Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Villager photo by Talisman Brolin

Sebastian Junger at the Half King bar

Junger on his new book, Iraq and the peace movement

By Lincoln Anderson

For the past year, “Perfect Storm” author Sebastian Junger has been hard at work on a new book. This, his third one, is taking a new look at the Boston stranglings of the early 1970s. A co-owner of the Half King bar in Chelsea and, until recently, a Lower East Sider, Junger, 43, grew up in Massachusetts and always had a curiosity about the stranglings — and whether the real perpetrator for all the murders was, in fact, caught, as authorities claim. He’s not certain he’s got all the answers, though his book will definitely throw a new wrinkle — which he doesn’t want to make public yet — into the case.

“I’m still not sure of it myself,” he noted. “I think that makes it a more interesting book is all I can say.”

But while Junger has been working on the book, due out next spring from W.W. Norton, that doesn’t mean his mind has been far from one of his other main interests — conflicts and volatile spots around the globe. Junger has reported on wars and conflicts in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Liberia, some of these articles collected in his second book, “Fire.”

But he hasn’t yet ventured to Iraq, which he has felt was simply too dangerous.

“I feel that I’m very good at assessing risks and acting safely,” he said. If he were to go, he noted, “it’s a month of worry for my family. And, frankly, it wasn’t worth the risk.”

Still, Junger has strong views on the war and, in general, on the use of U.S. intervention to do good. In a few interviews, including a conversation above the crowd’s din at the Half King and follow-up phone calls to his house on a remote part of Cape Cod where he’s finishing up his as-yet untitled book, Junger expressed conflicted feelings on Iraq, yet, at the same time, clear disdain for the peace movement for what he feels to be its hypocrisy.

A few months ago, in December, Junger — like many observers — was much more pessimistic about the future of Iraq and wondering what exactly our purpose for being there was. That, too, was why he didn’t want to cover the war.

“I just don’t understand what we’re trying to do. And if you don’t understand it, it’s hard to cover it,” he said at the time. “The government’s reasons for doing it have changed so many times, it’s hard to understand why we’re there.”

Back then, Junger wasn’t beyond predicting a worst-case scenario. He foresaw Iraq dividing into three states, Kurdish, Sunni and Shia — “like Bosnia, very violent like Ireland or Lebanon” — and taking 20 years to return to normality, similar to Lebanon today.

But with elections having been held in Iraq and now the slow coming together of a new government, the insurgency seemingly losing strength and the possibility of decreasing U.S. troop numbers, things are looking a bit better, in Junger’s view.

He opposed the war, though supported President Bush’s massing of troops on Iraq’s border, since Iraq had refused to allow weapons inspectors back in the country.

Yet, Junger thinks Bush moved to war too quickly, and should have tried to remove Saddam Hussein from power through threat of invasion, rather than force. Junger was in Liberia the summer before last, where, he noted, “through some extremely harsh diplomacy,” the U.S. made Charles Taylor step down as president.

“I think Bush was brilliant up to the point he invaded [Iraq],” Junger said. Massing troops on the border “probably only would have come out of a Republican president,” Democrat Junger admitted, though adding, “The Republicans are firm — but they don’t know where to stop.

“I feel like we shouldn’t have done it, like it was too big a gamble,” he continued. “But the gamble might work. There’s like a conservative and liberal in my body — it’s a funny split. As a liberal, I feel like reflexively denouncing it. As a journalist, I’ve seen up close in Bosnia, Kosovo, what good can come from intervention.”

On this last point, Junger doesn’t see eye to eye with the peace movement, whose main purpose, he feels, is to point the finger at perceived U.S. wrongdoing.

“My problem with the left is they won’t acknowledge that their opinion stops at ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ ” he said. “What do you do if people keep dying? I think they think there is no legitimate use of U.S. intervention. How do they come to terms with World War II, which would seem to be a legitimate use of force? In World War II, we intentionally killed over 1 million civilians in the firebombing of Germany and Japan and the use of nuclear bombs in Japan.

“Ten thousand civilians were killed in Kosovo before the intervention, which killed a few hundred people…. The peace movement will apparently happily let 1 million people die in Rwanda without protesting U.S. inaction.

“When I talk in liberal venues, colleges, I’m still shocked at how many people think Kosovo was a tragedy — and so does Michael Moore,” Junger continued. “He used it in his film, ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ So, Mr. Moore, how would you have stopped the war in Kosovo?…. Peace is not always a way to avoid human suffering.

“Maybe you can’t understand how horrible a civil war is until you’ve been in one, but I have been in one,” Junger said.

Moore’s opposing the war in Afghanistan “was even more asinine,” Junger said, adding that we didn’t invade that country because of an oil pipeline, as Moore argues in “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Junger has met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and considers him “a thoroughly decent guy.”

Speaking of peace, closer to home, the writer found he was losing his while living on the Lower East Side.

“People were half my age and drinking…,” he said, describing the area’s nonstop hipster party scene. He has since moved to a loft in the 30s in West Midtown, where he lives with his girlfriend, a consultant for the U.N.

“It feels like old New York, actually,” he said of his new neighborhood. “It feels like what Soho must have felt like in the ’70s.”

For the moment, though, Junger is on an isolated spot on the Cape without cellphone or TV reception. But he gets his news on foreign affairs from the newspaper, anyway. He doesn’t really have TV in New York City, since his is currently broken, not to mention doesn’t have cable.

“I don’t have any special information,” he said. “I just read The New York Times every day, making sense of the headlines.”

Junger is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, writing two or three articles per year, and has also written for National Geographic Adventure magazine. “Perfect Storm,” about the crew of the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Mass., fishing boat, battling for their lives in the North Atlantic, was a huge success. It lodged on the Times’ bestseller list for “three, four, three and a half years,” Junger doesn’t quite remember how long exactly.

At his bar, where he can sometimes be found having discussions about foreign affairs with journalist friends just returned from abroad, they’ve recently added a live music series — bluegrass, rock, blues, eclectic — on Sunday evenings. He’s “thrilled” plans are moving ahead to preserve the nearby High Line and turn it into an elevated park.

But adventures await for the restless journalist, who likes to seek out spots off the beaten track, such as Sierra Leone, for example, that haven’t been reported on extensively.

“I’m going to go back to it as soon as the book’s done,” he said.

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