Filmmaker explores ethics and war

Feb. 22, 2012, 2:40 a.m.

In 2007, author, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a U.S. battle company at a remote outpost in Korengal Valley, an area of eastern Afghanistan widely considered the most dangerous region in the country. He later parlayed this experience into an Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Restrepo,” and a New York Times best-selling book, “War.” He used his experience as a reference point Tuesday night when speaking about issues of morality in armed conflict.


Junger was joined onstage in Cemex auditorium by English Professor Tobias Wolff and Joseph Felter Ph.D. ‘05, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).


Junger said his time embedded with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team gave him an immense appreciation for members of the military.


“The platoon represented every slice of America,” Junger said. “That’s because of 9/11 [Afghanistan] became everyone’s war. The human logic transcended politics.”


In spending a year with American forces, Junger said that he “wanted to write about something that has dropped out of public conversation [about] what it means to be an American soldier.”


He praised the dedication of U.S. forces, saying that few other people would “do this, and especially not for someone else’s country.”


Felter noted that the time Junger spent embedded with the troops, and his willingness to expose himself to danger on patrol, lends his reporting sustained credibility. Felter asked Junger if the lessons learned in Korengal Valley — which had been convincingly stabilized before American forces withdrew in 2010 — could be more broadly applied.


While acknowledging that each area of Afghanistan poses distinct problems, Junger expressed cautious optimism about Afghanistan’s future, contingent on the implementation of a less corrupt and more representative government.


“The Afghans need to believe in something,” Junger said. “You have to give them a better government that’s not corrupt, and if you do that, they’ll take care of the Taliban.”


“We’ve squandered some of the goodwill,” he added, “but I think that we can regain it.”


Wolff inquired about how Junger’s desire to integrate himself into the platoon co-existed with his journalistic responsibilities, and how his ability — unlike the platoon members — to leave at any time affected his efforts to build trust with soldiers.


Junger said the U.S. military was extraordinarily open with journalists in Afghanistan, compared, in particular, to NATO allies such as the United Kingdom and France. He said, however, that earning soldiers’ trust was the result of constantly proving himself on the front line, demonstrating that “you’re risking something, you’re sacrificing something as well.”


Wolff and Felter, who served in Afghanistan as an officer in the U.S. Army before retiring this year as a colonel, both commented on the drawbacks posed by withdrawing from Korengal Valley, observing that the removal of NATO troops may jeopardize progress created and protected by loss of American life.


“We should worry [about] what would happen to the women in Afghanistan,” Wolff said, “as well as [to] the girls just starting to go to school.”


Observing that “Afghanistan won’t succeed or fail because of the Korengal,” Junger nevertheless acknowledged that the American withdrawal will likely have negative ramifications for the Afghan population. He argued that in comparison to the 1990s — when Afghanistan was wracked by sectional conflict, with an estimated 400,000 civilian deaths — the 10 years after NATO’s 2001 intervention were marked by unprecedented stability and aid-fueled socioeconomic development.


“We brought a lot of good things that civilians need,” Junger said. “If you want to pull out, you have to acknowledge that a lot of good things will stop happening, and there may be terrible reversals.”


The audience posed questions focusing on the human impact of the conflict, specifically the burden borne by young Americans serving in Afghanistan.


“Guys who got out were far more of a danger to themselves and society than the guys who stayed in,” Junger said, noting that the adrenaline and intensity experienced during combat becomes difficult to replicate in civilian life. “They came out alone into society, and they struggled with it. A whole generation was really affected by this war, and America will have to figure out how to take care of them.”


“I thought Junger did a really good job of revealing [in “Restrepo”] what it’s like to be a soldier in Afghanistan,” said audience member Jack Duane ‘13, “and this conversation was a very good opportunity to examine the morality of being a soldier.”


The talk was part of the Ethics and War Series — now in its second year — and was sponsored by the Bowen H. McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Stanford’s Creative Writing program.

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.

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