I just finished reading my courtesy review copy of WAR by journalist and author Sebastian Junger, on his firsthand observation of the war against the Taliban in the Korengal Valley, waged by the soldiers of the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company. I cannot say that I found WAR to be an enjoyable read – though Junger is a polished writer – a more accurate description is that WAR is powerful, thought-provoking, at times moving and, ultimately, a very disturbing account of the war in Afghanistan.
Junger, whose previous works include The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea and Fire, was embedded along with photojournalist Tim Hetherington, with 2nd Platoon during their COIN campaign in Korengal, a mission that resulted in some of the bloodiest firefights and highest American casualties of the Afghan war and withdrawal from a rugged valley sometimes known as “Afghanistan’s Afghanistan”. The Korengalis, related to the people of Nuristan, are noted for their xenophobic hostility to outsiders, which was directed at times toward the Taliban as well as Americans. Junger reports that the US only succeeded in controling a quarter of Korengal and contesting roughly half of the six mile by six mile valley with the Taliban and local “accidental guerrillas”motivated by money, excitement, religious zeal or revenge to attack the Americans.
WAR is not an especially “political” or “policy” book discussing the war from some remove. Junger’s primary interest are the men of second platoon at Restrepo, an outpost dedicated to the memory of a valorous medic who had been killed. O’Byrne, Anderson, Stitcher (who has “INFIDEL” tattooed across his chest), Jones, Moreno, Bobby to name just a few soldiers Junger interviewed and witnessed how they lived in the moment. That moment could comprise the adrenaline high of combat, agonies of grief, anticipatory tension before the next ambush, the angst of boredome behind the wire and especially the iron bonds of brotherhood in a small unit tempered by fire.
What comes through in War, aside from the extremity of the terrain and the uncertainty of ever-present danger, men being shot without warning by the enemy, even in Restrepo, is how very few men are actually involved in combat. Battle Company is the vaunted “tip of the spear” but when only a few hundred men were taking a wildly disproportionate percentage of all combat contacts in a nation the size of Afghanistan ( Junger cites 20 %) the spear begins to look more like a tiny sewing needle connected to a Leviathan-like noncombatant-administrative tail, surreally outfitted with fast food courts.
There’s a peculairly granular quality to Junger’s WAR, the grittiness of the squalid conditions in which soldiers live, the depths of their physical sufferings and mental exhaustion, their primal fear of letting their comrades down in battle and being responsible for getting friends killed. There are also epiphanies of bravery and carrying the day against the odds, men living who but for chance would have died on some rock strewn hill and lusty celebration after the deaths of their enemies. The sort of politically incorrect, atavistic, jubilation that is culturally frowned upon by people who are comfortably safe and far away.
What disturbed me most about WAR was not just how few Americans are carrying the burden of the combat in Afghanistan but how disconnected these few soldiers and their sacrifices are from the rest of the military itself. Junger’s epilogue with O’Byrne, a fine soldier who is a major figure in the book, and his inability to readjust and shift from the battlefield to garrison or civilian life is deeply depressing. “The Army’s trying to kill me” O’Byrne declared, finding a momentary refuge in alcohol, but little help from the military bureaucracy.
Junger attempted to show the war in Korengal as seen from the perspective of the privates, NCO’s and junior officers of Battle Company who lived and died there, from his interviews and his own participation in their patrols as they came under fire or as they gingerly parleyed with Korengali elders in isolated villages. Eschewing theory or a historian’s search for causation, Junger attempts to let the soldiers words and actions drive the narrative.
Sebastian Junger’s WAR is raw and undecorated by sentiment.