Photograph by Stefan Ruiz
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Sebastian Junger

Photograph by Stefan Ruiz

Journalist Films the 'Hell on Earth' That Is Syria

To defeat ISIS, the world first must understand why it’s appealing, says documentarian Sebastian Junger.

This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The National Geographic documentary Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS offers a look inside Syria’s civil war; it airs June 11 at 9/8c on National Geographic. The film was co-produced and co-directed by Emmy-winner Nick Quested and journalist and Oscar-nominated director Sebastian Junger, 55. Junger's latest book, Tribe, is about conflict, homecoming, and Western society’s lack of cohesion.

Why did you make a film inside Syria?

No one had shown [this war] from every perspective; I don’t know if that’s been done in any war. But if we didn’t do that, we’d create a film that has bias. Our premise is that ISIS is extremely smart and appealing to people—and if the world has any chance of defeating it, we have to understand why.

Has covering war changed in your life?

There’s a specific targeting of journalists today. It used to be hands-off, but now they’re being kidnapped and executed in a very public manner. Early on we decided that this is a Syrian story, and we didn’t want to put a Western journalist in front of a camera in the middle of someone else’s struggle. War reporting is intoxicating and compelling, but it’s limiting. When my filming partner Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya, I decided not to directly cover war anymore. My skills are better used in a directorial role than in the back of a truck getting shot at.

How does war change a society?

Twenty years after Sarajevo, one woman told me, “You know, a lot of us miss the war.” Humans are drawn to community, and togetherness is a buffer against mental illness. In Tribe I wanted to understand why the U.S. military is so effective on the battlefield but has such high rates of PTSD [11 to 20 percent of recent vets have been diagnosed with it], while the Israeli military has one percent. Mandatory national service, with an option to join the military, would help us a lot. It’s a question of feeling like you belong to something greater than yourself.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.