I have just one complaint about War, the new book from Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a documentary filmmaker. In the book, Junger draws a clear distinction between “war” and “combat.” War is politics and strategy. Combat, by contrast, is a personal experience entirely divorced from the politics driving it. The book should have been called Combat.
In 2007 and 2008 Junger and his photographer Tim Hetherington spent several months living with a platoon of U.S. Army paratroopers in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. At one point during a spike in the fighting, the 30 young men of Junger’s Second Platoon — part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Italy — accounted for around a third of all the combat experienced by the 160,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. Half of the platoon fell dead or wounded. Others suffered psychological injuries.
“In the Korengal the soldiers never talked about the wider war — or cared,” Junger writes. They might not have realized it, but their Korengal campaign represented a turning point in the now nine-year-old war. This year, a bloodied NATO pulled out of the Korengal and some surrounding areas. The alliance characterized the move as a “realignment.” Others might consider it a retreat.
But that’s not what War is about. Instead, it’s a portrait of a small group of young men in extraordinary circumstances. It’s about the terror of imminent death. It’s about violence. Most of all, it’s about brotherhood, as the soldiers find in each other the only motivation they need to fight and risk dying. It’s not for no reason that Junger divides the book into three parts: Fear, Killing and Love.
It’s a sad, sad book. Junger lovingly paints the portrait of the scout squad leader, Larry Rougle, “a short, strong-looking man with dark eyes and jet-black hair … a legendary bad-ass and some kind of ultimate soldier.” Rougle stands with Junger on a bunker roof and surveys the rugged landscape all around. “Everything you can see, I’ve walked on,” Rougle says. Later, he dies in a bloody, complex ambush as Taliban fighters swarm isolated American outposts. Second Platoon is disbelieving, heartbroken. “You’re lyin’ right, man?” one boy cries when he hears the news.
Junger wisely follows up with some of his soldiers in the aftermath of the Korengal. One kid tries to get out of the Army but finds he can’t cope with civilian life. At “peace,” soldiers drink, grow paranoid and depressed. They pick fights. They feel angry. After combat, and the brotherhood of combat, everyday life just seems flat, silly, unfair and, ironically, at times terrifying.
“Combat was a game 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,” Junger writes. “Not that the men were complaining, but that sort of thing has consequences. … [S]ociety should be careful what it asks for.”