WAR: Junger’s year of living dangerously

Reid Smith Contributor
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Not since Tim O’Brien introduced us to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s platoon in the “The Things They Carried,” has an author so successfully captured the primitive experience of combat as Sebastian Junger in his new classic, “WAR.”

Comprised of bitter, beautifully observed truths butting up against unthinkable flashes of genuine panic, Junger touches a raw, exposed nerve that exists beneath top-fold headlines and political pantomime. He’s after the soldier’s genuine experience. And yes, that’s often a truly terrible and sickening place to go.

It’s also makes for one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever read.

Of course, the book that made Junger famous was “The Perfect Storm”—his work of creative non-fiction that ultimately introduced America to the Andrea Gail, a post-ER George Clooney and the English language’s most overused idiom to describe a rare combination of circumstances that will drastically aggravate a situation.

But this is what Sebastian Junger does best. He tells the story of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.

In this case, he’s turned his keen eye to the reality of combat—the fear, the pride and the trust that exists between men who live and die by their absolute commitment to each another. His on-the-ground account follows a single platoon from the 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army through a 15-month tour of duty on the very edge of American military power in the hellish Korengal Valley.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Junger made clear the men he covered “were not interested in the rest of the war and they were not much concerned with whether it was just, winnable or even well executed.” They fought for one another.

This fact comes in contrast to much of what’s been written about the why we’re fighting in Afghanistan. Whether or not we’re “winning.” How many troops it will take to achieve victory. What “victory” even means. When all’s said and done, there’s little record of who our soldiers are, how they live and what they learn when they’re at war.

Junger doesn’t waste time grappling with cosmic truths in this deeply profound book. Rather, he captures the futility of the newspaper headlines and political debates surrounding Afghanistan that plainly overlook the fact that young men on both sides of a distant valley are getting blown to pieces every single day. Streaming this tale through the hysterically cracked prism that a writer only finds when he’s getting shot at and mortared on a daily basis, Junger tells their story with an authorial grit that speaks to the nature of the men he chronicles.

As he admits, “war is insanely exciting;” Junger experiences everything and brings his reader along for the ride. He tags along for all the tense foot patrols, hugs the floor during mortar attacks, and even gets blown up by a roadside bomb.

It can also be ridiculously boring. Left alone with little to occupy them but an overarching stress-storm and grief over lost comrades, the soldiers around him physically ache for a firefight to relieve the tension. From this perspective, Junger’s “WAR” speaks of battle as a bizarre fantasy. Beyond the intense commitment to their brothers in arms, these men experience an unabashed, pseudo-sexual thrill ride from the stimulation of a firefight.

This latter experience marks a response that Junger failed to fully comprehend on the ground, so you and I certainly won’t. This only makes the narrative more intriguing.

Interestingly enough, the powers that be recently decided to pull back our troops from the area where Junger embedded with 2nd Platoon, Battle Company. The valley was deemed too isolated and American firepower was thought to be pushing locals to align with the Taliban. In hindsight, “WAR” raises a several unspoken questions about this decision. First and foremost, was this remote valley ever worth the blood that’s been spilled? If it was, then why did we abandon it? If it wasn’t, then why were we ever there?

Suffice to say, this isn’t the story Hollywood—or even Washington—will tell. It’s something out of a Wilfred Owens poem. It’s shocking and realistic and it’s delivered without spin.

Sparing the reader the intensely bright reds, whites and blues often painted by good intentions and political urgency, “WAR” gets to the heart of the relationships that develop when young men are faced with their own mortality. The love that exists between these men is deeper and more and intense than anything most of us will ever experience. As a reader, I was left grateful, awed and slightly envious.

It’s worth mentioning that while embedded, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington brought home some incredible footage of their time in the Korengal. Much of this film became part of a feature length documentary called “Restrepo,” which took home the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. In fairness, this 90-second trailer will do a better job articulating “WAR” than I will in 870 words.

There’s a lesson to be learned, and Junger has written a thrilling, socially committed book that knows how to engage an audience and communicate a narrative without degenerating into a political harangue. By all accounts, he’s made a film that accomplishes the same purpose.

American soldiers serving in combat deserve nothing less.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He will join the University of Delaware’s Department of Political Science and International Relations as a graduate associate and doctoral candidate in fall 2010.