Midway through Sebastian Junger’s intense and often disturbing account of his time embedded with the men of the Second Platoon of Battle Company in Afghanistan appeared a passage that brought me up short. In it, he describes what he calls “Vietnam moments,” ones in which “you weren’t getting lied to as getting asked to participate in a kind of collective wishful thinking.” For most of us, separated by thousands of miles from the war in Afghanistan, those moments are the kind that sum up the extent of our connection to this remote conflict. One antidote to that sense of separation can be found in Junger’s intimate look at the daily lives of American combat soldiers in the most extreme conditions imaginable.
WAR unfolds over the course of a year in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, “sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” The beautiful, rugged terrain is bitterly cold in winter and blazing hot in summer, the troops suffering in primitive conditions (“a dusty scrap of steep ground surrounded by timber walls and sandbags”) through long stretches of crushing boredom punctuated by brief, harrowing episodes of combat. The titles of the book’s three sections --- “Fear,” “Killing” and “Love” --- capture the elemental experiences that animate the lives of these soldiers more than geopolitics or even patriotism. “Combat infantry carry the most, eat the worst, die the fastest, sleep the least, and have the most to fear. But they’re the real soldiers, the only ones conducting what can be considered “war” in the most classic sense, and everyone knows it,” Junger observes with the frankness characteristic of this book.
Junger was right in the heart of the action. In fact, he’s so much a part of the conflict that he’s forced as a journalist to grapple with the question of whether to take possession of a gun he might actually have to fire in combat. The essence of this war, fought in such “axle-breaking, helicopter-crashing, spirit-killing, mind-bending terrain that few military plans survive intact even for an hour,” is improvisation, usually involving brief but intense firefights with an often invisible enemy. The key to each soldier’s survival rests more on his unit’s ability to cohere than any acts of individual heroism, an observation Junger supports with historical material and research on the actions of men in combat, along with vivid descriptive passages.
In this unsanitized story, men fight and die, quickly and randomly. Junger muses about “how easy it was to go from the living to the dead: one day you hear about some guy getting killed…and the next day you’re that same guy for someone else.” In his own encounter with an IED while in a convoy of Humvees, Junger recounts how 10 feet separated him from serious injury or death. “On and on it went,” he writes, “lives measured in inches and seconds and deaths avoided by complete accident….There was nothing to do about it except skate through on prayers and good timing until the birds came in and took them all home.”
Able to bring to bear the weight of overwhelming artillery and air power, there’s little question that the balance of military might in Afghanistan rests decidedly with the American forces. Yet time and again, small groups of Taliban insurgents (“highly mobile amateurs”) willing to fight for as little as five dollars a day (doubled when conditions are deemed especially perilous) are able to capitalize on the support of the local population, their knowledge of the rugged terrain and their willingness to sacrifice their own lives to engage the Americans in fierce, nearly suicidal combat.
The unassailable truth Junger demonstrates here with precision, insight and unfailing empathy is that men fight and die, not for some abstract principle or cause but because of the solidarity they feel with their comrades. And he’s no less candid in recognizing that any effort to eradicate war must come to terms with the adrenaline rush combat offers young men. “War is a lot of things,” he notes, “and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know.”
Ultimately, the only men qualified to judge the integrity of this book are those whose bravery and loss Junger describes. Their “shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time,” he concludes. For those of us who haven’t experienced combat and never will, there’s little to do but marvel at the courage of the men he describes and the unflinching glimpse he offers us into their lives.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 24, 2011