Author: Sebastian Junger

2010, Twelve

Filed under: Literary, Nonfiction

In War, Sebastian Junger attempts to chronicle the emotional experience of battle and the mental toll combat takes on soldiers. To do so, Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers during their tour of Afghanistan’s front line. Thankfully, Junger doesn’t pretend to be an objective journalist reporting impartially. Instead, he uses his embedded experience to deliver a first-person portrayal of the psychological turmoil of war.

In 2007 and 2008, Junger made several prolonged visits with “Battle Company” in and around the Korengal Forward Operating Base in Eastern Afghanistan. Charged with holding the Korengal Valley from the insurgents, Battle Company constantly found themselves under enemy fire. Because a reporter on the front line and a soldier on the front line are the same to the enemy, Junger also found himself looking for cover after hearing the crack of passing bullets. And in Junger’s reaction to the threat of enemy fire, we get our first insight into a soldier’s mentality.

Moving from one base to the next required moving without cover, in the enemy’s plain sight. As Junger ran with men of Battle Company he found that he was pushing himself to run faster. He saw that not only was he dependent on the soldiers for his safety, but that they were also dependent on his ability to keep up. Ultimately, he realized that he was not running for his own safety, but for the safety of those around him.

Junger’s realization that he cared more about the other soldiers than himself becomes the lens through which he examines the nature of the soldiers around him. Towards the end of his stay with Battle Company, he sums up his observation:

Combat fog obscures your fate … and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on. The army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.

The forming of deep bonds among soldiers isn’t the only profound change that an embedded Junger observes. He watches the adrenaline rush of combat become drug-like, turning the men of Battle Company into gunfire fiends. When he asks one of the more thoughtful soldiers of the company if he’ll get bored when the fighting dies down, the soldier replies, “This is the thought process in my head: if we never get shot at again, I won’t mind. But if we do, I…won’t…mind. Ha-ha-ha!”

Junger is not immune to this adrenaline rush. One day, while out on a patrol, the Humvee in which Junger was riding was hit by an IED. Junger waited to be paralyzed by fear, but instead he experienced “a flatlined functionality” that allows him to move to safety and continue his job (“his job,” in this case, is to continue shooting footage for the book’s companion documentary film, Restrepo). Of the explosion and the ensuing firefight Junger writes:

In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you can scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die—though that does happen—it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.

While Junger’s status as an embedded reporter lends the book great strength, it also brings with it an inherent and obvious weakness. While Junger maintains that he “was never asked—directly or indirectly—to alter [his] reporting in any way or to show the contents of [his] notebooks or [his] cameras,” his objectivity is obviously affected. Perhaps aware of his lacking neutrality, he avoids thoroughly assessing the soldiers’ actions. Yet when he does assess, he sides with the soldiers.

We readers might find ourselves filling the void created by Junger’s missing judgments. Those more liberal, those more pacifist, will be appalled by the soldiers addicted to wartime adrenaline—soldiers who, at the first sound of incoming fire, rush to their posts without armor or even shirts to return countless rounds into a mostly empty mountainside. The truth is, we probably all should be at least a little weary of the glorified violence that becomes these soldiers’ existence.

Given those reactions many might have to war’s violence, it would be easy to say this book is not for everyone. But I would rather argue the opposite. Whether you agree with the war or not, whether you agree with our strategy or our intentions in Afghanistan, American soldiers are still on the front, being changed irrevocably by combat. And eventually, the majority will be back home. Of the same thoughtful soldier mentioned above, Junger writes:

I suggest a few civilian jobs that offer a little adrenaline … but we both know it’s just not the same. We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he’s crawling out of his skin because there hasn’t been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?

How, indeed. Understanding what our deployed men and women go through on the front is probably the best place to start. And at the very least, War provides that much.

Similar reads: Where Men Win Glory by John Krakauer, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, and the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen all have a similar feel. Of course, the book’s companion documentary, Restrepo, deals with the same subject in a different medium. And the documentary The Tillman Story touches on similar issues.