Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Book Review: War

The war in Afghanistan conjures up many things for Americans. But unless we've got a loved one in harm's way or have lost someone there, we usually focus on the larger political issues. We think about the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the 'terrorist connection' or maybe about Pakistan's tepid response to extremists operating out their side of the border. What we don't think about is what it's like to be an infantryman, spending 15 months in one of the tiny outposts scattered about Afghanistan's frontiers. That's what Sabastian Junger's book 'War' is all about.

Sebastian Junger is a journalist who's written a number of books, including the book that was adapted into the movie 'The Perfect Storm'. This book was put together from five trips Junger made, often with photographer Tim Hetherington, into the Korengal Valley over the course of 2007 - 2008. He was embedded with a US Army unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, occupying several outposts in a six mile long valley that accounted for a fifth of all the fighting in Afghanistan. As he puts it in the introduction, he was "totally dependent on the military for food, security and transportation." He often went on patrols with the men and, in one instance, was nearly killed by an improvised bomb that went off under a Humvee he was traveling in.

Much of the book takes place in the area around an outpost called Restrepo, named for a medic who was killed in the valley. This book doesn't address the grand points of strategy or politics, but instead focuses on a small group of soldiers and their daily experiences of boredom, terror and exhilaration. Most of these men are in their early 20's and sent to fight on the far side of the world. Junger introduces you to many of them individually and gives a glimpse into the stresses we, here in the States, can only imagine. Making foot patrols in 100+ degree heat in full body armor and loaded down with weapons and ammunition. Hiking through terrain that is so steep and difficult in places that even hardened infantrymen are left gasping and exhausted. Sudden bursts of gunfire and the latent fear of being overrun.

The book is neither Pro nor Anti war. Its focus is so close and narrow that the causes or goals of the war at large are barely even acknowledged. It's a book about camaraderie and trust at a level that only someone who has been in combat could probably really understand. Junger shows the strange world these soldiers inhabit where the boredom can become so oppressive that some almost hoped for an attack. He also gives us a glimpse into the aftermath of spending months in this environment. In one instance Junger relates how one of the soldiers, when he returned home, instructed his mother on the only way to wake him. He told her to touch his ankle and call his last name. This was how he was always awakened for guard duty. Anything else could mean they were being overrun.

This book shows very well the hardships and the toll this sort of experience exacts on young men under fire. But more than probably anything else, we see love. The kind of love that transcends the simplistic view of whether you like or dislike the guy next to you. Either way, you know that you'll risk your life for him and he for you. It's not a matter of bravery or courage in the Hollywood sense. It's a matter of love and trust. These men are driven, not out of some desire to be heroes, but by a soul deep determination to never, ever let the others down. I think this book is a 'must read' whether you support or oppose the war in Afghanistan.


  1. Your review makes me want to read this book and I haven't read a complete book since I was reading to my kids when they were little.

    My father is a WWII vet. He says that one of the biggest battles they fought was boredom. He was aboard a Destroyer Escort that was sunk off the coast of Normandy during the D-Day invasion.

    To battle the boredom, they played unreal practical jokes on each other. I suspect that aided in forging a bond amongst them for when the fit hit the shan.

    At the end of the day, I surmise that wartime boredom (though difficult) beats the alternative.

  2. I've put it on my list to read. Well reviewed.


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