Friday, May 21, 2010

Sebastian Junger's "War" - a "Must Read" About the Real Struggle in Afghanistan

Sebastian Junger, best known as the author of "The Perfect Storm," has written once of the best books on war penned by a non-combatant that I have ever read. Based on a fifteen month-long engagement with a unit in Afghanistan, spread among five different trips to that mountainous country, Junger unflinchingly tells about the men of Battle Company in whose unit he was embedded. He recounts their doubts, fears, frustrations, successes, failures and losses. He does not hesitate to turn his unblinking reporter's eye on himself - describing in detail his own responses to stress, deprivation and fear.

Over the past year, I have had more opportunities than most civilians to begin to develop a mental picture of what conditions must be like in Afghanistan - for our troops and for those who call that country home. Lt. Rajiv Srinivasan - in his Blogs, e-mails and face-to-face conversations - has given me part of the story. Lt. Sean Snook - through his videos, e-mails and conversations - has given me a slightly different perspective. And now, with this story told so clearly by Junger, I am better able to triangulate these multiple images and develop more of a three-dimensional appreciation of what conditions are like in that alien and remote world.

Battle Company spent their deployment from June 2007 until June 2008 in the Korengal Valley in the eastern portion of Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan. The unit with which Junger was embedded experienced more combat than any other unit since the Vietnam War.

The structure of the book is divided, appropriately enough, into three sections labeled "Fear," "Killing" and "Love." I am tempted to quote extensively from the book, but I will limit myself to only a handful of excerpts. The quotations I have selected are a representative sampling of the lives that the men of Battle Company lived, their very human reactions to the horrors and the boredom of war and Junger's own interpretations of what he observed and felt during his times of living with Battle Company.

In this first excerpt, Specialist Sal Giunta had just exhibited extraordinary bravery in saving the lives of several of his colleagues in the midst of an intense firefight:

"The Army has a certain interest in understanding what was going through Giunta's mind during all this, because whatever was going through his mind helped save the entire unit from getting killed. A year or so later, several squads of American soldiers conducted an identical L-shaped ambush at night on the Abas Ghar and wiped out a column of Taliban fighters - nearly twenty men. The reason First Platoon did not get wiped out had nothing to do with the Apaches flying overhead or the 155s at Blessing; it was because the men reacted not as individuals but as a unit. Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense, it's much more like football than say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win. That choreography - you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up - is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what's best for him, but on what's best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat." (Page 120)

Junger does a very effective job of showing and helping the reader to feel the psychological impact of the enemy adding the capability of planting IED's in the roads that the unit needed to use in patrolling this remote corner of Afghanistan:

"The enemy now had a weapon that unnerved the Americans more than small-arms fire ever could: random luck. Every time you drove down the road you were engaged in a twisted existential exercise where each moment was the only proof you'd ever have that you hadn't been blown up the moment before. And if you were blown up, you'd probably never know it and certainly wouldn't be able to affect the outcome. Good soldiers died just as easily as sloppy ones, which is pretty much how soldiers define unfair tactics in war. Halfway through the deployment, Battle Company took over Destiny's trucks and ran mounted patrols out of the KOP in support of their own men. It was a sensible way to do it, but it put men who were used to foot patrols into cramped steel boxes where there wasn't much to do during firefights except scream at the turret gunner and pray. The trucks reduced war to a kind of grim dice game that was impossible to learn from or get good at; you just had to hope your luck lasted until it was time to go home." (Page 142)

Following the bombing of one of the unit's Humvee's by a buried IED, Junger engages in some philosophical musing about the nature of combat and his reactions to it:

"I've been on some kind of a high-amplitude ride all day since the bomb went off, peaks where I can't sit still and valleys that make me want to catch the next resupply out of here. 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 without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place. Nothing could convince this many people to work this hard at something that wasn't necessary - right? - you'd catch yourself thinking. That night I rewind the videotape of the explosion and try to watch it. My pulse gets so weird in the moments before we get hit that I almost have to look away. I can't stop thinking about the ten feet or so that put that bomb beneath the engine block rather than beneath us. That night I have a dream. I'm watching a titanic battle between my older brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonlike and murderous and it doesn't matter how many he kills because there's an endless supply of them. Eventually he'll just run out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win."
(Pages 146-7)

O'Byrne, one of the men in the unit, begins to consider whether he should re-enlist when his present tour or duty has run its course. Most warriors face that dilemma somewhere along the way in their careers, and it is often a gut-wrenching decision.

"'Combat is such an adrenaline rush,' he says. 'I'm worried I'll be looking for that when I get home and if I can't find it, I'll just start drinking and getting into trouble. People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but that's not true . . . we drink because we miss the good stuff.'

O'Byrne is also worried about being alone. He hasn't been out of earshot of his platoonmates for two years and has no idea how he'll react to solitude. He's never had to get a job, find an apartment, or arrange a doctor's appointment because the Army has always done those things for him. All he's had to do is fight. And he's good at it, so leading a patrol up [Hill] 1705 causes him less anxiety than, say, moving to Boston and finding an apartment and a job. He has little capacity for what civilians refer to as 'life skills'; for him, life skills literally keep you alive. Those are far simpler and more compelling than the skills required at home. 'In the Korengal, almost every problem could get settled by getting violent faster than the other guy,' O'Byrne told me. 'Do that at home and it's not going to go so well.'" (Pages 232-3)

Almost every book that I have read in the past five years that treats the topic of combat and the dynamics of war has included the conclusion that the unique pressure of warfare forges bonds of love among the combatants that are life-long and inimitable. Junger's book is no exception. He devotes the entire last third of his memoir to this topic.

"Combat fog obscures your fate - obscures when and where you might die - and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on. The Army might screw you and your girl-friend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing." (Page 239)

This book makes an important contribution and addition to the mounting stack of chronicles that thoughtfully examine the human cost of combat on the combatants themselves. For those of us who care about the health and well-being of America's sons and daughters who put themselves in harms way in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is a "must read." The men of Battle Company are a microcosm of the young soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who choose to face down the beast of danger and combat. The better we understand what they are facing, the better we will be able to support them with our prayers and correspondence while they are deployed, and with our love and gratitude when they return.



marion said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. You inspired me to buy the book. I will download it today.



Anonymous said...

great piece!!