Junger’s ‘Last Patrol’ ponders life after combat
There were some technical difficulties when Sebastian Junger screened a sneak peek of his latest documentary at the Highland House Museum in Truro one warm night in August. For a few minutes, the roomful of viewers could hear the audio but the screen was dark.
“It’s a very avant-garde film, actually,” Junger joked.
“The Last Patrol,” the final film in the journalist’s series about the war in Afghanistan, wraps the trio that includes the 2010 Oscar-nominated “Restrepo” and its recent follow-up, “Korengal.” A thoughtful examination of what it means for combat soldiers to reintegrate into daily American life, “The Last Patrol” premieres Monday on HBO, in time for Veterans Day.
In its own way, the film is, in fact, an experiment. To honor slain photographer Tim Hetherington, with whom Junger covered the war in Afghanistan, he enlisted two soldiers with whom they’d been embedded and a photographer to hike 300 miles along the train lines of the Northeast Corridor, discussing life at war and the emotional difficulty of coming home.
An extension of Junger’s 2010 book “War,” “The Last Patrol” makes a strong case about what causes the alienation many returning soldiers experience. The author has been referring to the group’s deliberate acts of trespassing on railroad property as “high-speed vagrancy.”
“We made ourselves physically marginal, camped on the outskirts of town,” Junger said on the phone recently. “There’s a great metaphor there. Psychologically, that’s exactly where a lot of veterans are at.”
Despite the horrors of war, soldiers innately crave the bonding that’s a necessity in the theater of war, Junger has come to believe. A platoon under siege reverts to the primitive human instinct for community and mutual welfare.
Stripped of purpose and estranged from the “air-conditioned suburban home at the end of a cul-de-sac,” as Junger puts it, returning soldiers’ sense of detachment from the prevailing culture is, he says, a misunderstood element of the post-traumatic stress disorder that plagues our community of veterans.
“The first step is to identify the problem, or stop misidentifying it,” he told the audience on the Cape.
Brendan O’Byrne, one of the soldiers in “The Last Patrol,” has become a Cape Cod resident since completing his last tour of duty. Casting about for some direction after breaking up with his wife, a Marine — “I couldn’t get a job cleaning floors at Walmart,” he said by phone recently — he accepted Junger’s offer to teach him to be a tree surgeon.
Though he’s afraid of heights (and wasn’t cured during a stint as a paratrooper at Airborne School), climbing trees every day fills his need for adrenaline rushes postcombat, he said.
“I didn’t want to use alcohol or drugs, or race a motorcycle 1,000 miles an hour, to get that adrenaline,” said O’Byrne, a Pennsylvania native who has been working to overcome a history of alcoholism and family violence.
O’Byrne recently settled in Provincetown. “It’s the furthest thing from what the Army is,” he said. “I sort of needed the opposite of the Army to reintegrate.”
Confirming Junger’s own account, he said “The Perfect Storm” author had no credibility with the troops when he was first embedded on assignment for Vanity Fair, in 2007.
“We were getting shot at three or four times a day, losing a lot of friends,” O’Byrne said. “We thought, who is this guy? Is he gonna be a problem?”
Then Junger’s story was published, and O’Byrne and his colleagues saw that his intentions were true: “We realized he really wanted to tell our story, and he didn’t want to put any spin on it.” It helped that Junger and Hetherington, the photographer, were “squared away. They didn’t get in the way, and they were very professional. That’s how you get on a soldier’s good side.”
He also learned that Junger liked his favorite band, the Pogues, “and I thought, all right — you’re OK!” They’ve been good friends ever since.
In Truro, where he keeps a home, Junger drew a distinction between the war in Iraq, which he refused to cover on principle, and the one in Afghanistan.
“The right kind of military action is actually an incredibly compassionate thing to do,” he explained on the phone. “I’m
Having explored the world of high-seas fishermen in “The Perfect Storm” and wildland firefighting (among other dangerous occupations) in the collection “Fire,” he has become fascinated by the reason so many soldiers miss the lure of combat when they’re done serving. After screening “The Last Patrol” at a film festival in Savannah, Ga., he was tracked down by a woman who told him her 70-year-old husband still misses the Vietnam War.
“Who knew anyone missed Vietnam?” he said, incredulous. “You grow up in Cambridge, it’s not one of the lessons you learn, know what I’m saying?”
In the film, Junger asks people that the travelers encounter to explain the best thing about living in America. “In poor communities, they invariably say it’s freedom,” he said. By contrast, wealthier people tend to answer that the best thing about the country is that it’s the land of opportunity.
“Wealthy people take freedom for granted, I think,” he said. When that scenario flips — when the poor start citing opportunity and comfortable people revalue freedom — “then we’ll be on the right track as a nation.”