War by Sebastian Junger

This is not the kind of book I normally read, but I'm glad I did. War by Sebastian Junger describes Junger's time embedded with the U.S. Army's Second Platoon, Battle Company during 2007 and 2008 while deployed in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, a small area seeing the heaviest fighting in the entire country.

My only experience with military/war literature is Jarhead, so it remains a little hard for me to see past all the jargon regarding weapons and combat maneuvers. Junger begins the story fast and furious, which left me feeling a little disoriented just as I can only imagine combat would seem to soldiers. Soon enough, though, a more cohesive picture emerges as he begins to fill in the gaps with background information about the area and our movements there and personal details about some of the soldiers. Junger uses humor and candor to describe the restlessness, tension and boredom that comes in times when attacks are less frequent, and the resulting pranks, hijinks and an odd kind of loving violence amongst the soldiers.

Junger's blow-by-blow descriptions of firefights give way to broader meditations on the nature of courage, referencing interesting studies done by U.S. and even German military focusing on soldiers in WWI, WWII and Vietnam. I've often wondered what gives a soldier the courage to face imminent death (would I be able to do it?) and reasonably so, our government wants to know too. The consensus seems to be that the key to courage and self-sacrifice in battle lies not in a heightened sense of patriotism or overwhelming desire for revenge, but in a sense of brotherhood, which in its rawest form is simply love for the men you're fighting with. Without that why would anyone rush into seemingly certain death in an attempt to save a fellow soldier? I've no doubt these thoughts would spark interesting conversations amongst combat veterans.

As the platoon nears the end of its deployment, Junger swings back around to the realties of handing over control of their post to a group of untried soldiers, as well as the extreme difficulty many men face acclimating to the mundane nature of life away from the front lines, whether it's obeying absurd military protocols or going back home to families, and for some, to civilian life.

Aside from a few brief comments voicing a generalized regret for war as a means for resolving conflict, Junger's reporting seemed very objective and apolitical to me, so I think this story could be read and appreciated regardless of political persuasion. However, the title should say it all - War is about the reality of combat and the soldiers involved, so you probably wouldn't enjoy it if you'd be offended by the idea of using force against an enemy or even just rude soldier humor.

The hardest thing for me to remember throughout the book was that these are real men I'm reading about - real men who are dying and suffering. It was far too easy to flip a mental switch and think of it as a work of fiction, thereby making the losses somehow less heartbreaking.  Upon learning of the companion documentary Restrepo (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Best Documentary this year), I visited the movie web site where I found pictures of the whole Battle Company platoon and interviews with some of the soldiers. After seeing the pictures of each platoon member on the Restrepo web site, it becomes impossible to fool yourself into thinking these men aren't real.

For more on the book and movie read this Men's Journal interview with Sebastian Junger and Restrepo co-director photojournalist Tim Hetherington.