“In a very crude sense the job of young men is to undertake the work that their fathers are too old for, and the current generation of American fathers has decided that a certain six-mile-long valley in Kunar Province needs to be brought under military control. Nearly fifty American soldiers have died carrying out those orders.”
I can’t remember how or why I ended up with War (2010) by Sebastian Junger on my Kindle. I just recently watched Restrepo, a fascinating movie, which might have been what made me aware of the book, but I couldn’t say for sure. I know I was worried that the book was just going to be a written account of the movie, but it ended up being much more expansive and personal.War is the result of five trips that Sebastian Junger took to Afghanistan with a photojournalist named Tim Hetherington. The two were embedded with troops in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan. This valley is only about six miles long and a couple miles wide but was seeing more fighting than anywhere else in either Iraq or Afghanistan. In addition, the terrain was incredibly difficult to navigate and the accommodations were sparse and rough at best. Junger tells the story of the men from Second Platoon, Battle Company who lived, fought, and died in the Korengal Valley with him.
I am something of a pacifist although I don’t always know if it’s feasible in the real world to avoid war and fighting altogether. There are a lot of shitty people out there and sometimes violence is required to protect yourself, but I am very frustrated by war. It always seems like a pissing contest between powerful people wanting more power who have no care for the manifold tragedies they unleash. If the people most affected by war: the ones who fight it, the ones who have to live through it, could decide whether we go to war, I think there’d be a lot less of it. However, I feel the least I can do for the thousands of American soldiers around the world, fighting and trying to survive, while I live on in complete comfort, is to try to have some understanding and appreciation of what they’re going through.
Sebastian Junger’s book gave me a searing glimpse into what combat was like for the young men he was embedded with. Not only did I see day-to-day living on the bases, but Junger also described some combat operations, attempts to get the locals on the American side, and many, many fire fights. In addition, I learned about the men who lived there, their struggles, and how living in a place for fourteen months when your life is constantly in danger can mess with your head. The book was fast paced and easy to read, with excitement and tragedy around every corner.
The only small issues I had were that it was difficult to keep track of the names of the soldiers and platoons. Junger seemed to jump around from one person to the next, quickly and unexpectedly. There were only a couple soldiers that I knew by name and had an idea of who they were. The story was still completely fascinating, but my confusion made it a little less personal. Junger also stated later in the book, “I must point out that without the friendship and acceptance of the men of Second Platoon this would have been a very different book and possibly not worth writing.” Not surprisingly, Junger became very attached to the men he lived with and who constantly kept him alive. Every once in awhile I got the sense that Junger had adopted some of the attitudes of the men, and that he had become less than a neutral observer. However, I also thought this book was captivating and eye-opening, and I would definitely recommend it.
And here are some quotes that I don’t want to forget but don’t fit into my review:
-“Collective defense can be so compelling—so addictive, in fact—that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place.”
-“On and on it went, lives measured in inches and seconds and deaths avoided by complete accident.”
-“Good soldiers died just as easily as sloppy ones, which is pretty much how soldiers define unfair tactics in war.”
-“Once you thought about them on those terms it was hard not to wonder whether the men themselves—not the American and Taliban commanders but the actual guys behind the guns—couldn’t somehow sit down together and work this out.”
-“Not because I’m scared but because I’m used to war being exciting and suddenly it’s not. Suddenly it seems weak and sad, a collective moral failure that has tricked me—tricked us all—into falling for the sheer drama of it. Young men in their terrible new roles with their terrible new machinery arrayed against equally strong young men on the other side of the valley, all dedicated to a kind of canceling out of each other until replacements arrive. Then it starts all over again. 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.