Author Sebastian Junger explores how combat transforms soldiers in the new PBS documentary Going To War
War, as the saying goes, is hell.
But it’s an incredibly complex and paradoxical form of hell for those soldiers who have experienced it firsthand—and war correspondent/author Sebastian Junger is convinced that the more civilians who understand this the better.
“We like to think of war as an aberration—but there’s scarcely been a time or a culture when humankind has not been at war. It’s universal,” says Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo. “When we talk about war, we are talking about what it means to be human.”
Junger pairs up with Vietnam War veteran and author Karl Marlantes—along with a handful of veterans—to explore how being in combat forever changed their lives in the 60-minute PBS documentary Going To War that airs on Memorial Day (May 28) at 9 p.m. ET.
Junger got a ringside seat to the terror and exhilaration of war from his years spent covering conflicts around the world for Vanity Fair and other publications. What Junger learned—and what he and Marlantes explore in Going To War—is that combat provides a sense of “purpose” that is lacking in everyday civilian life.
“It shapes you,” Junger tells PEOPLE. “And I felt it really had to be explained in terms of purpose. In modern society, you don’t really get to experience this sense of purpose (that you get in combat) with 20 or 30 other people upon whom your life depends. You only get that in war. It’s a profoundly human and ancient experience.”
Yet in recent years, only a small percentage—Junger estimates the figure is around 10 percent—of military personnel ever experience combat and the horror, pain and grief that comes with it.
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From 2007 through 2008, Junger was embedded with U.S. forces in a remote outpost in Afghanistan, which he wrote about his book War and turned into the documentary Restrepo that he made with British photographer Tim Hetherington, later killed while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011.
“There was a huge amount of combat and a lot of deprivation,” he says. “But as harsh as it was out there, I was surprised to find out that a lot of those guys didn’t want to go back home. They wanted to back into the war. They wanted to go back to the outpost. And I felt that really had to be explained.”