Halfway through “War,” Sebastian Junger’s record of the year he spent, on and off, embedded with the American army in Afghanistan, the author describes what it was like to have a bomb explode under the Humvee he was traveling in:
“There’s a lot of shooting out there and I’m not looking forward to running through it, but the cabin is filling with toxic gray smoke and I know we’re going to have to bail out eventually. I keep waiting for something like fear to take hold of me but it never does, I have a kind of flatlined functionality that barely raises my heart rate. I could do math problems in my head.”
Is this courage? Junger (best known for his 1997 bestseller, “The Perfect Storm”) spends a lot of time in “War” reflecting on this quality: What does it mean, as a practical matter? Is it an aspect of personality, or something you can acquire? Can good leaders teach it to soldiers?
“War” is a beautiful book. The deeply felt, seemingly unvarnished prose recalls Hemingway without self-consciousness. Junger bonded strongly with the men he was covering, and the subject of bonding is at the book’s core.
A more accurate (though cornier) title would be “Bravery” or even “Love” -- which, Junger argues, amount to the same thing: “Over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive.”
One for All
Why? In his view it’s because battle is, more intensely than any other human activity, a group effort: “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.”
Hence the loyalty of soldiers. They may rag on one another. They may express their affection in violence. (“In Second Platoon you got beat on your birthday, you got beat before you left the platoon -- on leave, say -- and you got beat when you came back. The only way to leave Second Platoon without a beating was to get shot.”)
But beneath it all is love -- a particular variety of love, indistinguishable from the will to survive, but no less profound for that. “As a soldier,” Junger writes, “the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.”
For the most part, Junger avoids reflecting on the politics of the Afghan War. But they’ve caught up with him anyway. “War” is set in the Korengal Valley, an area of Afghanistan so remote and forbidding that the Soviets never managed to penetrate it. The Americans went in in 2005.
Last month it was reported that they have now completely withdrawn. Alissa J. Rubin’s story in the New York Times referred to the Korengal as the “Valley of Death” and called the retreat “a tacit admission that putting the base there in the first place was a costly mistake.”
Forty-two Americans died there, and Junger describes many of those deaths. His one-word title (no subtitle) suggests that he wants his book to capture war as a phenomenon, as a category of human activity predating recorded history, but in the end -- inevitably, given the care of his observation and the precision of his writing -- it’s a book about one war: this war.
“War” is published by Twelve (287 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America, click here. Junger also co-directed a documentary, “Restrepo,” based on the same material; for Rick Warner’s interview with Junger about the film, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)