BOOK REVIEW: War
By Sebastian Junger, Hachette Book Group, 2010, Hardcover, 287 pages, $26.99
I'll say this for Sebastian Junger: When it comes to his latest book's mission, he is not afraid of being direct. "I'm not interested in the Afghans and their endless, terrible wars; I'm interested in the Americans. I'm interested in what it's like to serve in a platoon of combat infantry in the U.S. Army."
"War" is the chronicle of five trips to Afghanistan Junger made in 2007 and 2008 as an "embedded reporter" writing for Esquire Magazine. While the validity of embedded reporting has been questioned by some, Junger seems totally at home with the concept: "Journalistic convention holds that you can't write objectively about people you are close to, but you can't write objectively about people who are shooting at you either. Pure objectivity ... isn't remotely possible in a war." True to his word, Junger dispenses with the notion all sides must be represented equally. The American soldiers he eats with and sleeps next to all have names, ages, personalities and back stories. Those whom the soldiers fight are nameless, faceless and are invariably referred to simply as "the enemy."
"War" contains many of the rich descriptive passages Junger has become known for: "The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn't dare go in there at all." The most successful parts of the book, however, focus on the soldiers of the platoon the author visits and their experiences of actual combat. Commenting on the aftermath of a firefight he witnessed, Junger writes: "A little while later a soldier walks up and tells me to hold out my hand. I do, and he drops something small and heavy into it: an AK round that smacked into a rock next to him during the fight. 'That,' he says, 'is how you know it was close.'"
Junger is a skillful writer who draws the reader in and his narrative, while a bit choppy in places, structurally holds the book together. However, the author's lack of journalistic objectivity is problematic. While the author's desire to show the good side of soldiers whom he has seen wounded and even killed is understandable, at times the book is so laudatory toward its subjects it reads less like pure reporting and more like a 21st century paean to the mythos of the common infantry "grunt." For example, seemingly every soldier Junger writes about is either brave: "I never saw him look even nervous during a fight. He commanded his men like he was directing traffic," Or imposing: 'Mac was just so god damn strong,' O'Byrne said. 'His legs were the size of my head.'" Or ruggedly handsome, "He's six foot four and moves with the kind of solid purpose that I associate with athletes." In "War" you will find plenty of examples of steely strength and toughness. Anecdotes about soldiers who brown their shorts and run at the first shot... not so much.
The book does a credible job of highlighting some of the paradoxes modern combat veterans face re-adjusting to civilian life. For example when interviewing a soldier on how he feels about his job, he writes, "' I went out to use the piss tubes one night,' O'Byrne admitted to me once, 'and I was like, what am I doing in Afghanistan? I mean literally, what am I doing here? I'm trying to kill people and they're trying to kill me. It's crazy.'" And yet when that same soldier, O'Byrne, is trying to decide whether to re-enlist he says, "Combat is such an adrenaline rush. ... I'm worried that I'll be looking for that when I get home and if I can't find it, I'll just start drinking and getting in trouble. People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but that's not true. ... We drink because we miss the good stuff."
The sociological question the book raises about modern combat being something akin to an endorphin-laced drug high for the men who encounter it is disturbing. But it is the soldiers' apparent ambivalence toward the reasons for their deployment that is truly frightening. As Junger reports, "The moral basis of the war doesn't seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero."
If you are looking for a polemic against armed conflict, this book will likely disappoint you. "War" asks few questions about why the United States is engaged in open combat in countries like Afghanistan. Instead, Junger settles for providing us a glimpse into the lives of soldiers who endure and survive the stress of war as a sobering reminder to us all of the sacrifices we ask of our armed forces when we send them into harm's way.
There are many readers who will enjoy "War." The action is gritty, the language salty and there are weapons enough to make fans of author Tom Clancy weep with delight. However, the author's apparent apathy toward anything not directly related to the survival of his platoon, in my opinion, does his readers -- and ultimately the soldiers he purports to honor -- an enormous disservice. The book's superficiality toward things like historical context, journalistic objectivity, and especially toward the reasons for the soldiers deployment, make this book far less successful than it could have been. "War" would make a great novel and an even better movie. As a work of non-fiction, however, it is not -- to paraphrase the Army recruiting slogan -- "all that it could be."