War by Sebastian Junger
In 2007 and 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger spent five month embedded with the U.S. Army’s Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. This is the front line, on the border with Pakistan, right smack dab in the middle of it. The platoon was charged with keeping the valley out of enemy control, a campaign that was part “hearts and minds” and part brutal violence.
We get vivid depictions of the firefights, the frustrations, the loss, camaraderie, the intense boredom. The daily physical grind of moving sandbags, of lugging heavy weapons up mountains in high altitude, the daily mental grind of not knowing when the next bullets will snap past. The fear brought on by the fate of other soldiers in the valley—the fort that was overrun by insurgents and the eight-man squad that took 100 percent casualties in an ambush. And the frustrating interactions with the local Afghanis. In one incident, the soldiers chased a cow into some concertina wire. Unable to free it, they shoot the cow. The owner of the cow demands payment, calls are made up the chain of command and it is agreed to that the man will be paid in food equaling the weight of the dead cow. It is one of the many moments in which the soldiers wonder what the hell they’re doing there.
If you put any group of guys alone on any mountain for several months, you’re bound to get some strange behavior. Now throw in unpredictable swings between extreme boredom and intense combat. Everyone is on edge, all the time. The men entertain themselves by dancing, drawing (one soldier repeatedly draws the valley, because he says, “It’s all I know how to draw”) and fighting. New members of the platoon, even ranking officers, are “beat in,” meaning they’re held down and beaten, sometimes severely. A fun form of entertainment is to sneak up on another soldier and choke him unconscious.
Junger isn’t concerned with the politics, military strategy or bigger stories of this war, but he does spend a fair amount of time delving into the themes of War. The book is divided into sections titled “Fear,” “Killing” and “Love,” and although much of the book oozes machismo and testosterone and smells like hot machine guns, these side meditations are insightful and well-researched, examined from physiological, sociological and philosophical angles. It’s these meditations that elevate the book above a story about a specific group of soldiers. It’s why the book is titled War. These insights are universal to war, as true of the First Punic War as the war in Afghanistan. War succeeds because it places these soldiers in the context not of the American mission, but of the long history of the soldier.
But even as the context gives the book import, it is still the individual soldiers that give it impact. You feel for them, are appalled by their madness and admire their courage as they face up the valley, staring down their deepest fears. As Seargent Brendan O’Byrne said: “God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus…wasn’t in that valley. Combat is the devil’s game…That’s why our prayers weren’t answered: the only one listening was Satan.”
In April of 2010, just as this book was heading to bookstore shelves, the U.S. retreated out of the Korengal.
I also highly recommend Junger’s documentary, Restrepo, about his time in the Korengal.