Band of brothers
Embedded with a combat platoon in the perilous Korengal Valley, Sebastian Junger grapples with the nature of courage — and love
“How do men act on a sinking ship?’’ Sebastian Junger asked in his blockbuster first book, “The Perfect Storm.’’ “Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whisky? Do they cry?’’ How, that is, do men face danger and death? What makes them brave? What makes them break?
In Junger’s new book, “War,’’ the sinking ship is the side of a mountain. For weeks at a time in 2007 and 2008, Junger was embedded with the men of Battle Company in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The Korengal, he writes, “is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.’’ Meanwhile, Battle Company is sort of the armed forces of the armed forces: Out of the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, its 150 men face almost 20 percent of the combat.
“War’’ describes that combat, yet the title is misleading: This new book is about war the way “The Perfect Storm’’ was about weather. In both cases, Junger’s real interest lies elsewhere. Many journalists embed with the military. Junger wants to get inside something more private and inscrutable: the nature of courage.
Beyond this thematic resemblance, the two books part ways. “A Perfect Storm’’ was a perfect story, so seamless and spellbinding it might almost have begun, “Once upon a time, six men lived in a small town by the edge of the sea.’’
Not so the new book. War is messy and improvisational and refuses to conform to a narrative arc, and much the same could be said — approvingly — about “War.’’ It does not unfold chronologically. It does not track the evolution of the war. It does not have a hero, or even a protagonist.
Instead, “War’’ is organized into three sections: “Fear,’’ “Killing,’’ and “Love.’’ Triangulate them, Junger implies, and the result is courage. Men commit acts of bravery — including violent ones — because their love trumps their fear. (Women do the same, of course. But, as Junger notes, no one describes as courageous the mother who runs into traffic to save her child.) Asked whether he hesitated before braving incoming fire to save a buddy, one man says, “No. He’d do that for me.’’ “Courage,’’ Junger concludes, “was love.’’
Such observations are the stuff of “War,’’ and to get at them, Junger uses a close-up lens. Except for occasional asides about military strategy or combat psychology, the book seldom deviates from the present-tense experience of a handful of men on a six-mile stretch of the multiyear, multifront, multibillion dollar “War on Terror.’’ These men are barely more than boys (one was 11 years old on 9/11) and, eschewing the machismo that can afflict war reporting, Junger describes them with almost fatherly tenderness.
In most respects, Junger’s narrow lens serves him well. The smaller the aperture, the sharper the image: We see the Korengal as the men do, “a miraculous kind of antiparadise’’ of “heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait.’’ And then we watch it become the most important place on earth for its filthy, funny, exhausted, lewd, generous, ruthless visitors, on whom it has bestowed a kind of purpose they have never known before and might never know again. Safely home, one of them tells Junger, “I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow. Most of us would.’’
Junger describes combat so lucidly that this unlikely sentiment makes sense. “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them,’’ he writes. “[F]or a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight . . . war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of.’’ Exposure to that intensity, as much as post-traumatic stress disorder, is what makes soldiers so devastatingly unfit for civilian life. “People back home think we drink [after leaving the service] because of the bad stuff,’’ one man says, “but that’s not true . . . We drink because we miss the good stuff.’’
This is potent material, seldom rendered better. But there’s a price to be paid for Junger’s narrow focus. In seeing war as the men do, we miss everything they miss. And that’s a lot. “The moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much,’’ Junger writes, and nor does “its long-term success or failure.’’ “War’’ is sure to garner praise for “not politicizing’’ its story, but books don’t politicize war. War, unlike weather, is political from the get-go. That many men who fight it don’t focus on the politics makes sense. But that’s all the more reason the rest of us should. Junger acknowledges this, but declines the job.
Still, you cannot fault a man for the book he didn’t write — especially when the book he did write is extraordinary. Last month, the US military closed the Korengal outpost, a tacit admission that the fight there was too costly or too insignificant (or, worse, both) to continue. For the men whose antiparadise is gone, the book is a stunning memorial. It is a flawed, troubling, terrific work, so good that one wishes it were perfect. But perhaps that is just a refracted desire, born of “War’’ itself: We see in it the good in us, and regret that we are not better.
Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.’’ She can be reached at kathryn@being wrongbook.com