Fire, Sebastian Junger

Morrow, 2001, 224 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-393-01046-5

It used to be a fashionable idea to think that the world was a safe place.

We know better now, but the nineteen-nineties were seen by many (North-)Americans as an age where nothing serious was going on. And yet, you didn’t have to look far to see hot spots all over the world. Forest fires in the forests of North America. Tensions in Kashmir and Cyprus. Civil wars in Africa, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe… and those are merely the trouble spots covered by Sebastian Junger in his first non-fiction collection, Fire.

It happens all the time in Science Fiction: a solid but underrated writer wins raves and awards with his latest novel. Suddenly, a collection of his/her short fiction is published after years of unsuccessful attempts (because they’re usually regarded as being commercially risky). As it turns out, success breeds the same ideas everywhere, so it’s not particularly surprising to see the success of Junger’s The Perfect Storm breed a market for a collection of his magazine articles. Fire brings together ten articles from 1992 to 2001, spanning the globe in an attempt to explain danger to comfortable land-lubbers like us.

The book might as well have been titled Risk, because all of the articles involve men and situation that could have dire consequences. Only the first two scorching articles, about forest firefighters, truly reflect the title of the book.

After that, well, it gets more dangerous. After a breather in which Junger describes the hair-raising job of “the last living harpooner” (there are plenty of good reasons why they’re extinct), we move in more disturbing territory. “Escape From Kashmir” describes one of the many consequences of a dirty little conflict between India and Pakistan, the kidnapping of a group of Western tourists, most of whom simply disappeared without a trace. One of them managed to escape from his captors, and the article is his story.

From there, we go to to Kosovo for the first time (“Kosovo’s Valley of Death”), in a war piece that seems almost too shy to report on what is happening. (This piece is markedly more recent -1998- than the previous ones. All subsequent pieces were written between 1999 and 2001, signalling Junger’s shift in the major reporting leagues.) Then it’s off to Cyprus, torn between Greek and Turkish enclaves. Here, Junger (from the Greek side) shares reporting duties with Scott Anderson (on the other). Their joint “dispatches from a dead war” are a fascinating examination of a difficult issues, with a surprising conclusion.

“Colter’s Way” is, initially, a historical account of a man thriving on the edge of danger, but it also serves as a springboard to the examination of modern life and self-induced risk. (resemblances between this subject and the book itself aren’t totally coincidental) Nice, but nothing compared to “The Forensics of Death”, which uses the Kosovo civil war as a way to talk about international war justice and the issues associated with it. “The Terror of Sierra Leone” could be an ideal background piece for a modern thriller, mixing diamond lore, an African civil war, private security firms and much more. The volume concludes with “The Lion in Winter”, the portrait of Ahmed Massoud, a reluctant Afghani revolutionary fighting against the Taliban. (You might remember his name; he was killed during by al-Quaeda operatives in September 2001, a fact that adds a tragic dimension to the piece.)

All is described in Junger’s descriptive prose, with appropriate explanatory passages that give us a better idea of what it all truly means. Junger’s eye for detail is stupefying, and almost every page of this book contains one or two new thing you didn’t know about. Though the book could benefit from photographic material, this is nothing to be sneered at. A superior journalism book, telling us more about our dangerous world as it really is.

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