
00:19
suffer in war;
00:22
I don't think any civilian has ever missed
00:24
the war that they were subjected to.
00:26
I've been covering wars for almost 20 years,
00:29
and one of the remarkable things for me
00:31
is how many soldiers find themselves missing it.
00:35
How is it someone can go through
00:39
the worst experience imaginable,
00:41
and come home, back to their home,
00:43
and their family, their country, and miss the war?
00:45
How does that work? What does it mean?
00:49
We have to answer that question,
00:52
because if we don't, it'll be impossible
00:56
to bring soldiers back
00:59
to a place in society where they belong,
01:00
and I think it'll also be impossible to stop war,
01:04
if we don't understand how that mechanism works.
01:06
The problem is that war
01:09
does not have a simple, neat truth,
01:12
one simple, neat truth.
01:16
Any sane person hates war,
01:19
hates the idea of war,
01:21
wouldn't want to have anything to do with it,
01:23
doesn't want to be near it,
doesn't want to know about it.
01:26
That's a sane response to war.
01:29
But if I asked all of you in this room,
01:32
who here has paid money
01:34
to go to a cinema
01:38
and be entertained by a Hollywood war movie,
01:40
most of you would probably raise your hands.
01:43
That's what's so complicated about war.
01:47
And trust me, if a room full of peace-loving people
01:49
finds something compelling about war,
01:53
so do 20-year-old soldiers
01:56
who have been trained in it, I promise you.
01:59
That's the thing that has to be understood.
02:02
I've covered war for about 20 years, as I said,
02:05
but my most intense experiences in combat
02:08
were with American soldiers in Afghanistan.
02:11
I've been in Africa, the Middle East,
02:15
Afghanistan in the '90s,
02:16
but it was with American soldiers in 2007, 2008,
02:18
that I was confronted with
02:22
very intense combat.
02:24
I was in a small valley called the Korengal Valley
02:26
in eastern Afghanistan.
02:28
It was six miles long.
02:31
There were 150 men of
Battle Company in that valley,
02:33
and for a while, while I was there,
02:36
almost 20 percent of all the combat
02:39
in all of Afghanistan was happening
02:42
in those six miles.
02:43
A hundred and fifty men were absorbing
02:45
almost a fifth of the combat for all of NATO forces
02:48
in the country, for a couple months.
02:51
It was very intense.
02:53
I spent most of my time at a small outpost
02:56
called Restrepo.
02:58
It was named after the platoon medic
02:59
that had been killed about two
months into the deployment.
03:01
It was a few plywood B-huts
03:04
clinging to a side of a ridge,
03:08
and sandbags, bunkers, gun positions,
03:11
and there were 20 men up there
03:16
of Second Platoon, Battle Company.
03:18
I spent most of my time up there.
03:20
There was no running water.
03:22
There was no way to bathe.
03:23
The guys were up there for a month at a time.
03:24
They never even got out of their clothes.
03:27
They fought. The worked.
03:29
They slept in the same clothes.
03:30
They never took them off,
and at the end of the month,
03:33
they went back down to the company headquarters,
03:35
and by then, their clothes were unwearable.
03:37
They burned them and got a new set.
03:39
There was no Internet. There was no phone.
03:41
There was no communication
with the outside world up there.
03:43
There was no cooked food.
03:47
There was nothing up there
03:50
that young men typically like:
03:52
no cars, no girls, no television, nothing
03:54
except combat.
03:58
Combat they did learn to like.
03:59
I remember one day, it was a very hot day
04:03
in the spring,
04:06
and we hadn't been in a fight
04:08
in a couple of weeks, maybe.
04:10
Usually, the outpost was attacked,
04:12
and we hadn't seen any
combat in a couple of weeks,
04:15
and everyone was just stunned
04:18
with boredom and heat.
04:20
And I remember the lieutenant walking past me
04:23
sort of stripped to the waist.
04:27
It was incredibly hot.
04:29
Stripped to the waist, walked past me muttering,
04:31
"Oh God, please someone attack us today."
04:33
That's how bored they were.
04:36
That's war too, is a lieutenant saying,
04:38
"Please make something happen
04:42
because we're going crazy."
04:44
To understand that,
04:46
you have to, for a moment,
04:49
think about combat not morally --
04:50
that's an important job to do —
04:53
but for a moment, don't think about it morally,
04:55
think about it neurologically.
04:57
Let's think about what happens in your brain
05:00
when you're in combat.
05:02
First of all, the experience
05:04
is very bizarre, it's a very bizarre one.
05:06
It's not what I had expected.
05:11
Usually, you're not scared.
05:14
I've been very scared in combat,
05:16
but most of the time when I was out there,
05:18
I wasn't scared.
05:20
I was very scared beforehand
05:21
and incredibly scared afterwards,
05:23
and that fear that comes afterwards can last years.
05:25
I haven't been shot at in six years,
05:27
and I was woken up very abruptly this morning
05:29
by a nightmare that I was being strafed by aircraft,
05:32
six years later.
05:35
I've never even been strafed by aircraft,
05:36
and I was having nightmares about it.
05:38
Time slows down.
05:41
You get this weird tunnel vision.
05:42
You notice some details very, very, very accurately
05:45
and other things drop out.
05:48
It's almost a slightly altered state of mind.
05:51
What's happening in your brain
05:53
is you're getting an enormous amount of adrenaline
05:55
pumped through your system.
05:58
Young men will go to great lengths
05:59
to have that experience.
06:02
It's wired into us.
06:04
It's hormonally supported.
06:07
The mortality rate for young men in society
06:11
is six times what it is for young women
06:15
from violence and from accidents,
06:17
just the stupid stuff that young men do:
06:19
jumping off of things they shouldn't jump off of,
06:21
lighting things on fire they shouldn't light on fire,
06:24
I mean, you know what I'm talking about.
06:26
They die at six times the rate
06:28
that young women do.
06:30
Statistically, you are safer as a teenage boy,
06:32
you would be safer in the fire department
06:36
or the police department in most American cities
06:38
than just walking around the
streets of your hometown
06:41
looking for something to do,
06:44
statistically.
06:46
You can imagine how that plays out in combat.
06:49
At Restrepo, every guy up there was almost killed,
06:52
including me,
06:55
including my good friend Tim Hetherington,
06:57
who was later killed in Libya.
06:59
There were guys walking around
07:01
with bullet holes in their uniforms,
07:03
rounds that had cut through the fabric
07:05
and didn't touch their bodies.
07:07
I was leaning against some sandbags one morning,
07:10
not much going on, sort of spacing out,
07:13
and some sand was kicked into the side of,
07:16
sort of hit the side of my face.
07:20
Something hit the side of my face,
and I didn't know what it was.
07:22
You have to understand about bullets
07:25
that they go a lot faster than sound,
07:26
so if someone shoots at you
07:28
from a few hundred meters,
07:30
the bullet goes by you, or hits you obviously,
07:32
half a second or so before
the sound catches up to it.
07:35
So I had some sand sprayed in the side of my face.
07:37
Half a second later, I heard dut-dut-dut-dut-duh.
07:40
It was machine gun fire.
07:42
It was the first round, the first burst
07:43
of an hour-long firefight.
07:46
What had happened was the bullet hit,
07:48
a bullet hit three or four inches
from the side of my head.
07:52
Imagine, just think about it, because I certainly did,
07:55
think about the angle of deviation that saved my life.
08:00
At 400 meters, it missed me by three inches.
08:02
Just think about the math on that.
08:04
Every guy up there
08:09
had some experience like that,
08:10
at least once, if not many times.
08:12
The boys are up there for a year.
08:16
They got back.
08:18
Some of them got out of the Army
08:20
and had tremendous psychological
problems when they got home.
08:21
Some of them stayed in the Army
08:24
and were more or less okay, psychologically.
08:26
I was particularly close to a
guy named Brendan O'Byrne.
08:29
I'm still very good friends with him.
08:32
He came back to the States. He got out of the Army.
08:34
I had a dinner party one night.
08:37
I invited him,
08:39
and he started talking with a woman,
08:41
one of my friends,
08:44
and she knew how bad it had been out there,
08:46
and she said, "Brendan,
08:49
is there anything at all that you miss about
08:50
being out in Afghanistan, about the war?"
08:54
And he thought about it quite a long time,
08:57
and finally he said, "Ma'am, I miss almost all of it."
09:00
And he's one of the most traumatized people
09:06
I've seen from that war.
09:09
"Ma'am, I miss almost all of it."
09:12
What is he talking about?
09:14
He's not a psychopath.
09:17
He doesn't miss killing people.
09:21
He's not crazy. He doesn't miss getting shot at
09:23
and seeing his friends get killed.
09:25
What is it that he misses? We have to answer that.
09:27
If we're going to stop war, we
have to answer that question.
09:30
I think what he missed is brotherhood.
09:37
He missed, in some ways,
09:42
the opposite of killing.
09:44
What he missed was connection
09:45
to the other men he was with.
09:48
Now, brotherhood is different from friendship.
09:50
Friendship happens in society, obviously.
09:53
The more you like someone,
09:56
the more you'd be willing to do for them.
09:58
Brotherhood has nothing to do
10:00
with how you feel about the other person.
10:02
It's a mutual agreement in a group
10:05
that you will put the welfare of the group,
10:08
you will put the safety of everyone in the group
10:10
above your own.
10:12
In effect, you're saying,
10:14
"I love these other people more than I love myself."
10:18
Brendan was a team leader
10:23
in command of three men,
10:24
and the worst day in Afghanistan —
10:26
He was almost killed so many times.
10:30
It didn't bother him.
10:32
The worst thing that happened to him in Afghanistan
10:34
was one of his men was hit in the head with a bullet
10:36
in the helmet, knocked him over.
10:39
They thought he was dead.
10:44
It was in the middle of a huge firefight.
10:45
No one could deal with it, and a minute later,
10:46
Kyle Steiner sat back up
10:48
from the dead, as it were,
10:50
because he'd come back to consciousness.
10:52
The bullet had just knocked him out.
10:54
It glanced off the helmet.
10:56
He remembers people saying,
10:57
as he was sort of half-conscious,
11:00
he remembers people saying,
11:01
"Steiner's been hit in the head. Steiner's dead."
11:05
And he was thinking, "I'm not dead."
11:07
And he sat up.
11:08
And Brendan realized after that
11:10
that he could not protect his men,
11:12
and that was the only time he cried in Afghanistan,
11:14
was realizing that.
11:16
That's brotherhood.
11:19
This wasn't invented recently.
11:22
Many of you have probably read "The Iliad."
11:24
Achilles surely would have risked his life
11:27
or given his life to save his friend Patroclus.
11:29
In World War II, there were many stories
11:33
of soldiers who were wounded,
11:36
were brought to a rear base hospital,
11:39
who went AWOL,
11:41
crawled out of windows, slipped out doors,
11:43
went AWOL, wounded,
11:45
to make their way back to the front lines
11:49
to rejoin their brothers out there.
11:50
So you think about Brendan,
11:53
you think about all these soldiers
11:55
having an experience like that, a bond like that,
11:58
in a small group,
12:01
where they loved 20 other people
12:03
in some ways more than they loved themselves,
12:05
you think about how good that would feel, imagine it,
12:08
and they are blessed with that experience for a year,
12:13
and then they come home,
12:18
and they are just back in society
12:19
like the rest of us are,
12:22
not knowing who they can count on,
12:25
not knowing who loves them, who they can love,
12:27
not knowing exactly what anyone they know
12:33
would do for them if it came down to it.
12:35
That is terrifying.
12:37
Compared to that,
12:41
war, psychologically, in some ways, is easy,
12:43
compared to that kind of alienation.
12:47
That's why they miss it,
12:50
and that's what we have to understand
12:51
and in some ways fix in our society.
12:53
Thank you very much.
12:57
(Applause)
13:00

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About the Speaker:

Sebastian Junger - Journalist and documentarian
The author of "The Perfect Storm" and the director of the documentaries "Restrepo" and "Korengal," Sebastian Junger tells non-fiction stories with grit and emotion.

Why you should listen

Sebastian Junger thundered onto the media landscape with his non-fiction book, The Perfect Storm. A correspondent for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Junger has covered stories all across the globe, igniting a new interest in non-fiction. One of his main interests: war.

From 2007 to 2008, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. They spent intensive time with the soldiers at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, which saw more combat than any other part of Afghanistan. The experience became Junger's book WAR, and the documentary "Restrepo," which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011.

Junger and Hetherington planned to make a second documentary on the topic, "Korengal," meant to help soldiers and civilians alike understand the fear, courage and complexity involved in combat. It's a project that Junger decided to carry on after Hetherington was killed in Libya while covering the civil war there. Junger self-financed and released the film.