'War' enters minds of US soldiers

January 9, 2011 

  • By Sebastian Junger. Twelve. 287 pages. $26.99

From Homer to Hemingway, writers have reported on men at war, but I don't think anyone has done it better than the author of this remarkable book. Whatever you feel about the war in Afghanistan, or just war in general, you'll never read a more authentic account of what combat is really like.

Sebastian Junger has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1996, but this time he wanted to see the war from the viewpoint of a platoon of combat infantry in the U.S. Army. Learning that the 2nd Platoon was always at the center of the action, he asked to be embedded with them and made five trips to where they were fighting.

Frequently under fire, and on one occasion riding in a Humvee when an IED exploded under it, he saw firsthand what men are capable of. He asked a team leader named Hijar who had run into an area under enemy fire to pull a wounded man to safety if he had any hesitation before going out.

"No," Hijar said. "He'd do that for me. Knowing that is the only thing that makes any of this possible."

Junger sums up this feeling with harsh simplicity: "Each man has to make decisions based not on what's best for him, but for what's best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat."

And a few pages later: "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."

The men get restless when the fighting dies down. They drink too much, fight with each other, do crazy things. And those who survive miss the action, the intense friendships, the raw excitement of battle. Many find it impossible to adjust to life back in the states and re-enlist. "They find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives," Junger writes.

And he ended up with enormous respect for the men he was with. "Combat soldiers carry the most, eat the worst, die the fastest, sleep the least, and have the most to fear. But they're the real soldiers, the only ones conducting what can be considered 'war' in the most classic sense, and everyone knows it. I once asked someone in the 2nd Platoon why front-line grunts aren't more admired.

'Because everyone just thinks we're stupid,' the man said.

'But you do all the fighting.'

'Yeah,' he said. 'Exactly.' "

I've quoted extensively from this book because Junger can explain it much better than I can. This is not just a study of the war we are now fighting but of war itself, and of the reasons why men go on fighting them. It is also -- and I suspect he would be angry at the suggestion -- a tribute to his own courage. Just before heading out on a Chinook helicopter mission he muses: "We could lift off and be dead in minutes. I don't have to go on this mission. I don't even have to be in this valley. ... I finish packing my gear."

After he gets home he looks up one of the survivors, a man he refers to only as O'Byrne. The man has not done well. He has had a bottle broken over his head in a bar fight, fallen down a flight of concrete stairs, gone AWOL, and now is planning to go back into the Army. "Maybe the ultimate wound," Junger writes, "is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in."

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