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.

 

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