From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sebastian Junger and Lynn Novick on America’s forever wars

When it comes to war, some things never change. Though we may battle on new ground and with new weapons, there is always the fact of the fighting — and the fact that stories of war, in all their savage nuance, draw us in again and again. And when it comes to telling those stories, few people are more experienced than Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sebastian Junger.

Burns and Novick have most recently brought their documentary filmmaking experience to the story of the war that divided the United States a half century ago — their series The Vietnam War premiered this month — whereas Junger has examined contemporary wars as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently turning to Syria in the film Hell on Earth.

For the latest installment of Influencers, a TIME series that brings people together for one-of-a-kind conversations, the three spoke about their experiences telling war stories. All quickly agreed that one of the central questions they face is why these tales seem to repeat so reliably, and why we cannot look away from them despite the death and destruction war brings. One reason, Burns suggests, is that war is “human nature on steroids,” bringing out not just the worst of humanity but also the best. Disaster and danger imbue experiences with meaning, and those who have been to the front lines together, literally or figuratively, are never the same.

The question, then, is whether and how a society can achieve that sense of solidarity without the killing. It’s a particularly pertinent question for the United States in the 21st century, Junger argues: “Modern society,” he says, “is easy on the body and hard on the mind.” But, though that problem remains an urgent one, these three experts are ready to propose a solution.

— Lily Rothman

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