Monday, July 26, 2010

War by Sebastian Junger

There is a long tradition of soldier's-eye-view accounts of battle, going all the way back through recorded history. One could argue that Homer's "Iliad" is such an account. More recent masterpieces in the genre include Michael Herr's Dispatches and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

While it's a bit early to call Sebastian Junger's War a masterpiece, I have to say it's a powerful and convincing book.

Over the course of a year, from June of 2007 to June of 2008, Junger made five long visits to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers in the Korengal valley, near the border with Pakistan. Junger describes the place as "an extraordinarily violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in eastern Afghanistan."

Violent, indeed.

The soldiers Junger depicts endure extremely harsh conditions (sweltering days & freezing nights, with insects so voracious that the men wear flea collars on their ankles) as well as harrowing firefights, some of which involve squads who withstand a one-hundred percent casualty rate. In fact, according to Junger, during the time he writes about, one-fifth of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan occurred in this little, six mile-long valley.

Much of War is focused on a soldier named O'Byrne, a tough, thoughtful, and troubled young man whose conversations with Junger help personalize the experience of fighting in the Korengal. O'Byrne's own story of how he came to be a soldier is compelling in its own right, and his sometimes-paradoxical reactions struck me as utterly human. Junger could not have imagined a better focal point for his book.

But Junger has a deeper purpose than merely detailing the daily toils of soldiers on this particular piece of contested ground. As his grandiose title suggests, Junger hopes to say something about the universal conditions of combat. Under section headings entitled, "Fear," "Killing," and finally, "Love," Junger is able to relate the specifics of this particular company's deployment to Korengal to the perennial circumstances of war itself.

With asides that veer into biology and psychology and history, Junger contextualizes the minute-by-minute action he narrates, showing how combat both is and isn't what civilians expect it to be. For instance, Junger tells us that front-line soldiers rarely discuss the larger, geopolitical reasons for their deployment. Indeed, such concerns are almost impractical for men who need to be supernaturally vigilant in the face of constant attacks from the enemy.

Junger writes, "There's so much human energy involved – so much courage, so much honor, so much blood – you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place." He adds, "The moral basis of the war doesn't seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero."

In another instance, Junger portrays how a particular new lieutenant is able to command the respect of his unit by allowing them to beat him up. How such a thing could be true shows how counter-intuitive battlefront circumstances can be. Junger also explains such telling details as why the men's body odor begins to smell like ammonia, or how a single teenager with a rifle (being paid five dollars per day by the Taliban) can tie up an entire company for a whole day.

And Junger himself steers clear of discussing the ultimate rightness or wrongness of America's military strategy in Afghanistan. Instead, War posits a direct connection between the daily firefights (and sometimes-bizarre interpersonal interactions) and the challenges faced by soldiers throughout history. It's almost as if the current political situation were irrelevant. Warfare is as innate to mankind as hunger.

War begins with a epigraph about the definition of cowardice, and its final section ("Love") builds the best explanation for battlefield bravery that I have ever read. Essentially, what we think of as bravery is a function of group loyalty, not patriotism or morality. It's an explanation I've heard over and over in accounts of Congressional Medal of Honor winners: "I did it for my buddies."

But I've just done a grave disservice to Junger's insight. I've reduced it to a platitude, whereas Junger himself built it up by observing, in minute detail, the daily lives of a platoon of young men on the front lines. After reading War, this final insight has an almost physical force, explaining why so many young men have trouble adapting to post-combat life.

I found War to be an engaging page-turner. Not only is the battlefield action exciting, but Junger's insights into the reality of combat are thought-provoking, not least of which is his assertion that any attempt to rid humanity of the scourge of warfare must take into account "the excitement of battle." Junger further observes that "civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up."

An interesting side-note to War is that Junger also filmed a documentary while embedded with the soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company. The resulting film is entitled "Restrepo" for an outpost named for a beloved company medic who was killed in the Korengal, and it won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival in January of 2010.

From what I can gather, "Restrepo" is a kind of complement to War, giving a compressed account of essentially the same story. Based on how much I enjoyed War, I will be watching "Restrepo" at the earliest opportunity.

by Sebastian Junger

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