American Soldiers

Think you know them? Sebastian Junger suggests you have no idea.

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.

Junger’s central question is this: What happens when a few dozen young men have nearly every conceivable civilizing influence—even by the standards of a war zone—stripped away from them, and are then exposed to more than a year of frequent combat against an evasive and intractable enemy? How do emotions like fear, courage, and love change, intensify, and distort within such an inferno? Junger discovers that, for the men fighting in the Korengal Valley, war is something formless and intermolecular, an airborne toxin as euphoric as it is lethal.

I have never felt more admiration for a group of American soldiers than I did after finishing this book. I have also never been more terrified by a group of American soldiers. Most members of the Second Platoon want to fight and kill; some even claim to live for firefights. A number of them have infidel tattooed across their chests. When they hear one of their scouts describe a wounded insurgent crawling along a mountain path toward his own blown-off leg, they lustily cheer. Almost all are, by their own admission, terrible garrison solders: undisciplined, lippy, and disdainful of any authority unscarred by combat. Jacked up on testosterone, fuel-injected by adrenaline, emotionally shaped by sexual deprivation, and under mortal pressure, they joke about raping mothers and sisters and even one another. (One soldier fond of “smoochy come-ons” is finally asked outright if he would have sex with another man. Sure, he says. “It would be gay not to.”) The men of the Second Platoon show their admiration and respect by subjecting the object of that respect to a savage group beating. Shockingly, not even the Second Platoon’s commanding officers are exempt from this ritual, which is widely practiced within another American subculture: street gangs.

Following the release of the notorious WikiLeaks video that shows the American pilot of an Apache helicopter firing into a crowd of Iraqis who do not appear to pose any immediate threat, many were appalled by the pilot’s lighthearted running commentary. Nobody expected the pilot to blurt out a meditative essay on the morality of warfare. Still, the glee with which he and his colleagues responded to men (and, as it turned out, children) being torn to shreds by bullets seemed almost inhuman.

Americans like to imagine that we understand the soldier. We know, of course, that we cannot comprehend his experience, but we feel sure that the soldier, at the end of the day, is probably not terribly unlike ourselves—which is to say, inclined to do the right thing, whatever that may be. Much encourages us in this assumption. Since 2001, no one has enjoyed higher iconic standing within our popular culture than the American soldier. Our politicians speak of him as though he were a holy knight of democracy. We clap for him on airplanes. We give him our seats on buses and trains and subways. We wear our yellow ribbons. We thank him for his service.

What this obeisance tends to obscure is that a soldier is someone who has been trained to kill without hesitation. Most soldiers, of course, never get the chance, but infantry units are different. Any man who fights within an unusually imperiled platoon must possess a willingness to kill that would probably strike most civilians as psychopathic.

For his part, Junger admits to being troubled when he hears the Second Platoon laugh at the plight of the wounded insurgent crawling toward his own severed leg: “I couldn’t stop thinking about that cheer; in some ways it was more troubling than all the killing that was going on. Stripped of all politics, the fact of the matter was that the man had died alone on a mountainside trying to find his leg.”

When Junger finally talks to a member of the Second Platoon about it, he is told, “The cheering comes from knowing that that’s someone we’ll never have to fight again.” I do not find that very convincing, and neither, I think, does Junger. As he writes:

Combat was a game that the United States had asked Second Platoon to become very good at, and once they had, the United States had put them on a hilltop without women, hot food, running water, communication with the outside world, or any kind of entertainment for over a year. Not that the men were complaining, but that sort of thing has consequences. Society can give its young men almost any job and they’ll figure out how to do it. They’ll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for.

War concludes with ominous scenes that show a few members of the Second Platoon failing in their initial attempts to adjust to normal life. This is war-story convention, of course, and one’s usual emotion is to pity the soldier and agonize over the moral rightness of his deployment. But my feelings for the men of the Second Platoon, most of whom volunteered for their rough duty and were fully aware of what they were getting into, were more ambivalent—and yet, at the same time, less judgmental. When one soldier tells Junger he wants to go back to Restrepo, it is clear that his fight is no longer against a foreign insurgency but the confines of normal life.

It is probably a fantasy to imagine that a career or loving partner or anything at all could compare to knowing that everyone around you would die for you in a moment—a certainty that only the pressures of combat can reliably provide. I now know, thanks to Sebastian Junger’s book, that anyone capable of enduring the terrors of the Korengal Valley deserves something more than a kind word, adulation, or even thanks. A soldier at his best can be a terrible, frightening thing, and his most heroic journey may not be to war but away from it.

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Tom Bissell is the author of five books, including his most recent, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.