William J. Astore
Review of Sebastian
Junger, War. New York: Twelve Books, 2010. Pp. xii,
287. ISBN 978-0-446-56697-1.
For most Americans,
the ongoing war in Afghanistan, now nine years old and counting, is
an abstraction. As one combat veteran put it in an article on
"military shooter" video games, whereas 2.2 million Americans "experience"
this war daily by playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
on Xbox Live, only 0.5 percent of Americans will ever deploy there,
and a much smaller percentage of those will see combat.
"There's something annoying that most of America experiences the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are actually taking place,
through a video game."
Sebastian Junger, an intrepid journalist and well-known author of
The Perfect Storm,
seeks in his latest book to bring the Afghan war home to Americans.
From June 2007 to June 2008, he made five trips to the Korengal
Valley in Afghanistan, embedding with American troops as they
attempted, unsuccessfully, to dominate and pacify this remote and
rugged area in Kunar Province, just north of the Khyber Pass. He
was accompanied by British photojournalist Tim Hetherington; the
product of their labors was the book under review and Restrepo,
a feature-length documentary about the Korengal Valley and the
As an American correspondent embedded with U.S. troops, Junger admits
he cannot write objectively or neutrally about the war, but does
claim "it is entirely possible to write with honesty about the very
personal and distorting experiences of war" (26); in this he is
successful. He divides his account into three sections: "Fear,"
"Killing," and "Love," the second being the longest. He allows
American soldiers to speak for themselves, adding his own
reflections on the burdens and perils of military service based on
his reading of such classics as Lord Moran on courage and J. Glenn
Gray on warriors and war. In
so doing, Junger provides a brutally convincing depiction of what it
is like to fight in an exposed position in inhospitable terrain
against a rarely seen and poorly understood enemy.
The strength of Junger's account--its unflinching portrayal of an
American combat unit and the American way of war in
Afghanistan--also exposes a weakness.
For Junger largely ignores the motivations
of the enemy and especially the impact of the war on
the Afghan people. As
American war making war relies heavily on high-tech weaponry and the
profligate expenditure of ammunition and conventional
munitions, from .50 caliber machine gun rounds to grenades to 30-mm
cannon and heavier mortar and artillery
rounds to 2000-pound bombs dropped by B-1 bombers, all in support of
platoon- and company-level operations. Reconnoitering by massive
firepower did not go out after the Vietnam War, but the technique
inevitably leads to non-combatant casualties and collateral damage
that undermine the counterinsurgency strategy of winning Afghan hearts
and minds. After one such case of unintended civilian casualties,
Junger recounts that the Afghan elders of Yaka Chine met to declare
jihad against all Americans in the valley, despite the apologies and
appeal of the U.S. commander at the scene (99-100).
The Taliban make do mainly with rifles (including WWI-vintage
bolt-action Lee-Enfields), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and a
few machine guns.
Partly because of this wide disparity in firepower, U.S. forces come
to respect their foe's toughness, tenacity, and resourcefulness (19;
170) in the face almost every weapon in the U.S. arsenal. And the
Taliban have a few "force multipliers" and special techniques of
For every technological advantage held by the Americans, the Taliban
seemed to have an equivalent or a countermeasure. Apache
helicopters have thermal imaging that reveals body heat on the
mountainside, so Taliban fighters disappear by covering themselves
in a blanket on a warm rock. The Americans use unmanned drones to
pinpoint the enemy, but the Taliban can do the same thing by
watching the flocks of crows that circle American soldiers, looking
for scraps of food. The Americans have virtually unlimited
firepower, so the Taliban send only one guy to take on an entire
firebase. Whether or not he gets killed, he will have succeeded in
gumming up the machine for yet one more day (83).
Junger's firsthand depictions of American soldiers are both
flattering and disturbing: to be sure, they offer hard-hitting,
exciting, visceral celebrations of the troops' machismo,
determination, and fighting power. But they also evince a
cautionary tale of American hubris, of efforts squandered, of
pointless military and civilian deaths. Reluctant to draw sweeping
conclusions or specific lessons from the Afghan war, Junger shows us
the face of war as alternately exhilarating and horrifying, hateful
and loving. His narrative style is impressionistic, his goal almost
anthropological in its scrutiny of war among the "natives" who
pursue it with such fervor. While such an approach has limitations,
it does force readers to see war up close and to witness how it
alters its participants, often for the worse.
Indeed, reviews of War have praised it
for revealing the hellish realities of the Afghan war (at least for
U.S. troops), and certainly the mainstream media image of precision
operations conducted cleanly by unmanned aerial drones deserves
criticism; a signal contribution of Junger's account is his insistence
that American infantry soldiers are neither icons of heroism nor
champions of truth, justice, and the American way. This
news to military initiates, but it may surprise Americans who have
been encouraged by propaganda to view the war as invasive but
ultimately beneficial surgery performed by "hometown heroes."
Having lived with American frontline soldiers, Junger shows a side
of military service seldom contemplated in the United States. The
let off steam by beating one another and release sexual tension
with pornography, masturbation, and homoeroticism--"we're like
monkeys, only worse," one soldier says apologetically (5). The
soldiers are patriotic not in any "Mom and apple pie" sense but in a
"duty-bound, brothers-in-arms" ethos. Unable to explain why the war
is necessary ("ours not to reason why/ ours but to do or die"), they
find purpose and clarity in combat; the resulting adrenaline rush is
an addiction not easily overcome.
War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting
isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war
and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the
consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting
things anyone engaged in war will ever know …. [Combat] is the
ultimate test, and some of the men worry they'll never again be
satisfied with a "normal" life—whatever that is—after the amount of
combat they've been in. They worry that they may have been ruined
for anything else (144, 155).
Junger's dissection of war and its seductions may not be new, but it
provides a needed corrective to the "war is ennobling" trope common
among some Americans, even soldiers like Col. Dan Williams, a
helicopter brigade commander in Afghanistan: "War
does change you, I believe in a better way, a noble way. A decade
of combat has made us very hard. It has made us an incredibly
strong Army. I believe we do have a warrior class in this country."
One wonders what Williams would say in response to
a recent documentary on the crippling costs of war for some of these
same "very hard warriors,"
or even for the journalists who bravely document the fighting.
Junger, no stranger to these questions, documents the frustration
and mental anguish of combat veterans like Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne, who
after his tour of duty goes AWOL and eventually leaves the Army,
only to consider reenlisting because he cannot adjust to "normal"
civilian life, something foreshadowed by his earlier confession that
"Combat is such an adrenaline rush. I'm worried I'll be looking for
that when I get home and if I can't find it, I'll just start
drinking and getting in trouble. People back home think we drink
because of the bad stuff, but that's not true … we drink because we
miss the good stuff" (232).
At what costs do we turn men into battle-hardened killers? What
happens when the war is over or the warrior retires, and he knows
nothing but war? How do we assimilate the warrior back into
civilian society? Junger has no answers, but he does make a demand:
In a very crude sense the job of young men is to undertake the work
that their fathers are too old for, and the current generation of
American fathers has decided that a certain six-mile-long valley in
Kunar Province needs to be brought under military control. Nearly
fifty American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I'm
not saying that's a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be
acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the
costs of war (for some reason, the closer you are to combat the less
inclined you are to question it), but someone must. That
evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one
thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders (154).
To American soldiers, the tragedy of Afghanistan is that no such
evaluation has occurred. We owe a debt of thanks to Junger for
reminding us of that fact as well as for chronicling so incisively the
seductions and horrors of war.
Pennsylvania College of Technology
Graeme Wood's review of War, Barnes and Noble Review
(7 May 2010) <link>
and Dexter Filkins, "Nothing to Do but Kill and Wait,"
NY Times (14 May 2010) <link>.
H.D.S. Greenway, "The Addiction to War," NY Times (21 Sep
The Good War (Out of the Blue Productions, 2009), dir.
Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys.