Monday, January 3, 2011

CBRIII #1: War by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
(Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hetherington)

Right around the time that Restrepo was released in selected New York City theaters, Sebastian Junger's book, War, was published. No doubt this book is the literary companion to its cinematic counterpart, directed by both Junger and Tim Hetherington, a videographer and photojournalist (and the movie is now available to watch instantly on Netflix). However, with War, Junger is not just looking at a platoon stationed in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, the Korengal Valley. He is also exploring the nature of combat warfare and has divided his compelling account of the months he spent embedded with the second platoon of Battle Company (part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade) into three parts: Fear; Killing; and Love.

Though the book is very expansive and I took my time reading it, I've decided to distill my review to what was most memorable to me in each section. These are not necessarily specific to the Second Platoon's combat experience, but is more often a general look at a soldier's mentality.

For example, in Fear, Junger describes some of the studies done to combat soldiers to figure out what goes on in a human being's body when he is in a high-stress situation, as combat soldiers are apt to be in. A study involved measuring the amount of cortisol – a hormone secreted from the adrenal gland during stressful times that sharpens a person's mind and concentration – in soldiers' blood and urine several times a day during a period which the platoon braced themselves for an expected attack. They had received intel that the overwhelming force would likely lead to their base being overran by the enemy. As the fateful day of the attack drew closer, the study found that the men's cortisol levels dropped. This was surprising as one would expect that their adrenaline levels would be higher as they anticipate this attack. However, when the supposed day of the attack passed without an incident, the cortisol levels started rising rapidly. As it turns out, these men were more at ease facing a known threat than facing an unknown one.

I found this interesting, since behind this is a concept of courage. Being highly-trained individuals whose sole purpose is to kill, these men are able to push aside their fear when they know that there is a fight coming, even if it is highly probable that they would be defeated. A mark of a good combat soldier is not about being unafraid in the face of danger, but being able to still function like a combat soldier despite feeling scared to death. "There are different kinds of strengths," wrote Junger "And containing fear may be the most profound, the one without which armies couldn't function and wars couldn't be fought (God forbid.)"

In Killing, Junger confesses one aspect of war rarely talked about: War is exciting. Soldiers and journalists don't want to play up that part of it because of the horrors it visits upon nations, men and families, but there is no thrill or high quite like it for combat soldiers. Many of the men in the Second Platoon talk about how they are not sure they will be able to return to civilian life after their deployment is up because there is a great disconnect between being caught in an enemy's crossfire and doing something mundane like balancing your check book. Thriving on the constant adrenaline rush, it would be difficult for them to find a normal day-to-day job that sates the need of feeling accomplished. There were many questions raised about a combat soldier's future after the war, but really no answers.

It is also in this section that Junger highlights the bravery of Sergeant Salvatore Guinta, the recipient of the Medal of Honor, which is the military's highest decoration for valor. In 2007, Guinta was patrolling at night in the Korengal Valley with his platoon, about 18 people, and they were ambushed by insurgents. The ambush is known as an "L-shaped ambush" and can result in a handful of men wiping out an entire platoon if done effectively. However, under intense gunfire, Guinta was able to properly assess the situation to save his platoon mates and prevent one of them from being taken by a Taliban fighter. Below is a 60 minute interview with Lara Logan after Guinta received the Medal of Honor:

And here is an interview with Stephen Colbert for some levity.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Though the platoon suffered casualties – the man that Guinta saved from the insurgent died shortly after – this was considered a victory because no one was taken during this ambush.
Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of qick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it's much more like football than, say, like a gang fight.
Which leads me to the final section, Love. As brutal and destructive combat warfare is, it is also impossible for a platoon to succeed if the men are not ready to pledge their lives for one another. Throughout the book, Junger describes some of the physical tussles that these men get into (for example, a way to welcome a soldier into the platoon is by ganging up on him and beating him to a bloody pulp) and the insults they toss at each other. But at the end of the day, when faced with the pressures of an insurgent attack, these men are ready to put themselves in danger if only to stop the enemy from shooting at their friends. This paragraph will explain it better:
Combat fog obscures your fate – obscures when and where you might die – and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the 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. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.
I'm really glad I read this book, if only because now I have more of an insight into a combat soldier's mind. Compared to The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Junger focuses more on the soldier and the ins and outs of combat warfare. There are some tidbits of how his role as a reporter plays in the platoon (such as when they offer him a gun to use for protection or when he wrestles with the notion that whether or not helping to throw a grenade means a line has been crossed) but overall, Junger does not dwell on his personal introspection. He also does not bother with the politics of the war, be them American or Afghan, and his storytelling does not wander far from the Korengal Valley. In this narrow, tightly-paced account, Junger is not only able to show these young men as ruthless, cussing, killing machines, he is able to to connect all the terrible parts of this war to love. And that really is something.

The photo above shows an American bunker in the Korangal Valley, June 2008.
(Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hetherington)


Anonymous said...

Really great review! I have had this on my to-read list since I saw an interview with the author. Glad to know it's as interesting as I thought it would be. Guess I'm going to have to get my hands on it. Thanks!

denesteak said...

Yea, I really enjoyed it, though I'm usually a sucker for war books written by journalists. I've yet to watch the movie though so I need to get on that.

blakspring said...

i've probably said this before but you always pick such interesting and varied books. the photos were amazing and the insights into a soldier's life and psyche - fascinating.

sorry if this comment is boring, but my brain is mush. i've been reading a book for over a month now, but i'm lucky if i get to read more than a few pages a day...

denesteak said...

Blak, you should check it out. It's really very interesting.

Also, you have a new baby so you are forgiven for having mushy brain haha.

Jen K said...

My battalion commander brought this book up today because he wants to use it for leader development once we return from Iraq, and I immediately thought of you. His take on the book is kind of interesting - he said it's a case of the unit drinking its own koolaide, and instead of really noticing all the brotherhood of war stuff, he narrowed in on the things that he saw as leadership failures . . . such as the fact that they became predictable by going on the same missions in the same formations despite being hit, the fact that there were food issues when there could have been a reefer van on the outpost, strategic airlift etc. (maybe that's just the logistics perspective). I guess I'll have to read it soon enough.

Denesteak said...

Jen, I just noticed this comment! Interesting, when you compare an outsider's opinion of this book to someone who's in the know. Yea, he's right, though I suspect even Junger didn't really think about it in those terms because as "inside" as he was, he still was not part of the platoon and didn't have the same knowledge.