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by Bob Sommer
In April of this year, U.S. military forces abandoned the five-year effort to control Afghanistan’s notorious and remote Korengal Valley. It wasn’t necessarily surprising that few Americans noticed; a brief and unceremonious NATO press release euphemistically described the move as a “realignment.” But then, this war has gone on for years without much attention paid by many, though Dancing with the Stars got a ratings boost that same month as Kate Gosselin kicked up her heels in living rooms throughout the land.
My son spent fifteen months in the so-called “Valley of Death” with a company from the 10th Mountain Division—the predecessors of the soldiers depicted in Sebastian Junger’s new book, War—so this quiet retreat from the Korengal, following an exhaustive and costly effort, seemed to me emblematic of how inconspicuously the war in Afghanistan has been waged.
Junger offers a close-up view of this invisible war through the experiences of a platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade over the course of a year. The outposts are remote, some occupied for weeks at a time by just a handful of soldiers who live under sparse conditions, in extreme heat or cold and alternating stretches of numbing boredom and ferocious violence. Describing one outpost, Junger writes:
The men at the outpost are dirty and unshaved and have been freezing up there quietly since they ran out of heating oil a week ago. In summer the post is overrun with camel spiders and scorpions but now it’s just cold and silent and lifeless, four men with nothing to do but stare at the mountains and recalculate how much of the deployment they still have left.
In the course of five trips to Afghanistan as an embedded reporter, Junger lived with the soldiers, trekked through the mountains of the Korengal, and witnessed and endured the dangers of battle, including the prospect of having an outpost overrun by Taliban fighters. The access he gained through this extraordinary commitment allows him to portray the American presence there from inside its very core, as the soldiers live it.
Junger deftly conveys their banal and weirdly humorous chatter (“If I start bangin’ your mom when we get home, will that mean I’m your dad?”), their plans for life after the service (“It’s guaranteed work because people die every day . . . People die and it’s, like, five hundred dollars a grave and you can dig five or six graves in a day.”), and the ways they deal with the imminence of death (“‘It’s okay to be scared,’ Moreno said to me, loud enough for everyone else to hear, ‘you just don’t want to show it . . . ’”).
He also explores the sense of loyalty that bonds these men to one another, emphasizing that their bond isn’t to a cause or policy but to the unit, the group, the man next to you, even if you detest him—because individuals won’t survive in the Korengal, but a team has a more than even chance. Every man knows that if he’s wounded or killed, he won’t be left behind, because he’s committed himself to leaving no one else behind.
Junger’s narrative mostly avoids politics—or it attempts to create that impression. In fact, the general assumption among the soldiers that Junger supports the (then) Bush administration’s policies in Afghanistan accounts for his ability to gain acceptance. “If you imagined,” he writes, “that your job, as a reporter, was to buddy up to the troops and tell the ‘real’ story of how they were dying in a senseless war, you were in for a surprise. The commanders would realize you were operating off a particular kind of cultural programming and would try to change your mind, but the men wouldn’t bother. They’d just refuse to talk to you until you left their base.”
One might believe, reading War, that every soldier supports the administration’s Afghanistan policy too, but in fact soldiers have a legal obligation not to disagree publicly with their Commander-in-Chief. So it’s not surprising that the consensus among those Junger interviewed is to get behind the policy. Besides, well-trained and well-equipped Taliban fighters are everywhere in the Korengal—the policy has a logic of its own when you’re in that position. And unlike the war in Vietnam, Junger reminds us, “Afghanistan . . . was being fought by volunteers who more or less respected their commanders and had the gratitude of the vast majority of Americans back home.”
Junger does sketch in the context for how Americans came to be fighting in the Korengal, which begins with a tangled story of tribal disputes over the lumber trade and raises questions about the rationale for waging war there at all. American forces first entered the Korengal Valley in 2005, with the ill-advised, strategically foolish, and ultimately tragic insertion of a team of Navy Seals. The only survivor of that mission, Marcus Luttrell, was awarded the Navy Cross. He recounted his experience in a self-serving and bitter memoir, Lone Survivor, in which blaming liberals and “the liberal media” for his team members’ deaths becomes a kind of a mantra.
But history and politics are background noise that’s beyond hearing distance to the men at Korengal Outpost. What amps them up, Junger finds, is the discomfiting reality that war is thrilling. Says one soldier, “Combat is such an adrenaline rush . . . I’m worried 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.” Says another on firing the .50-caliber machine gun: “I don’t know if it’s true, but they say the round only has to come within eighteen inches of you to sear flesh. That’s badass. It doesn’t have to hit you and it can still tear you open. It’s just a sexy weapon. It’s the ultimate machine gun. It has the ability to shoot through walls. It’s fun to shoot during a test fire but it’s twice as fun during a firefight.”
Indeed, Junger himself notes: “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting.” He often plays to this excitement, and it will, no doubt, appeal to some readers. The tone and cadence of his narrative are sometimes reminiscent of the enthusiasm of embedded reporters who appeared on all the networks at the outset of the Iraq war.
War does not portray the civilian tragedies of our engagements in the Middle East, nor the impact on military families, nor does it attempt to understand the American presence there as Afghans see it. They rather move about in a kind of background fog. Junger also places himself too much at the center of the narrative at times, which creates the impression that he’s there so he can describe his experience of going there. I would contrast his book, in this respect, to David Maraniss’s fine book about the Vietnam War, They Marched into Sunlight, which tells the soldiers’ stories while absenting the author from the narrative.
But War succeeds in portraying the experience of war and its impact on one small group of soldiers, which is what Junger set out to do. It has helped me better understand my son’s experiences in Afghanistan. Perhaps it will also make more Americans question the long-term consequences of the wars we have undertaken as a nation, now that the thrill is—at least for most of us—gone.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010