DATE September 25, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sebastian Junger talks about the time he spent with
Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sebastian Junger, is best known as the author of the best-seller,
"The Perfect Storm," a nonfiction book about commercial fishermen caught in a
deadly storm. It was recently adapted to a film.
Junger's new book, "Fire," is a collection of his reports about, as he puts
it, people confronting situations that could easily destroy them, such as
forest fires and war. One of those essays is about Ahmed Shah Massoud, the
leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the rebel group that has been
fighting the Taliban. Massoud was assassinated earlier this month by suicide
bombers posing as journalists.
Last November, Sebastian Junger traveled with Massoud and the rebels in
Northern Afghanistan on assignment for a National Geographic magazine article
and TV documentary. Many people had worried that the Northern Alliance would
be decimated without its legendary leader, Massoud. I asked Sebastian Junger
what he's hearing about what's left of the rebel group.
Mr. SEBASTIAN JUNGER (Author, "Fire"): The last word that I've had from my
contacts in the Northern Alliance, they seem to be doing OK. I mean, they
have lost a very capable and charismatic leader, but someone has stepped in to
take his place, someone who--I think Massoud probably realized there was a
risk of his assassination. There have been many attempts against his life,
and I think he made sure that there was someone designated to succeed him.
His name's Mohamad Fahil(ph). He has been with Massoud since 1973. He's
fought alongside him all throughout this terrible past 22 years in Afghan
history. I met him when I was in there. I didn't have any particular reason
to talk with him, so I didn't get much of a sense of him, but I have been
assured that he is a very, very capable commander.
GROSS: What do you know about Massoud's assassins?
Mr. JUNGER: I know probably what most of the rest of the world knows.
That's they're (technical difficulties) origin, traveling on Belgian
passports, and they said that they were working for a Saudi television
network. And they actually spoke with somebody who met them, who was waiting
in Hodi Valdi(ph), where Massoud was killed--and he was waiting for Massoud to
appear, along with these guys, and then this man that I talked (technical
difficulties) believe. But he said that they kept to themselves a lot. They
didn't act like journalists. They didn't talk to people. They weren't
curious. They kept to themselves, and they waited.
And they--it was obviously meant to be a suicide bombing. As far as I know,
they had no plans for escape. They had packed their television camera with
explosives. It's ironic that one of Massoud's most powerful weapons against
the Taliban was his own tremendous charisma, both in person and in front of a
camera, and I find it as a terrible irony in the fact that that ultimately
became the instrument of his destruction.
GROSS: It's also interesting, too, because the head of the Taliban is
supposed to never appear publicly, or at least rarely appear publicly, so it's
the opposite of looking good on camera, nothing near a camera.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. The Mullah Omar has never been photographed, at least not
that the West knows about. I frankly have never been in the Taliban
territory. I've spoken with prisoners of war who were fighting for the
Taliban on Massoud's side, but I've never been in the Taliban territory, and I
really am not sure why Mullah Omar is so secretive.
GROSS: You say you considered Massoud a genius guerilla fighter. Why was he
considered such a genius?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, the Afghans in general fought off one of the largest
military powers in the world; it took them 10 years. The Soviet Union invaded
it late, late 1979, and 10 years later, they left, having lost 15,000 men.
And his--Massoud's--tactics in particular were very effective. He was
defending the Panjshir Valley, a mountain stronghold just north of Kabul, sort
of at the crossroads of Afghanistan. And the Russians realized that without
controlling the Panjshir Valley, they would never fully control Afghanistan,
and they tried, I believe, nine, maybe 10 times, 11 times to invade the
Panjshir Valley with forces of tens of thousands of men and tanks, artillery,
air support. Massoud had 3,000 men, and of course none of the armaments, and
he repelled their attacks every single time.
What he would do is allow them into the valley, a classic guerilla tactic--you
don't stand and fight. He would allow them all the way into the valley, they
could take anything they wanted. He would withdraw the population so that the
civilians didn't suffer, and then he would slowly start attacking the smallest
outposts and then the next smallest. And ultimately, he's a genius because,
in my mind, because his tactics worked, and I feel that's a good definition of
genius. And he was widely admired and emulated by other commanders.
GROSS: But so he would withdraw from the Panjshir and then do what to attack
Mr. JUNGER: He would withdraw up into the mountains, where it was too
dangerous for the Russian soldiers to go, and often at night, he would come
down and start attacking the small outposts. These guys--the Russians did not
want to be fighting. They did not want to be there. It was very easy to
scare them, to spook them.
Massoud, for example, before attacking the outpost, would mine the road on
either side of it so that reinforcements could not come. If he attacked a
convoy, a Russian military convoy, he would take out the first and last
vehicles, so that the convoy was stuck. And instead of trying to wipe the
whole convoy out, he would attack them for a while, and then pull back. He
didn't want to lose men. He didn't want to lose ammunition. And he just
basically just kept harassing them.
He would buy information. He used every tactic imaginable. He would buy
information from Soviet soldiers. He had great, great intelligence contacts
in Kabul. Apparently there were Russian generals who were selling him
information about Russian military operations. He used every conceivable tool
to fight them.
At one point, just as an example, his men had downed a Russian helicopter, and
some ingenious mechanic in the Panjshir Valley turned the body of the
helicopter into a bus. They put a diesel engine in it and some wheels and
were riding this thing around the Panjshir Valley, using it as a bus, which of
course, was tremendously humiliating to the Russians when they got word of
this. And the next time they invaded the Panjshir Valley, Massoud left the
helicopter in plain view, so of course, the top Russian brass wanted to see
this thing, and they all crowded inside to inspect this example of Afghan
ingenuity, and he packed it with explosives, and he killed any number of
Russian officers ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Junger. You probably
know him as the author of "The Perfect Storm." In his new book, "Fire," one of
the essays is about meeting and traveling with Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was the
head of the resistance in Afghanistan, and was assassinated earlier this
Massoud first fought against the Soviets in the '80s after the Soviets invaded
Afghanistan. But then Massoud ended up fighting the Taliban in the '90s.
Were his warfare techniques different against the Taliban, who were familiar
with that kind of terrain, than the Soviets, who weren't?
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. I think his techniques--his strategies, did change. It
may have been forced to change. The Taliban were--are directed--were formed
under Pakistan's direction, and are still directed by them, and materially
aided by Pakistan. And so you had a conventional army, generals in a
conventional army who are dictating the terms of war. The war was not a
hit-and-run guerilla warfare against the Taliban. It ended up being real,
almost World War I front-line, entrenched positions, that sort of fighting,
tremendous artillery bombardments.
The attacks, when they came, were sometimes across open grounds, masses of men
rising up and charging the other side, and Massoud found himself locked into a
real front-line, conventional war situation. That was exactly the kind of
fighting that I saw late last fall. What Massoud said was that that had
worked to hold them off, hold off the Taliban, but in order to really start to
chip away at their defenses, he was going to now, while holding the front line
that stretched from the Tajik border up to Kabul, he was going to initiate
guerilla actions way in the rear of their territory, of the Taliban territory.
And we've seen that in the past few months, a commander named Ishmael Han(ph)
has taken a large swath of territory in the far western part of Afghanistan,
hundreds of miles away from the front line where the Northern Alliance
supposedly is positioned. The Northern Alliance has little spots of territory
all over remote areas of Afghanistan, and again, it has gone back to classic
guerrilla war, and that was Massoud's next phase for his grand strategy, that
may have taken years and years, to topple the Taliban.
GROSS: My guest is Sebastian Junger. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sebastian Junger. His new book, "Fire," includes his
essay about traveling with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan
resistance group fighting the Taliban. Massoud was assassinated earlier this
Did you talk to Massoud about why he opposed the Taliban, because really, the
people in the Taliban and the people in the Mujahedeen were on the same side
against the Soviets, although the Taliban were children in the war with the
Soviets. They would have been too young to fight. A lot of the Taliban were
the grown-up version of the child refugees of the war with the Soviets.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. Massoud told me this, but many other Afghans who I spoke
with in the northeast, in the territory of the Northern Alliance, also told me
this, that they were fighting the Taliban because they considered it a foreign
invasion. They considered it an invasion by Pakistan. The Taliban troops,
they felt, were being not just manipulated, but guided and materially
supported by the Pakistani army, and while I was there, a Taliban fighter
pilot had defected to Massoud's side, and the reason that he gave--he landed
in the Northern Alliance territory--and the reason he gave was that he
realized that he was fighting for Pakistan, for a foreign invader, and he was
an Afghan, and he wasn't going to do this any more.
I think there are many, many layers and subtleties for the reasons that
Massoud and other Afghans were fighting the Taliban, but that seemed to be the
strongest one. There also was, I should say, a very widespread belief that
society in the Taliban areas was not a free society, it was not a benevolent
society, it didn't have anything to do with Islam; the suppression of rights,
the suppression of education, of entertainment, the suppression of joy,
almost, that that really had nothing to do with Afghanistan and with Islam,
and it really broke their hearts, that that was how Afghanistan was now
becoming characterized, by those strictures, and they wanted to retake not
only Afghanistan territorially, but they wanted to take over the spirit of it,
and the heart of it and re-institute a fair and free society, which, in fact,
was what I saw in the Northern Alliance territories.
I saw women working. Some women had veils, because it's a very traditional
Islamic culture. But some women didn't. It really seemed to be the choice of
the woman, or at least her family. It certainly was not enforced by the
authorities, by the government. People played music. They played chess. It
was a very, very poor place and, as I said, quite traditional. But there was
a sort of light-heartedness to the society and a freedom that I really liked
and I think would have been completely missing on the other side.
GROSS: Let's get back to Pakistan. You said that Massoud saw the Taliban as
almost a foreign invasion, more of a Pakistani force than an Afghani force.
What was the connection between the Taliban and Pakistan?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, I think it's been quite well established that the Taliban
in the early '90s came out of the Afghan refugee camps along the
Afghan-Pakistan border. And there's quite a lot of evidence that the
Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, really had quite a lot to do with
recruiting those young men and giving them a very (technical difficulties)
education in the madrases, the religious schools in Pakistan. Of course, that
education had a heavily military agenda and by 1994 they were a force to be
reckoned with in Afghanistan.
The ISI, the Pakistani government continued to direct them and ultimately when
they were locked in battle with Massoud, apparently they would overhear radio
communications between Pakistani soldiers--I interviewed a Pakistani soldier
who had been taken as a prisoner of war by Massoud's forces. They could hear
Pakistani generals who apparently were on leave from their own positions in
Pakistan. They would go north to help the Taliban in their strategies against
Massoud. And there is even evidence--I mean, I haven't seen this; I have to
take Massoud at his word--they even had intelligence that there were Pakistani
armored divisions and regular Pakistani soldiers fighting alongside the
Certainly I can say from my own experience--I interviewed in a prisoner of war
camp about 20 foreign volunteers, many of them Pakistani. They were also from
Burma, from North Africa, from Saudi Arabia. They said, `We are here to
establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in Afghanistan and to use that as a
base from which to export fundamentalist Islam throughout central Asia'--in
Uzbekistan Tajikistan, all of those countries--Garigezistan. All of those
countries have Islamic insurgencies within their borders. These men were
very, very frank about it, and they said, `Massoud is the last wall'--that was
the word they used--`the last wall that stands between us and what we are
trying to accomplish.'
GROSS: Why would Pakistan want to train extremist Muslims to take over
Afghanistan? What's in it for Pakistan? Or what was in it for Pakistan?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, the geopolitics of that area are incredibly complicated.
On a very simple level, I think they wanted to control Afghanistan because in
part--this is what I heard--it provided them with a rear base in their
conflict with India. The sort of religious extremism that characterizes the
Taliban is, of course, a very easy force to harness if you want to throw young
men against, say, the Indian army in Kashmir or, for that matter, against
Massoud. Massoud during the Soviet times, what they call the Soviet times,
the war against the Soviets in the '80s, was a very, very independent thinker.
He apparently even got a bit of a bad reputation with the CIA for not
following directions from foreign powers, from the CIA.
Well, he didn't follow directions from Pakistan either. He really made his
own decisions. At one point, he made a local peace treaty with the Russians
for the Panjshir Valley. The CIA considered that a tremendous betrayal. You
know, basically you were either with the Communists or you were killing them.
And here was Massoud cutting a temporary local peace deal. What it enabled
him to do was to forget about the Panjshir Valley, which was so important and
taking up all of his time, and travel throughout the rest of Afghanistan
organizing the kind of resistance that he had organized in the Panjshir
Valley. It was a brilliant move and I think that quality of Massoud's really
spooked the foreign powers involved in Afghanistan. I think it continues to.
I think for Pakistan, they were almost irrationally upset by the idea of
Massoud controlling Afghanistan, even though he apparently had very little
The impression I had of Massoud as a man is of someone who was just exhausted
by over 20 years of war, living in very, very difficult conditions. And I
really had the feeling that he may not even have started his life in this way
but that he maybe even grown into the realization that peace was the most
important thing. He seemed a man just absolutely desperate for peace. And I
asked him, `What do you want to do after the fighting's over?' He said, `I
want to retire to the Panjshir Valley and read my books and that's just about
GROSS: Since Pakistan's in a really funny spot now, if Pakistan helped to
create the Taliban and now we're insisting that Pakistan join our alliance and
they have, at least to some extent, that's a really paradoxical position to be
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. Pakistan is in an excruciating position. On the one hand,
they really do have--morally they have to help the West in the fight against
terrorism. On the other hand, they did play a very strong role in creating
the Taliban. And there are many, many supporters of the Taliban in Pakistan
and there is a very, very strong fundamentalist Muslim ideology in Pakistan.
The president of Pakistan, Musharraf, is not in a completely strong and stable
position. And he fears, I think many people in the State Department fear,
that it wouldn't take much to cause an overthrow of the Musharraf government
and in its place there would be an extremely reactionary Islamic leadership
which ultimately might create a more dangerous country than Afghanistan is
right now. You could almost say it would be Afghanistan with nuclear weapons.
Further complicating the problem is there's about a third of Pakistan which is
not even directly controlled by the Pakistani government. It's called the
tribal territories. It is filled with ethnic Pushtuns. Pushtuns make up the
majority of the Taliban population. And it is a very, very wild and
ungovernable place. It's the kind of place where if you were not hiding in
Afghanistan, you might choose to hide along the Afghan border but inside
Pakistan, among the Pushtun people, who have a tremendous solidarity, a sort
of tribal solidarity with each other. It's a very tricky force to tangle with
and try to manipulate.
GROSS: Sebastian Junger. His new collection of essays is called "Fire."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Sebastian
Junger. He's the author of "The Perfect Storm." His new book, "Fire," is a
collection of his articles about people confronting situations that could
easily destroy them, such as forest fires and war. One of the articles is
about Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance group fighting
the Taliban. Massoud was assassinated earlier this month. Junger went to
Afghanistan last fall to talk with Massoud and observe him in action.
Did you watch him directly in battle?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, he wasn't--he didn't have a gun in his hand charging the
enemy, but, yes, I did. He was directing the attacks from command bunkers on
hilltops. The attacks would start with tremendous barrages of Katusha rockets
and tank fire and artillery fire. And then the men would attack on the
ground, generally at night. They were attacking a very strong, entrenched
position on a ridgeline that ran for miles and miles. And I was just amazed.
I mean, we were just watching this sort of light show that was about a mile--a
couple of miles away and you could see this. Through the flashes of light you
could see this attack going on. These men just went straight up this hill
through mine fields into machine gun fire and topped out on the ridge and took
these trenches. It was just tremendous, tremendous bravery.
Fortunately, the Taliban--the mood among the Taliban, even then, was quite
demoralized. And one of the reasons that Massoud's casualties were relatively
light was that the Taliban really would just run away. At times they would
just run away. The guys who didn't run away were the foreign volunteers, the
Saudis, bin Laden's men. Those were the really hard-core fighters. And when
they--when the Taliban really needed to hold a line, they didn't use local
Afghan conscripts who were given a gun and stuck in a trench and maybe didn't
even support the Taliban. They relied on the foreign volunteers. And those
guys were scary. Massoud's men really had their hands full in dealing with
GROSS: Do you think that Massoud actually expected to win in his fight
against the Taliban or do you think he just--it was just that he refused to
give up, even though he didn't expect to win?
Mr. JUNGER: I think that he--his long-term strategy was to remain in place
long enough for what is, frankly, a very unstable regime, to start cracking
from within or long enough for Pakistan to realize that they could not
continue--politically, financially, militarily could not continue pouring the
resources into the Taliban movement, into Afghanistan that they had been
pouring for years. If the Pakistan support--Pakistani support dried up
either from foreign pressure or just simply lack of will, that the Taliban,
on their own, really would not have presented much of a problem to him.
There were also armed insurrections within the Taliban territory, local
villages where they did not want their young men being sent to the front line
to fight other Muslims. They just didn't want to do it. And the Taliban
would have to put down these rebellions with contingents of armed soldiers;
300, 400 soldiers would have to go to these areas and put down the rebellion.
That was already happening within Taliban territory.
You have to understand that when the Taliban initially came in, Afghanistan
was just a lawless hell. I mean, I was there. Warlords controlled different
pieces of the highway. There was internal fighting. The would be villages
fighting other villages, tremendous corruption and crime and violence and
people were sick of it. They had been through this for 15 years with the
Soviets and now this. They were doing it to each other. And the Taliban came
in and, OK, they were--they had a rather extreme vision of Islam, but they
promised to, basically, clean up the town. They promised to bring peace and
order to Afghanistan.
And they made good on their promise, but they almost brought too much order.
The punishments for crimes were extremely severe. You'd get your hand chopped
off. You'd be executed. Adulterers were stoned to death and the population,
after a few years of relief--`Well, thank God, you know, stability has
come'--I think they started to bridle under these new Taliban strictures.
They didn't realize that that actually was what they had coming to them with
the Taliban leadership.
Complicating it further was there's been, I believe, five years of drought in
Afghanistan, so the Taliban, through no fault of their own, did not bring
prosperity. The time--forget the war. Just in terms of the drought, times
are very, very hard there. There's a tremendous amount of hunger. And that,
of course, doesn't help the mood of the population, either.
GROSS: You must be wondering, as I am talking to you, if the United States is
covertly, now, sponsoring the Northern Alliance, which Massoud led until a
couple of weeks ago.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. I think a lot of people are wondering that. I believe
Condoleezza Rice was asked that on television yesterday and did a magnificent
job of not quite answering it. And, of course, I listened because I was very
curious. I think maybe it's a wise thing that they're being a little bit
circumspect about this, but what the Northern Alliance--my contacts in the
Northern Alliance, people who were very, very close to Massoud, have said to
me about it--I've been in contact with them a lot in the past two weeks. They
said that they do not--it is not their wish that more Americans die; that
enough precious American lives have been lost in this tragedy in New York and
in Washington and they do not--it is not their wish that Americans come to
Afghanistan to die like the Russians did. What they want is help. They want
military aid. Basically, what they are offering is, `We know the territory.
We know how to fight like this. We know our enemy. We will do the fighting
and, if need be, we will do the dying for you. Just support us. Isolate
Pakistan and the Taliban militarily, economically, politically and help us on
the ground and we will do it for you.' I'm sure that the US government is
considering that as an option.
GROSS: Sebastian Junger, where were you on September 11th?
Mr. JUNGER: I was in Moldova. I was on an assignment on trafficking in
women in the Balkans, a very, very sad story in its own right. And I was in a
small city called Kahul in the south of Moldova. I got a call--my translator
got a call on her cell phone that something terrible had happened in the US,
and we didn't quite believe it. And we rushed back to Kishnel(ph). And on
the way back my translator called her mother, who does not speak English but
had access to a television. And she said to her mother, `Please turn on CNN
and just tell me what you're looking at.' And her mother did that and just
started sobbing. And we knew it was true.
GROSS: You live in New York. In fact, you own a bar in Manhattan. What was
your reaction when you found out what had happened?
Mr. JUNGER: My reaction wasn't so much as a New Yorker. It was more as an
American and, frankly, as a citizen of the world. It felt like, `My God,
this is a possible scenario for another global war.' I was really scared for
us all. People in Moldova would come up to me, very, very sweetly, and say,
`I'm so sorry what happened in your country.' And I wanted to say to them,
`You know, we're now talking about all of us. There no longer is the welfare
of one particular country or another particular country. We now see that it's
all interrelated.' And we, the world, are in tremendous danger right now and
we have to handle--we, the United States and the entire world, has got to
handle this crisis correctly. We cannot do something that further fractures
relations between the West and the Islamic world. I fear that that may be
exactly what bin Laden's trying to do and we have to take great care not to do
GROSS: What do you think would be playing into his plans?
Mr. JUNGER: This is purely conjecture from a man who reads the newspaper
every day, but I think that one strategy might be to provoke a massive
military response by the US and polarize the world between West--the West and
the Muslim world; to galvanize support even among Muslims who condemned the
World Trade Center bombing, but, of course, they don't want their fellow
Muslims to be subject to a military attack. And so there might be a--maybe
the thinking of these terrorists is, `If we can provoke a massive attack, we
can generate a unity among Muslims that overrides their own particular horror
at what was done in New York.' That would be a terrible tragedy for
everybody and I--again, I'm sure and I hope that the people in our government
are thinking about that. I'm very heartened by the fact that our country is
taking its time in preparing a response. I think that's really a wonderful
sign that we're proceeding very wisely and examining all the possible
repercussions, politically, socially, in a military action.
GROSS: My guest is Sebastian Junger. His new book is called "Fire." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Junger. He's the
author of the best-seller "The Perfect Storm." His new book, "Fire," is a
collection of essays and reporting. And one of the pieces is about Ahmed Shah
Massoud, who was the leader of the resistance in Afghanistan, but he was
assassinated a little less than a couple of weeks ago.
I'm wondering about you and your interest in people in extremes. I mean,
this last extreme kind of came to you, but you've been in search of it for
many years, you know, in writing the book "The Perfect Storm." Your new
collection, "Fire," is reporting from various war zones, reporting on people
who fight huge fires. What attracts you to that state of extreme?
Mr. JUNGER: We'll have to go back 10 years. I couldn't make a living as a
writer, as a journalist and I was working as a climber for tree companies and
writing a little bit on the side, sort of struggling with it. And I hurt
myself quite badly. And it got me thinking many people in America don't
realize that there are jobs that are tremendously dangerous that people are
doing every day. They get hurt at them. They get killed on them. And there
was a time, the early '90s, in America when people were more and more sort of
enamored of adventure sports, extreme sports, which, of course, are very
dramatic and very impressive as sort of feats of human endurance and skill,
but they don't directly help anyone. Society doesn't need more people to
climb mountains, however impressive that is.
But they do need people to drill for oil, to fish, to farm and fight fires.
And I thought in maybe a somewhat grandiose way, `I'm going to write a book
on dangerous jobs and I'm going to tell America how amazing these people are;
how important their jobs are.' They're running risks that sometimes
are--outweigh the risks run by people in extreme sports and they're doing
something necessary. They're doing maybe something even noble in doing the
work that needs to be done in our nation. And so I picked out forest
firefighters and commercial fishermen to start on. And I flew out West and
hung out with these hotshot crews in 1992. And then after that I wrote about
commercial fishermen in my book, "The Perfect Storm." That was the start of
what is now my career.
And I find it tragic and ironic that it took the death of so many good people,
firemen and policemen, at the World Trade Center to finally bring that
recognition. Look, this job is important. Think about these guys. Think
what they're doing. They--I mean, they rushed--those guys--I don't know what
they're paid a year; $30,000 a year or something like that. They were rushing
up 110 flights of a skyscraper to help people, some of whom made 10 times that
much. And just the class issues alone really amaze me that the desire to save
human life on the part of these guys transcends every other issue, including
their own safety. I just found that incredibly moving, and I'm so glad that
the American public now is sort of become focused on that and is so
appreciative. It's a wonderful thing.
GROSS: Is physical courage something you feel you really understand or have
much of, yourself?
Mr. JUNGER: No and no. I'm not sure what physical courage is. I think
ordinary people--and I think I might include myself in that--can do
tremendously courageous things in a situation that demands it. And at other
times they're just paralyzed by fear. And I've been in situations where I
was really, absolutely terrified. One was in Afghanistan during a certain
nasty incident we were caught in. I was amazed at my capacity for fear. I
mean, I was amazed that it could come--that the feeling of fear could
completely fill me from my toes to the top of my head. I didn't know that,
I've been in other situations where I think I acted--or rather that I
responded in a more sort of controlled and effective way. So I think it
really depends from moment to moment how any person reacts to danger. I think
we all have the capacity to face tremendous danger, tremendous fear, if
someone--if another person is at risk, particularly someone we love. I think
that really transcends just about anything. But I've never been in that
GROSS: So what happened in Afghanistan when you were totally filled up with
Mr. JUNGER: We were caught. We went up to the front line to a position that
had just been taken from the Taliban. I mean, the guns--the Taliban guns
were still pointing the wrong way. They hadn't even turned the guns around
yet. It was a hilltop position and it took half the day to walk out there.
And just as we got there the Taliban, who were not that far away, started a
rocket attack. And these rockets were just raining down on the position and
we were all curled up in the trenches. And what scared me most was the idea
that we wouldn't be able to get out of there. The day was ending. It was
starting to get dark. I figured that they would probably keep this up all
And it's hard to explain how terrifying it is to hear a rocket come at you.
You could hear this whistling sound as it comes in and then this incredible
detonation. And it's absolutely terrifying. The idea of going through that
all night just seemed to much to bear. And, of course, that would be a
prelude to an attack on the ground. And I didn't know if the men I was with
could hold that position. And if they couldn't, if we were overrun, almost
anything could have happened. And I was just curled up there thinking, you
know, I don't want to do this to my family, first of all, to die on this
hilltop. This isn't my hilltop and this is not my country and I don't belong
in this situation right now. I owe it to the people who love me to not be
here. I can do my journalism in a somewhat different way. And it was a very,
very valuable insight to have.
GROSS: You have spent years travelling to places where people are working in
extremes and where people are risking their lives for the work that they do.
You come home and your home, Manhattan, is--you know, has been the subject of
a terrorist attack. There have been a lot of people who have not only risked
their lives, but given their lives in the hopes of saving others. And all the
things that you've gone for in other people's disasters are now on your
doorstep at home.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. That made me very sad. It was--that was maybe--that was
one of the really difficult things to think about was that now none of us have
a refuge. One of the things that makes--psychologically speaking, makes war
and reporting in war zones possible--at least for me--is that even if you
don't exercise this option, you know that you can leave and you can go home to
a refuge, the United States, this wonderful country with all its liberties and
its safety and its freedom. That's what's waiting for you at home. And you
could spend a year in Rwanda, you know, or some terrible, terrible situation
and you know that you can go back and (technical difficulties). Now I realize
that there is no place to go back to. And that's terrible for me. It's
terrible for everyone. And it's gonna take a long time, I think, for me to
fully digest the implications of that.
GROSS: Well, Sebastian Junger, I want to thank you very much for talking
Mr. JUNGER: Thank you.
GROSS: Sebastian Junger's new collection of essays is called "Fire." It
includes his piece about Ahmed Shah Massoud. Junger's documentary on Massoud
will be shown tonight on the National Geographic Channel. Junger is also the
author of "The Perfect Storm."
The postponed new TV season has begun. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli
tunes in. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New fall TV season
TERRY GROSS, host:
The fall TV season began yesterday, belatedly, and TV critic David Bianculli
is starting to refocus on the new and returning shows, somewhat reluctantly.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
I'm still not sure I'm ready for this. Does it really matter what the best
new show of the fall season is--or the worst? Do people care anymore how
Buffy comes back to life on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or whether Rachel is
pregnant on "Friends"? And do I care?
Here's what I do know. When I previewed all 10 hours of the HBO World War II
miniseries "Band of Brothers" before the attack on New York and Washington, I
remember one feeling very distinctly. The battle scenes in that drama were
so intense and so unrelenting and frightening that I began to cherish the
moments when things were quiet. I became grateful for the peace. I became
hungry for normal.
That's the way I feel today, two weeks after the terrorist attacks. When I
look up at my wall of TV sets right now, I don't see Dan Rather and Peter
Jennings and Tom Brokaw. I see "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Monday Night
Football" and "Frasier." What this means to me and, I suspect, to you is
things are better than they could be. Someday soon, I'm afraid, we're going
back to wall-to-wall news and not for the last time. But in between, prime
time TV will serve up some moments of peace. So I guess just as I welcomed
the quiet in "Band of Brothers," I should welcome the new and returning fall
shows. I suspect as a country we're going to gravitate more immediately and
emotionally to returning, familiar shows than to new ones; checking in on
"Frasier" or "Friends" or "Once And Again," all of which return with season
premieres this week, will be a good thing.
So the worthwhile shows that are coming back this week, in case you want to
find them, include the following: "Spin City" and "Frasier," tonight; Drew
Carey in "Law & Order" tomorrow; "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and the
entire NBC lineup on Thursday; "That's Life" and "Once And Again" on Friday
and "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, which ought to be really interesting,
under the circumstances.
Also, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" returns a week from tonight with a two-hour
season premiere that is every bit as good as I'd hoped. Also next week, Aaron
Sorkin presents a special, last-second episode of the "West Wing," reacting to
the terrorist attacks. So the old shows are not only coming back; some of
them are coming back with a vengeance.
As for the new ones, I'll keep it simple. Some of the best ones, "24" on Fox,
"Smallville" on The WB, don't show up until the second half of October. The
other premiere tonight and tomorrow; "Undeclared" tonight on Fox and
"Enterprise" tomorrow night on UPN.
"Enterprise" is the latest entry in the "Star Trek" franchise, but is fresh
instead of stale. It's a prequel, so we're setting out on the maiden voyage
of the Starship Enterprise 100 years before Captain Kirk. Nothing works, no
one gets along and everything and every alien is new. It's an approach that
reinvigorates the entire, well, I was going to say enterprise, but you get the
idea. And it also works because of the new captain, played by "Quantum Leap"
star Scott Bakula. He's just right for this role, and UPN should have a hit
on its hands, by UPN standards, anyway.
As for tonight's "Undeclared," it's the kind of comedy TV doesn't make much of
anymore. In other words, it's a funny comedy. It stars Jay Baruchel as
Steven, a college freshman sharing a co-ed floor with a half dozen other
youngsters seeking to define and redefine themselves. The humor comes not
from punch lines, but from characters and by the time the first episode is
over tonight, you'll know and like every one of them.
To me, though, the secret weapon is singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright, who
plays Steven's father. On his son's first night at college, he drops in with
the surprising news that Steven's mother has asked him for a divorce. They
start to have a father-son talk, but it doesn't last long.
(Soundbite from "Undeclared")
Mr. JAY BARUCHEL (As Steven): What happens to mother now?
Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (As Steven's Father): She says she's miserable;
doesn't want to have sex; she feels dead inside; life is passing her by. I
Mr. BARUCHEL: I don't want to talk about this. Dad, we're in the middle of
a party, OK? This is my first day at school.
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Steven, I've given my entire life to you, so if I need to
talk to you, you're gonna listen.
Mr. BARUCHEL: I'm sorry. So why do you think Mom feels dead inside?
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I don't know.
Mr. BARUCHEL: Has she said why she doesn't want to have sex with you?
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: You know what? You're right. This is not the time. I
don't want to ruin your first night, so I'm gonna go crash at Uncle Bill's.
Mr. BARUCHEL: OK. Good stuff.
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I just wanted to let you know that's where I'm gonna be in
case you want to get in touch, all right?
Mr. BARUCHEL: Cool. Thanks.
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: We'll talk about this tomorrow.
Mr. BARUCHEL: Right. Yeah.
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: All right. So have fun at the party.
Mr. BARUCHEL: Thank you. Have fun at Uncle Bill's.
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: All right. I will.
Mr. BARUCHEL: Cool.
BIANCULLI: I laughed at "Undeclared" a lot and so did my high school and
college-age kids when we first watched the preview tape before the attacks.
I put the tape back in the other day and watched again and laughed again.
These days, I don't think there's any higher praise I can deliver.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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