War | By Sebastian Junger | Twelve | 304 pages, $26.99
At one point in War, Sebastian Junger is nearly blown to smithereens by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. This serves to reinforce his earlier point: journalistic objectivity, which is “difficult enough while covering a city council meeting,” is not really possible while in a war zone. Nor, in conditions of horrific violence, is it particularly advisable. As Junger notes, the least of your problems as a war correspondent is “bonding with the men around you.”
For similar (though much less intense) reasons, my appraisal of War falls short of proper critical objectivity. For one thing, I have met the author a few times and like and admire him immensely. More than that, though, this book affected me in a way I did not expect. I come from a military family and grew up with a father unknowably mangled by his experience as a Marine in Vietnam. I briefly and incompetently covered the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and spent five weeks embedded with a Marine combat logistics battalion in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle in 2005. I have written a book about one war (Vietnam) and read literally hundreds of books about other wars. I like to think I have made a serious noncombatant effort to understand something about war, and occasionally I allow myself to believe I do. That belief survived approximately thirty pages into my reading of War, which left me sickened, moved, terrified, awed, and angry, and which now takes its place among the best works on the subject that I have read.
Many journalistic accounts of combat have a strangely limited emotional register. It may be that getting shot at is neither more nor less interesting than it sounds. Some accounts take the path of diffidence, shrugging off combat as part of the reporter’s job (it most certainly is not; journalists can, in fact, hinder a platoon’s efficacy, which Junger acknowledges more than once). Others take the path of sensory overload, describing the whistle of every incoming shell and the sonic snap of every close-call bullet. Whatever the case, I can think of very few journalistic accounts of combat that do not, in some way, demideify those who fight, though how and why this occurs is probably very obvious.
Junger take a somewhat different approach. Of course, he tells us, he was in awe of the soldiers he is writing about. Of course war is “insanely exciting.” Of course the soldiers he was with did not care to contemplate the politics of their deployment. Of course the thoughts that streak across one’s mind while under fire are weirdly banal. Thanks to the Decade of the Embedded Journalist, these are all familiar tropes. The insights to which many correspondents build, Junger simply accepts as given and moves on. This allows him to explore his subject from some rather novel angles. Indeed, very few books about combat use the word “love” as often as this one.
Much of the book’s narrative takes place in a U.S. Army outpost called Restrepo, named for a beloved medic who was killed in action. Restrepo is found in a place so remote, mountainous, and reflexively hostile to outsiders that during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the invaders “never made it past the mouth of the valley.” Insecurely stationed within the base is the Second Platoon of Battle Company, itself part of the recently resurrected 173rd Airborne Brigade, which had been decommissioned after the Vietnam War due to disproportionately high casualty rates—an ominous legacy that hangs over the entire book.
Junger quickly learns that life within Battle Company’s lonely, bullet-riddled, and mortar-cratered outposts—some of which are attacked as often as four times a day—is categorically unlike that of any other current theater of American war. The intensity of the fighting gives pause even to the company’s Iraq War veterans. And the book’s nightmarishly detailed battle and ambush scenes are part of a much larger story: from 2005 to April 2010, the United States military has sacrificed almost four dozen soldiers while defending its positions in the Korengal Valley, which is all of six miles long. The experience of the Second Platoon is unique, as is the type of war they are fighting. In some ways this book is less a work of combat reportage than it is an anthropological study of a tiny, violent planet.