Friday, December 10, 2010

War by Sebastian Junger

If you are seeking an embedded reporter’s experiences of living alongside US troops in Afghanistan (without much analysis of the war itself) you probably can’t do too much better than Junger’s War.
As I don’t feel like writing the summary, I’ve cut and pasted the following paragraph from the Review (which also has a decent interview). My thoughts are below the review:
Junger spent 14 months in 2007–2008 intermittently embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest corners of the conflict. The soldiers are a scruffy, warped lot, with unkempt uniforms—they sometimes do battle in shorts and flip-flops—and a ritual of administering friendly beatings to new arrivals, but Junger finds them to be superlative soldiers. Junger experiences everything they do—nerve-racking patrols, terrifying roadside bombings and ambushes, stultifying weeks in camp when they long for a firefight to relieve the tedium. Despite the stress and the grief when buddies die, the author finds war to be something of an exalted state: soldiers experience an almost sexual thrill in the excitement of a firefight—a response Junger struggles to understand—and a profound sense of commitment to subordinating their self-interests to the good of the unit. Junger mixes visceral combat scenes—raptly aware of his own fear and exhaustion—with quieter reportage and insightful discussions of the physiology, social psychology, and even genetics of soldiering. Copyright © Reed Business Information
The following are points/parts of the book that I thought noteworthy:
  • Before upcoming combat enlisted men have less stress than officers (this is thought to be because the enlisted men are actually seeking combat more than the officers).
  • Portrayals of soldiers are generally positive, despite many having troubled pasts. Additionally, they are described as having little introspection, and of a sense of power/invincibility.
  • Junger describes how the military assesses the “human terrain” and actually superimposes this map on a map of the physical terrain, and progress in both is measured box by box on the gridlines.
  • One old Afghan man thought one of the US soldiers was a Russian that never left(!)
  • The Afghan code of protection indicates that if you come to someone or their residence, they have to take you in. (While speaking positively about this code, Junger could have mentioned that that is why they didn’t give up Osama bin Laden… but he didn’t).
  • Generally speaking, during a battle fear is not an issue due to surging adrenaline. The measure of courage should be those action and thoughts before combat.
  • Junger talks about the silly machismo about denial of exhaustion and weakness. Of course, most military operations, especially infantry, rely upon strength and endurance, so a disdain of weakness makes some sense. The problem is when this ends up denying the reality of and problems associated with PTSD (and perhaps even physical actions that may only harm the individual later in life).
  • Military is about units and groups, not individuals, that must function as a team to survive.
  • Junger had no censorship whatsoever (but he could admit that he had to be approved first so chances are they are expecting a certain perspective). He does acknowledge how entirely dependent he is on the army for everything he has and how he survives (clothes, food, shelter, protection, transportation).
  • Most areas of Afghanistan are/were relatively stable.
  • An interesting point was Junger’s observation that many in the military are engaged in collective wishful thinking. If you are on the front lines you typically don’t think about the wider war, why it happened and if it is being won. Alternatively, if you are in large base removed from frequent combat, you tend to be more optimistic as you are not watching people die nor being shot at.
  • War is about getting the enemy into a position where you can kill them from a safe distance.
  • Junger describes how all too often survival comes down to luck; the good die as easily as the bad.  I think of this as a direct experience of the injustice of the world.
  • War is exciting, but no one really talks about this. Soldiers might end up talking to their spouse, chaplain, or shrink, but such realities are not for public consumption. A man in his early 20s getting to shoot big guns brings out primal feelings of excitement and ecstasy. Later, these feelings might turn to sorrow, but in battle, soldiers are almost like a drug user taking a hit. When the high of battle has run out, one is left one bitter and dissatisfied.
  • When Junger realizes that he could have been killed if a bomb was detonated a fraction of a second later (making a difference of 10 ft) he had trouble coming to terms with the near arbitrarity of his continuing existence. “The idea that so much could be determined by so little was sort of intolerable, it made all of life terrifying.”
  • One of my fav lines involves Junger describing a particular type of weapon that, once fired, can have its projectile guided by a user. Each “shot” costs 80,000 dollars.  This weapon is fired by someone who doesn’t make that in at year, at a guy who will never make that in a lifetime.

Recommended for what it is.


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