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Episode 47, with guests Sebastian Junger, author of WAR and director of RESTREPO, and Ashley Parker, correspondent for the New York Times

Ashley Parker and Sebastian Junger are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: March 3, 2012 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here.

Adam Belmar and I really enjoyed putting this week’s show together, a great mix of reacting to breaking news with a reporter whose eyes and ears are at the front lines of the campaign trail, and a longer discussion with a truly magnificent chronicler of the human condition, whose most recent work was created literally on the front lines of battle.

* * *

We spoke first by cellphone with Ashley Parker, the New York Times correspondent who recently has been fully enveloped inside the bubble of the Romney Campaign. She called in from Idaho Falls, Idaho, the most recent stop on Governor Romney’s post-Michigan fly-around in advance of the March 6 voting on “Super Tuesday.”

Ashley Parker, correspondent for The New York Time

Ashley was reporting — and Tweeting (@ashleyrparker) and Instagramming — all that she was seeing from the press position at a string of rallies on Romney’s sweep Westward. It was a swing that began in Daytona, Florida with another unfortunate — now Romneyesque — verbal utterance about his special kinship with NASCAR team owners.

Ashley noted that the crowds in Fargo, North Dakota and Idaho Falls were uncommonly large for a Romney rally, though it makes infinite sense from an advance guy’s perspective.

First, campaigns begin the planning for this pre-Super Tuesday week far in advance, knowing the broad geography they need to cover in a short amount of time. They also know that the coverage they receive, even with stops in smaller media markets, will be national in scope. Campaign headquarters deploys the best advance teams and arms them with substantially more budget to make the events look great and the crowd sizes as large as possible. The advance planning — far different from the frenetic make-as-many-stops-as-possible-in-suburban-Detroit strategy — results in more crowd-building and better visuals.

Second, places like Fargo and Idaho Falls are largely ignored in the usual campaign scheduling meetings that try to piggyback fundraising events in money-rich locales with political stagecraft designed for public consumption. If you were a mom or dad in North Dakota or Idaho and you had good advance notice that the circus was coming to town, you’d do all you could to schlep your kid to the event site and give him or her a 4″ x 6″ flag to wave. It’s fun, and in those remote outposts, it doesn’t happen every day. So you go, whether you’re a die-hard Romneyite or just curious about seeing the process play out in your front yard.

I’ve really come to appreciate the eye that Ashley brings to her reporting, both for the newspaper and its online Caucus Blog. Her dispatches from Michigan were first-rate, made even more so by the presence of Times photographer Yana Paskova, who brings distinctly non-wire angles to the pages and screens of the Times publishing platforms.

Ashley’s dissection of the precision with which the Romney advance team manages its events is the first longish piece on this angle that I’ve seen in this cycle (it brought to mind the piece I did for Men’s Vogue four years ago, that also put the lens on the Romney advance operation, as seen through the eyes of one of their crackerjack operatives, Charlie Pearce).

Ashley also did a follow-up piece — Romney Takes Analytic Approach to Campaign Chaos — that neatly pivoted from the mind of the advance man (‘Oh God, how could we put the candidate in a near-empty Ford Field’) to the mind of the candidate (“So the candidate is taking refuge in what he knows best: rigorous analysis of the problem and a calm determination to execute a long-term plan.”)

But the Times is the Times, and I envy the resources they bring to bear on a campaign that allow the Boys on the Bus (or in Ashley’s case, the Girl on the Bus) to add a multi-media element to her reporting. For those Polioptics readers/listeners/watchers who want a glimpse of what really goes into producing political events on the road, watch Ashley’s three and a half minute package for The Caucus — “Anatomy of a Romney Rally”

We Poliopticians will enjoy tracking Ashley’s work as she continues in the Romney bubble through the remaining primaries and caucuses.

* * *

Now, how do you pivot from the pomp and circumstance of campaigning to the grit and intensity of war as see through the eyes of my favorite author, Sebastian Junger? You don’t. You can’t. You just say you were privileged as hell to spend 40 minutes or so in the presence of one of the greatest adventure non-fiction writers ever, Hemingway be damned.

Junger is a man who, along with other personal faves like Mark Bowden and William Langewiesche, take you to places you’ve never been and, if you’re in your right mind, never want to go. In the process, they weave into their writing the physics, mechanics, engineering, psychology and physiology of the subject matter, leaving you emotionally drained but educationally nourished at the same time.

Sebastian Junger (right) and the late Tim Hetherington in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan

When I worked in the White House and traveled with the president from 1993 to 1998, Junger’s The Perfect Storm was a frequent companion when it came out in 1997. It brought me out of the protective bubble of the entourage and put me on a sword boat, the Andrea Gail, as it cut through the burgeoning swells of the Atlantic on her way to fish harvesting glory — and ultimate doom — off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Junger’s first bestseller also brought me back home, in a manner of speaking, to Massachusetts, but not the kind of Massachusetts I had grown up in. When not at sea, Junger’s Gloucester plays out in watering holes like The Crows Nest. This Gloucester is the tough-as-nails, I’d-rather-be-on-sword-boat-and-making-money-than-having-sex-and-losing-money Gloucester. Reading the book, it was as far away as I could imagine from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem or the New Bedford Whaling Museum that had been on my routine school field trip agendas.

Junger’s next book, A Death In Belmont, was closer to home, his and mine. Junger grew up in Belmont, and me not too far away in Newton. But again, my upbringing didn’t put me in immediate proximity of Albert DeSalvo, “the Boston Strangler.”

[As Sebastian and I were getting ready to connect into our Washington studio with Adam Belmar, I told him how I’d spent many Friday nights in Belmont (ironically, also Mitt Romney’s adopted hometown) at the Belmont Printing Co., where we’d painstakingly lay out our high school newspaper, Denebola, amid the noxious fumes of ink alongside the basement printing press. I also recalled that at Angier Elementary School in Waban, we had an art teacher named Ms. DeSalvo whose relation to the Strangler was unknown but who nevertheless must have had a hard time showing her driver’s license in 1970’s Boston.]

There’s an obvious detachment a writer can have when his subjects are already dead. Junger’s reconstruction of the last voyage of the Andrea Gail and its captain, Billy Tyne, was copiously detailed, but built on what probably happened rather than witnessed. The same was true for A Death In Belmont, where he relied on trial transcripts and other research to lay out the conflicting probabilities of whether Albert DeSalvo or Roy Smith (who was ultimately convicted) was the real killer of Belmont resident Bessie Goldberg.

After many years covering war and its impact on the combatants and its collateral victims for Vanity Fair magazine, Junger’s following works were a dramatic (and ultimately tragic) departure from his earlier books. Partnering with photographer Tim Hetherington on the documentary film RESTREPO, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and authoring the book WAR, Junger and Hetherington tell the harrowing story of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army.

Second Platoon was deployed to a remote encampment called Outpost Restrepo in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan with a mission to interdict the movements of the Taliban through the area. To report on and tell the tale, Junger embedded himself with Second Platoon during five one-month hitches during the platooon’s 15-month tour. To cover as much ground as possible, Hetherington was embedded during intervening months, and they sometimes overlapped in the encampment.

The book WAR is divided into three sections: fear, killing and love. In the story of soldiers like battalion commander Lt. Colonel Bill Ostlund (“He has such full-on enthusiasm for what he was doing that when I was around him I sometimes caught myself feeling bad that there wasn’t an endeavor of equal magnitude in my own life”), I made a connection between the passion and commitment soldiers like this and the singular focus and love of his trade ascribed to Billy Tyne, skipper of the Andrea Gail.

Here’s George Clooney as Tyne, describing in the words of screenwriter William Wittliff, what that meant:

And here’s Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta, one of the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne, telling his story of Outpost Restrepo as recorded by Junger and Hetherington:

I won’t tell more of the tale (go get the book or the movie) or make a feeble attempt to review the published works (you can read Dexter Filkins’ take on it for the New York Times here and Phillip Caputo’s review in the Washington Post here), but the story is heartbreaking in many ways, encapsulated by the fact that after taking so much fire and casualties defending OP Restrepo, U.S. forces withdrew from the Korengal Valley before the fight was finished, leaving a soldier or civilian to wonder, perhaps, what it was all for.

The aftermath of RESTREPO is what’s even more heartbreaking. After enjoying a brief moment in the red carpet limelight as their film was nominated for an Academy Award, co-director Hetherington again picked up his cameras and  donned his flack jacket and headed to Misurata, Libya, to cover the growing conflict that led to the toppling and death of Muammar Gaddafi. He never made it home. He and fellow photographer Chris Hondros were fatally wounded in a mortar attack by Gadaffi’s forces aimed at the rebels.

In many of my posts I’ve expressed my admiration for the work of photojournalists — in the final part of the Story of Polioptics — Part 10 they get special homage. In previous episodes of our show, Adam and I have welcomed famed shooters including David Hume Kennerly, Diana Walker and Doug Mills. When they are dispatched to cover conflict, they know they do so at extreme risk to tell a story, whether in Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, so that those at home can make better sense of violence that seems, to the outsider, unfathomable.

Sebastian Junger knows that risk all too well. When I talked to him, I got the sense that he’d arrived at a crossroads, determining, for himself at least, that the task of bringing home those images should pass now to those still selfish enough to risk the ultimate sacrifice to tell someone else’s story. He said as much directly to his partner Tim Hetherington, addressing him posthumously in a remembrance for Vanity Fair:

“You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.

“That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.”

That’s Polioptics, albeit of a very different and dangerous kind. Rest in peace, Tim Hetherington.

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