Experiencing war and loss with Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington

Photo from Tim Heatherington's book Infidel  Photo from Tim Heatherington’s book Infidel

Author Sebastian Junger gave an interview to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross on 18 April 2013 about Junger’s new film Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Heatherington.

Heatherington, a British photographer, became very close to Junger while they collaborated on the documentary film Restrepo, which Junger turned into a book simply entitled War.  At left, one can see the two at the Academy Awards show – soon after the show the two were to go to Libya together on an assignment for Vanity Fair.  Junger had a last minute change, Heatherington went on his own and was killed by shrapnel from a single (likely errant) 82mm mortar round.  Junger’s film is meant to be a tribute to his lost friend; the interview also holds great insight for anyone who spends their life in a way that touches war and warfare.  Here is a sample of his thoughts:

On war photojournalism (at about 10 minutes into the interview):

“If you’re putting yourself in danger [as a photojournalist] in combat – if you don’t keep recording what’s happening – you’re putting yourself in danger for nothing. It’s utterly stupid. And so it’s actually easier to keep rolling in combat because at least it gives the risk some meaning.”

On fear in combat (at about 11 minutes):

“You go into shock a little bit. You know, combat’s not that scary actually.  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.  At least I am.”

On war in general and losing his good friend in specific (at 33 minutes):

TERRY GROSS: “You’ve said that it’s not that traumatic to nearly get killed…but you’ve said that deep trauma comes from the pain of others, from losing others. Were you prepared for the trauma of losing Tim, for somebody you had been so close to, because you’d worked in war together..?”

SEBASTIAN 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, 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 in very intense. It’s a lot of good stuff that happens out there and stuff you can’t get back home. 

So it’s possible to miss the central point, which is: it’s all just actually 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 go war, you think you’re gambling with your own life and I realized that what you’re really gambling with is everyone else’s lives – everyone who cares about you. You’re dead, it doesn’t matter, it’s over, 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 this 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.”

A sample of Heatherington’s work:

Tim Heatherington did some fantastic work – below is an example (from the same collection as the one at top).  Junger describes one day in Afghanistan where Heatherington walked around getting shots of soldiers sleeping.  He had realized that nearly every war photo ever taken was of soldiers in full gear, looking mean, looking angry – and is certainly an important view.  But just as important is to recognize the humanity in these soldiers – that, for example, when they sleep they look as though they’ve reverted to being 10-year old boys at home on a bunk bed.  Amazing shots – what a great photojournalist.

Photo from Tim Heatherington's book Infidel Photo from Tim Heatherington’s book Infidel

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.