Mini-Book Review — Junger — War

Junger, Sebastian, War, Harper Collins, 2010, 287 pp.

The author of The Perfect Storm has written a book about his time with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the remote, steeply mountainous Korengal Valley — 200 kms east of Kabul, and 200 kms northwest of Islamabad. Patrolling and living five times between June 2007 and June 2008 with Second Platoon, Battle Company, Junger gives the reader some sense of the life of combat infantry out at the very end of the logistics chain — small high-altitude outposts protecting larger, lower bases with covering fire. Every creature comfort is reduced to that which will serve weapons and fortification. Niceties like hot and cold running water, cooked food, clean clothes, air-conditioned or heated sleeping quarters are simply absent. No one over 30. No women. No rear-echelon MFs. No one but Taliban wanting to come across the perimeter wire and kill or kidnap you. The troops live for weeks amongst scorpions, camel spiders, dust, and dirt in ramshackle outposts carved out of hilltops with their own hands. Resupply is based on occasional helicopter “speed balls” (air-dropped duffels or kit-bags) or whatever the men can pack on their backs up the mountains. In other words, Fort Apache – Korengal. No generals or pundits or “pros and cons of war” in sight.

The region of Afghanistan is so remote that it has largely been ignored by all forces in the area: Afghan, Pakistani, and European. No central government ever existed in the area. The Korengalis live in small tribes within a valley barely six miles long and one mile across. They were animists and adopted Islam barely a hundred years ago. Though speaking Pashto, they keep largely to themselves. Meager, valley-bottom subsistence farming is subsidized by illegal timber-cutting of the large cedars found high on the mountain-sides. Thus the Korengalis are entirely in thrall to their elders, the local Pakistani timber smugglers, and the Taliban forces that pass back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Americans weren’t welcome. No one was.

American forces established themselves in the Korengal to act as “spoilers” for the Taliban transit zone through the neighboring Pech River valley. The 173rd were replacing a previous deployment by the 10th Mountain Division, who in turn had replaced the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. The members of Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd were assigned to man an isolated outpost called Restrepo.

Junger’s account of his time with Second Platoon is organized as a set of squad and platoon vignettes on three major themes (Fear, Killing, Love) and bridged with his reflections on his own experiences (patrolling, combat, surviving an IED), interviews and biographic details on the troops in Second Platoon, and a review of the latest literature on combat psychology and physiology. As an established adventurer and war reporter, he was struggling to come to terms with a new and deeper experience of relentless combat in a very small group.

As befits someone who works for Vanity Fair, and gets excellent editing, the quality of the writing is very high. Some passages of the book are lyrical, even beautiful. The subject matter is intense, personal, and necessarily stripped to the essence of survival for the troops that Junger lives with. Death and injury are omnipresent. Physical endurance and combat skill are admired above all else. Eccentric personality flaws aren’t important for group survival, so they simply aren’t important. Weekly doses of the antimalarial mefloquine trigger nightmares and sleep disorder. The pressure of being under sporadic attack with mortars, snipers, and heavy machine guns strips the men down to utter dependence on each other. The biochemical roller coaster of combat changes each soldier’s priorities. Firefights are longed for. The boredom of waiting for firefights must be overcome in a thousand counter-intuitive ways. Tiny steps to reduce platoon vulnerability at the outpost, or on patrol, are treated with absolute focus and religious commitment. A poorly-tied shoelace can mean life or death. Sloppy noise discipline can betray an entire squad. A jammed weapon, a night terror. Combat can take the team from dead sleep to firing weapons in their flip-flops and gym shorts in 30 seconds. The result is a level of group cohesion un-matched in civilian life.

The troops, even Junger himself, wonder if they can adjust to regular life again.

War is big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly. These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not most alive — that you can get skydiving — but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can’t. So here sits Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne, one month before the end of deployment, seriously contemplating signing back up. p. 234

There is a great deal of compelling narrative in Junger’s book. Uniquely amongst the accounts from Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years, the focus of War is platoon-level combat in an isolated outpost, day after day after day. While we have battlefield accounts from places like Fallujah (Robert Kaplan) or Helmand (Michael Yon), events at Restrepo center around a smaller, stable group … where every casualty, every fatality, is a body blow that must be borne for further months of intense combat. For troops on leave from Restrepo, all they can think about is getting back there to protect their brothers. Junger himself starts to experience this compulsion, and only a new wife back in the States kept him from committing to an entire 15 month tour with the platoon.

The contrast between two realities of war (macro and micro) is more … the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan versus the soldier’s experience in Band of Brothers or the more recent The Pacific. Sharing combat stress with the same set of men for months on end creates unique bonds.

The recent abandonment of the Korengal Valley by US forces may add some poignancy to this book and to an associated documentary based on Junger’s year with the Second Platoon which will be released in a few weeks to theaters — Restrepo (Box Office Mojo, imdb). But in the big scheme of things, this book is really a contribution to a well-established literature … certainly extending back to the North American Indian Wars and the trench warfare of World War 1. We can respect the men that Junger describes without casting them as unique.

The Dunbar number is a sociological pattern which seems to reflect our origins as hunters-gatherers. For most cultures, small day-to-day work groups seem to cluster in size at 30-50 while larger mating/face-to-face amalgamations draw from a pool of 150 people. Junger cites these numbers as possible ways to explain the psychology and functionality of the squad (8-13), platoon (26-55), and company (80-225). There’s much plausibility to this argument, especially when it comes to the cohesion required for combat effectiveness and self-sacrifice. Human males evolved as pack predators in environments where their weapons did not protect them against apex predators. Thus they were both predator and prey, every time they walked out of camp. It’s hard to imagine that thousands of generations of men weren’t affected by this experience. Or that “domestication” of modern men would entirely submerge this inner nature. Junger’s observations of the members of Second Platoon would strike any social anthropologist or prehistoric archaeologist as completely self-evident.

As noted in the quote above, men need meaning — and one can hardly find greater meaning than in fighting to protect one’s brothers (literal or functional), entirely apart from women, against great odds, and armed to the teeth. That Junger should have reached such an age (46) without experiencing what every rural Boy Scout learns by age 12 is a bit surprising. Especially in light of his life of great danger and adventure. But there’s a big difference between the individual achievements of elite athletes and journalists, risking life and limb to climb mountains, or surf or sail under extreme conditions, or report from some turbulent Third World war zone … and the entirely different environment of very ordinary young men of very indifferent abilities, cast into a situation of combat in their late teens or early twenties without option of escape. The former might be considered adrenaline junkies by birth. The latter become so through baptism of fire and complete dependence on their platoon. Thus War can come across as a wee bit voyeuristic. This was obviously a world that Junger found compelling but it is telling that he found it all mysterious. It just seemed, to very innocuous me, as regular “men in groups.”

Readers already familiar with the following books will find Junger’s War elegant, heart-felt, informative, but largely unsurprising:

CB readers may also be interested in a five-part video interview with the author (Part 1).

Personal Reflections

I enjoyed this book, and found it a quick read. I’ll definitely try to catch the associated documentary at some point in the coming year. For readers wanting to know how young men respond to sustained combat in isolated, harsh conditions, War is as good an introduction as any. The book is timely, well-written, and unvarnished. The coverage of the literature on combat psychology and physiology is solid. By its nature, it mercifully escapes the thumb-sucking of modern military punditry. This is combat. Not “WAR.” It certainly does credit to the men it describes, even as it highlights the gulf between modern life for men in the “information economy” and what it takes to fight tribes in the further reaches of the world.

For readers more versed in military history and tactics, or the psychology and physiology of combat, War is a little less compelling but offers some worthwhile scenarios for thinking about mountain warfare where hand-to-hand combat is mixed up with B-1 bomb runs and strafing by A-10s. The base-and-outpost model of terrain control has been used many times in history and will no doubt be applied again in future. War gives a great capsule description of how one platoon handled the challenges.

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