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Sebastian Junger Delivers Keynote for George Washington's First Chapter Forum
September 06, 2012
The award-winning author discussed his experience covering conflict as part of a four-day University Writing Program forum on writing and war.
Best-selling author and documentarian Sebastian Junger spoke yesterday in Lisner Auditorium about the lasting impact of war on his life and outlook in the keynote address of GW’s First Chapter Forum on writing and war, four days of events focused on writing and veterans sponsored by the University Writing Program.
GW’s First Chapter Freshman Reading Program selected “War” as this year’s book for the class of 2016 to read before arrival on campus in the fall. Mr. Junger is the internationally acclaimed author of “The Perfect Storm,” “A Death in Belmont” and “Fire.” His documentary “Restrepo” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and received the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
“By bringing together the First Chapter freshman reading initiative with our veterans’ writing initiative, we’ve put important issues related to war—and to the experiences of those who fight it—very prominently in the foreground of our students’ minds, right at the beginning of the new academic year,” said Derek Malone-France, University Writing Program executive director. “We plan to follow up throughout the remainder of the year and beyond to build greater awareness of the relevance of veterans’ perspectives for the sorts of policy questions and debates that permeate the intellectual life of GW students.”
In his opening remarks at Lisner, GW President Steven Knapp noted that George Washington now supports more than 1,000 student veterans through the federally sponsored Yellow Ribbon Program, so the selection of “War” had “special significance” to the university.
“Readers of the book have been struck—I know I have—by the way it combines riveting narration with profound reflections on the human reality of combat,” said Dr. Knapp, “a reality Junger so carefully captures in its psychological, its moral and even its physiological dimensions.”
Mr. Junger said he first broke into journalism through travel, telling the audience about camping with nomads in Morocco—which opened his eyes to all the “alien” populations around the world—and the unexpected generosity of an unemployed stranger Mr. Junger encountered in Wyoming while hitchhiking in Western United States. Deriving meaning from these kinds of experiences became “one long act of understanding,” he said, which taught him a lot about what it means to be a journalist.
With the purchase of a plane ticket, Mr. Junger’s war coverage began in Bosnia in the 1990s, and he has since covered wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Afghanistan. Mr. Junger spent a year with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in eastern Afghanistan, collecting reports and stories which led to “War” and “Restrepo.”
After a few brushes with death, Mr. Junger said he began to think about “what it means to be alive” and later felt an “incredible depression” about the inevitability of death in war.
“Once you connect with that sadness, you’re never really the same again,” he said. “And it will track you down and make you confront it eventually.”
After the death of his close friend and “Restrepo” collaborator Tim Hetherington in Libya in 2011, Mr. Junger decided his days on the frontlines were over.
“Once you really understand death, you don’t want to be anywhere near war,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be interested in war and to go, but once you really understand how unbelievably sad it is…I found I just didn’t want to be anywhere near it.”
Mr. Junger’s next project is a documentary on the challenges veterans experience returning to civilian life. Mr. Junger and a team of journalists and veterans are walking the 300 miles from New York to Washington, D.C., collecting stories along the way.
“War is an incredibly meaningful situation. Everything has meaning—even if you tie your shoelaces or not—everything potentially has the consequences of life or death,” he told the audience. “You kind of come alive in a weird way. Human relationships in war will either save or fail to save people’s lives…Imagine having that kind of intensely human experience and then coming back to society, coming back to a situation where there are a lot of details that don’t have importance.”
“Almost nobody likes killing, but everyone likes human connection, and people in war experience human connection in a way that they feel quite confident they will never, ever experience again in their lives,” he added. “That’s heartbreaking, and it makes it very, very hard to come home.”
At the end of his address, Mr. Junger took questions from the audience, including many veterans, who praised the author for his honest and real portrayal of war.
The writing and war forum, which ends Friday, featured local and student veterans in panel discussions, film screenings and research groups.
“George Washington is quickly becoming a national leader among colleges and universities in supporting student veterans,” said Dr. Malone-France. “What excites me most about our forum on writing and war is how we’ve connected support for our student veterans to the broader educational goal of exposing all of our students to new perspectives and encouraging thoughtful public discourse about important issues.”
“Our ultimate goal, going forward, is to develop the resources to create an endowed Veterans’ Writing Center at GW, through which we can expand the impact of our efforts across the nation and around the world,” he added.