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Monday, July 19, 2010

War

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the breed of reporter/writer so willing to put everything on the line in order to experience warfare alongside American soldiers. It is only from these brave and talented men and women that the rest of us get a decent picture of what is really happening out there and what our young soldiers are enduring for months on end. Sebastian Junger is one of the best of the breed. I am already a fan of Junger’s The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, both of which are excellently written, but I do believe that War is his best effort yet.

Sebastian Junger spent more than fifteen months of 2007-2008 on the front lines in Afghanistan with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade. Admittedly, Junger was able to take breaks from the combat zone in the Korengal Valley more frequently than the men of Battle Company but, when he was there, he faced the same dangers, and lived under the same rudimentary conditions, as the professional soldiers around him. Junger went out on foot patrols, experienced enemy ambushes and sniper fire, and came close to dying when the Hummer he was riding in became the target of a roadside bomb. Consequently, he experienced the same emotions and trauma experienced by the men he came to know and understand so well.

This is not a political book; Junger does not present or argue the reasons the United States has been involved in this war in Afghanistan for so many years. According to Junger, the men of Battle Company do not seem to care much one way or the other about the politics that placed them in the Korengal Valley. It is his observation, in fact, that behind-the-lines support personnel are generally more gung ho about the war than those taking fire on the front lines. The men of Battle Company waste no time worrying about the rightness or wrongness of their fight.

Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, shot something over 150 hours of video in Afghanistan, video Junger mined for exact quotes and a better understanding of what he lived through in real-life speed. His combat reportage, as would be expected, is excellent, capturing the tenseness of U.S. troops who must often expose themselves via foot patrols in order to make the enemy show himself long enough for air support and heavy weapons to be used against him. As Junger points out, however, the natural terrain of the Korengal Valley offsets many of the advantages one would expect a modern army to have over the few hundred Taliban fighters it faces. Snipers, roadside bombs, the ability of the enemy to blend in with the civilian population, and having to contend with so much high ground, often force these modern soldiers to revert to old school infantry tactics.

War becomes especially interesting when Junger explores how the experience affects those on the front lines. The author explains how these young men handle their fear, how and why each of them is so willing to die for any other man in the platoon, and why so many of them wonder if they will be able to handle the boredom of the real world again after having experienced the rush of combat for so long. For the young men of Battle Company, the courage to fight comes more from love for their fellow soldier than from any sense of patriotism. No one wants to be the one to make a mistake that will cost another man his life, and all are willing to risk their own lives to save the lives of others.

Amazingly, many of these young men “fall in love” with combat and miss it during the lulls between contact with the enemy. Some of them, in their boredom, even wish for their operating base to be attacked - and they shout in glee when it happens again. Despite the friends they lose, for some of them, war becomes a game in which they get to shoot amazing weapons and blow up things. Sadly, it is only when they return home that many of these men will pay a heavy price for what they have experienced.

Rated at: 5.0
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