(Twelve Publishing, 2010)
Sebastian Junger’s newest book, War, is the story of his time spent with an American platoon in Afghanistan. Over the course of a year, Junger made five visits to the Korengal Valley, perhaps the most fiercely contested area in the entire country. While the book is hardly perfect, it is both an admirable and ambitious effort, and can be best described as a book that simply had to be written. Through dangerous firefights, fits of anxiety and dread, or simply bonding with the young men that made up Second Platoon, Junger offers us a very important look at the reality of the war in Afghanistan, and its effect on the young men who are waging it.
Junger’s approach to covering this conflict is nothing if not daring. Clearly, he chose to be in the Korengal Valley to see the worst of the worst, to get as close as he could to the action. As he writes, “The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” The combat statistics verify the notion that this was the most dangerous outpost in the war. The 150 men who made up Battle Company, of which Second Platoon was a part, had been involved in nearly one-fifth of all combat seen by the 70,000 troops in Afghanistan. Despite the danger present everywhere in the Korengal Valley, Junger pushed even further. Upon his arrival, he immediately sought out the group who did the most fighting of all. It is in this way that he comes to know Second Platoon. The result is the story of dozens and dozens of firefights, and the death and injury of numerous men with whom Junger himself had gotten to know, and this lends to both the intensity and gravity of his work.
More than just describing the experience of combat, War serves as an excellent education in just how the conflict in Afghanistan is being fought. Junger wisely chooses to shy away from the pitfalls of politicizing and sermonizing. Instead, he offers detailed and insightful explanations of combat in this arena. Giving almost a play-by-play of certain firefights, Junger displays the incredible difficulty of this war, the ingenuity of the Taliban’s forces, and the brutal terrain of rock and sand upon which these difficult battles are taking place. He manages to shed a critical light from the ground floor, on a war that despite approaching a decade in length, very few people really understand.
On top of this, Junger reveals the incredible toll that the constant fighting takes on Second Platoon. The wild swings from unparalleled adrenaline rushes to unimaginable boredom, the constant invocation of fate and luck, the uncertainty that leads some of the country’s strongest young men to eccentricity at best, insanity at worst. The results of this exhausting experience are meant to hit the reader hard and they should. One young man, Officer O’Byrne, who is as close to a main character that the book has, suffers a mental collapse. However, it does not take place during the fighting itself, but after his deployment has ended. He becomes paranoid, bored, unable to recreate the excitement of combat and the bond with his fellow soldiers. In a letter to Junger, he writes, “A lot of people tell me I could be anything I want to be. If that’s true, why can’t I be a fucking civilian and lead a normal fucking life? Probably ‘cause I don’t want to.” At this point, Junger makes perhaps his most poignant statement. “Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.”
It is the powerful human element in this book that makes it an important read. For years, warfare has gone under a radical process of de-humanization. Technology, be it in the form of absurdly powerful weaponry, unmanned drones, or television coverage of night-time bombings, has stripped away much of the real human aspects of war. More and more, we are becoming used to warfare, desensitized through too much sanitized coverage of the thing itself, unsure of how to feel about the people lost in this massive machine, fighting in conflicts that we do not always support. War’s greatest achievement is the human face it puts back on Americans at war. Instead of rushing to one extreme or another about the mission itself, its justification, its necessity, Junger lays bare for us the tragic effects that combat has on people. We often assume that many of these problems are there for our soldiers, but they are often hidden from public view because they are too ugly to be considered. Junger refuses to editorialize, convinced that the good, the bad, and the in-between will be able to show itself to the reader. War, for this reason alone, deserves to be read.