In Harm's Way
By Sebastian Junger
W.W. Norton -- 224pp -- $24.95
You have to hand it to Sebastian Junger. His first book, The Perfect Storm, helped redefine the nonfiction adventure story just as public interest in the genre was surging, making the powerful account a huge best-seller. Now, he and his publisher have issued Fire, a book made up entirely of recycled magazine pieces. As luck would have it, one of them is a profile published earlier this year of anti-Taliban guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Just prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, Massoud was assassinated, possibly by Osama bin Laden's organization. Fire's title essay and one that follows are no less topical, as they focus on the efforts of firefighters, a group whose heroism has been spectacularly on display of late.
Given his telegenic good looks and celebrity, Junger could easily opt for cushy reportorial assignments. Instead, he's drawn to dangerous situations--in fact, danger is the strand that connects the essays in this engrossing collection. There are reports on combat in Kosovo, forest fires in the drought-plagued American West, diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone, and the kidnapping of tourists by separatist guerrillas in Kashmir. But clearly the jewel is the profile of Massoud, "an almost mythological figure among many Afghans" who, says Junger, was largely responsible for driving the Soviets out of the country back in the 1980s.
In certain passages, the author's indebtedness to Ernest Hemingway comes through loud and clear. Here is Junger describing Massoud's ragtag but committed fighters: "Some were loading up an old Soviet truck with crates of ammunition, and some were cleaning their rifles, and some were just standing in loose bunches behind the trees, where the enemy couldn't see them. They were wearing old snow parkas and blankets thrown over their shoulders, and some had old Soviet Army pants, and others didn't have any shoes." Later, he brings Massoud--the Lion of Panjshir--to life: "He was not tall, but he stood as if he were."
Junger's strength lies in his ability to make the ever-present danger palpable and to offer chilling descriptions of pain and devastation. In one 1995 piece, "The Whale Hunters," he tells of the time that a harpooner on the Caribbean island of Bequia, Athneal Ollivierre, was knocked out when a whale crushed the side of his boat. While he was unconscious, a rope attached to the harpooned whale "had grabbed him. It sawed down to bone in an instant, cauterizing the arteries as it went, and nearly ripped his hand in half."
Junger notes the allure of risk-taking, but finds little glamour in situations he has covered. Of combat, he observes, "There was nothing exciting about it. It was purely, exclusively bad." Even so, these gritty stories, particularly his war coverage, could win Junger new readers. If he makes it back to Afghanistan--where he told this reviewer he's trying to go--his next dispatches will find an even larger audience.
By Karin Pekarchik