Tag Archives: War

“War” by Sebastian Junger

Title: War
Author: Sebastian Junger
ISBN: 9780446556248
Pages: 304
Release date: May 11, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction
Formats: Audiobook
Sources: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

In War, Sebastian Junger follows the men of the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. He reported on the men for Vanity Fair in five visits, from June 2007 to June 2008.

War was one of Time’s Top 10 Nonfiction Books in 2010. That magazine of record, Entertainment Weekly, reckons that Junger is a “21st-century Ernest Hemingway.” Jack liked it in concert with Restrepo, which I haven’t watched yet. (Follow his link for a good summary of both.)

Despite these accolades, I was only moderately impressed.

Junger paints a clear picture of what it is like to go to and live through war. He leaves out the politics and strategies of war, focusing instead upon the daily lives of the men who fight.

His exploration of the power of group think was interesting. “War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter,” Junger writes. When battle becomes a job, it is surprisingly easy to do—and even enjoy. “Sometimes the fight in the valley could seem like a strange, slow game that everyone—including the Americans—were enjoying too much to possibly bring to an end,” he observes.

When Junger focuses on the soldiers—their motivations, their looming fears and small joys, the intimate moments of battle and its aftermath—the book shines. Unfortunately, too much of the book focuses on Junger’s own experiences.

War is really a memoir, a war journalist’s story. Junger seems to be trying hard for objectivity, but his constant presence in the narrative injects distance. Perhaps it is for ethical reasons—he can’t know what the men are really thinking, but he can relate what he thinks—but at times the focus on himself comes across as egotistical. I care less about what he thinks of war and more about the thoughts of the men who are actually fighting.

In addition, I found Junger’s focus on men at war and why men fight tiresome. I understand that women are not allowed to fight on the front lines; even so, the account seems overly macho. The book abounds with sentences like this:

“As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.”

Though they are not allowed to fight on the front lines, there are women soldiers, but Junger takes no notice of them, even when he is on other bases or discussing the military in general.

Junger is at his best when he explores the effects of combat. “People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff,” says Brendan O’Byrne, the soldier Junger quotes the most. “But that’s not true . . . we drink because we miss the good stuff.“ Of another man expressing similar sentiments, Junger asks, “How do you bring a man like that back into the world?”

Similarly, O’Byrne’s view on PTSD is haunting and fascinating. “Maybe the ultimate wound is one that makes you miss the war you got it in,” he says.

And because I can’t help myself:

February Reads

Have you heard about FridayReads?

It began on Twitter with the hashtag #fridayreads, and quickly spread to other social networking sites, including Facebook. The idea is delightfully simple: Tell your friends what you are reading each week, whether it’s a book, magazine, newspaper, report–anything!

While the founders recently came under fire for promoting certain authors’ books through the meme, I can’t stay mad at FridayReads for very long. After all, what can be better than encouraging people to read–and to share their opinions with their friends?

That brings me to my February reading plans. This month, I’ve already begun All There Is, a collection of love stories edited by Dave Isay, and War by Sebastian Junger on audiobook. Next, I’m planning to take on The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson and The Taker by Alma Katsu. February is a short month, but I’m hoping to round it out with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

In addition, I’m planning to get caught up on my National Geographic Traveler subscription, and begin reading this month’s Esquire–featuring none other than President Bill Clinton.

What about you–what are you reading?

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In My Mailbox: Sebastian Junger, Dave Eggers, Ann Patchett, and More!

Books in This Episode

In My Mailbox is a way for book bloggers to discuss all of the books that they come across each week.

I receive a very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links to Indiebound. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

In My Mailbox: Laura Hillenbrand, Suzanne Collins, and Gift Cards!

Books in This Episode

Bookstores in This Episode

In My Mailbox is a way for book bloggers to discuss all of the books that they come across each week.

Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting some of my favorite works of fiction that address ten difficult social, cultural, and emotional issues. I’m sure I could think of many more books if I tried–“tough topics” are kind of my thing.

10. Bullying
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an excellent story about one girl who has the chance to change her life–in seven days. Oliver manages to take a self-centered bully and make her a completely sympathetic character by the end.

And I’ve mentioned before how much I love Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn; Hahn’s story of two girls forming an unlikely friendship is timeless.

9. Autism
Two books about autistic boys, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, take very unique views of what an autistic child’s world looks like, and both are very convincing in their own ways. Not much is known about autism, but these books are a reminder that “developmental” issues and genius are relative.

8. September 11, 2001
I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in college, and it has stuck with me through the years. Oskar is an intrepid and smart narrator, and his efforts to cope with the loss of his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are heartwarming and inspiring–and a tearjerker.

7. Poverty
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls manages to recount her rough childhood while avoiding any trace of self-pity. This book is a little dark at times, but I highly recommend it.

6. Aging
Anne Tyler effortlessly captures the minor details of a person that accumulate into who he or she is in her novels, and she does not fail me in Noah’s Compass. Liam, the main character, is confronted with an inevitable slide into old age, but the way he deals with it is charming and humorous.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is, of course, a classic tale of aging. The old man faces his greatest challenge, and summons the courage to triumph over it despite his acknowledged weaknesses.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a rather unconventional entry for this category, but I found the book’s reverse-chronological order a fascinating study of memory and one man’s backward look on his life.

5. Racism
Often contested for its handling of race and slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a humorous and satirical take on pre-Civil War society along the Mississippi River.

For a more modern exploration of African-American identity, struggles with racism, and the fight for civil rights, W. Ralph Eubanks’s Ever Is a Long Time is a fascinating read.

4. Addiction
I also mentioned recently that Go Ask Alice is one of my favorite books for its raw and unrelenting take on the rebellious life of a girl in the 1960s. It was recommended to a friend of mine going through rehab, and I can see why; the narrator’s battle with addiction feels very real in this fictionalized diary.

Addiction is just one of many serious topics to which Andre Dubus III turns his artistic genius in The House of Sand and Fog. Kathy, one of the main characters, finds herself returning to the addiction from which she had recently emerged when everything in her life seems to crumble. Yet Kathy inspires a great deal of empathy and even respect from her readers–a difficult but praiseworthy feat by Dubus.

3. Abduction
As abductions of young women sweep headlines–Jaycee Dugard‘s story is one of many in the past few years–I think we all crave insight into why such tragedies happen and how victims can survive them. And Emma Donoghue certainly delivers in Room, one of my favorite books ever.

But even fifteen years ago, I was fascinated with abduction stories. Caroline B. Cooney’s smart and courageous main character in The Face on the Milk Carton made a strong impression on me as a young reader–whenever I was scared that I, too, would be swept up by strangers (hey, I was only 11!), I just remembered how cool and level-headed Janie managed to be.

2. Rape
Push by Sapphire may now be considered a classic story of rape and incest. Sapphire handles these topics very well, pushing the reader right to the edge with graphic images and then pulling him or her back with Precious’s admirable determination and optimistic outlook.

Another book about the devastating effects of rape that left a strong impression on me is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s prose meanders at times–I remember sighing in frustration as she spends an entire chapter chronicling the contents of the family’s cluttered hall–but her attention to detail pays off as she describes that family’s hurt and rage at the violence that struck once and left an indelible mark.

1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There are several books about war and PTSD that immediately come to mind when I think about masterful attempts to address difficult subjects. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are, of course, classics in this field. But more recently, War by Sebastian Junger and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli have also proved to be stunning and delicate glimpses of the lasting effects of conflict.

What about you–what books do you think have handled difficult issues well?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

“You Know When the Men Are Gone” by Siobhan Fallon

Title: You Know When the Men Are Gone
Author: Siobhan Fallon
ISBN: 9780399157202
Pages: 240
Release date: January 20, 2011
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Genre: Fiction (short story)
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Rating: 3 out of 5

Quick and dirty: Nuanced, intriguing glances into the private lives of soldiers and those they leave behind.
Possible theme song: “16 by 32” by The Decemberists
My favorite story: “Leave”
Reason I posted it today: I couldn’t post it on Memorial Day, so this is just as good… right?

When I was buying a new (to me) car this past winter, I drove all around Northern Virginia scoping out my options. For one test-drive, I found myself navigating the twists and turns of Ft. Belvoir. Though the military base is not far from where I live, I had never been inside the gates before.

I was surprised at the expanse and attempted self-sufficiency of the place; it had (or tried to have) everything, from the bank to Starbucks to gas stations. Its cookie-cutter Main Street was what I imagine every time some pundit talks about middle America.

I became hopelessly lost in labyrinthine streets and neighborhoods. (GPS, I found, doesn’t work on military bases. Yeah, it seems more obvious in retrospect.)

I wondered, as I drove aimlessly and probably attracted the attention of more than a few guards, what it would be like to live in this immense place. It strains so hard for normalcy, but I could see more guns than in the first season of “The Wire.”

I didn’t have to wonder long; with this book, first-time novelist Siobhan Fallon brought me into the homes of the army bases and the lives of military families. Fallon’s eight short stories examine the intricacies of relationships between the men who leave for war and the women who are left waiting.

Meg, the main character in the first story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” considers becoming pregnant when her husband returns. The reason for her reluctance embodies the sentiment of all of the stories in the collection:

If it was almost impossible for her to live half a life without the man who was supposed to share all of it, how could she be both father and mother for some unfinished and needy little being?

Being in a long-distance relationship is difficult, and the danger of a soldier’s life takes the stress of being apart to a whole new level. The women’s loneliness, doubt, and fear are the driving forces of the stories.

Carla is the lonely mother Meg wishes to avoid being. When her husband finally comes home, he seems utterly changed; more than just seeming uninterested in their new child, he becomes violent and aggressive with the slightest provocations. Carla questions how couples, especially those under the pressure of war, stay together:

She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving for or toward some other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self.

The couples’ fidelity and trust is pushed to a breaking point, both by being apart and then by being thrust together after having suffered in different ways.

I finished You Know When the Men Are Gone very quickly, waiting in a Thailand airport for a flight to Chiang Mai.

The women were a little flat; they struggle to have lives outside of the limitations put upon them by their husbands’ careers, and their lives seem to revolve around their men, even (or especially) when they’re not there.

Though this is a book meant to peer into the inner lives of Army wives and girlfriends, the two stories I liked most were both, for the most part, about men suffering from PTSD and dealing with it in very different ways. The suspense of “Leave” had me on the edge of my airport seat, and I shook my head at Kit riding a mechanical bull with a broken leg in “The Last Stand.”

The characters reinforce gender stereotypes to a degree; the women stay at home, many of them without careers or any kind of life outside of the military base. Captain Roddy, who is stationed at the base during the war, seems unable to understand women, both in his home and under his professional watch:

He always seemed slightly uncomfortable with the spouses, with the niceties involved with dealing with women, the feelings that could be hurt, the hope of good news in the waiting eyes. He glanced around the room as if he wished he was in Iraq, briefing a room full of infantry meat-eaters, cursing his head off and spitting tobacco into a battered Coke bottle.

Since women are not officially allowed in combat units, war is told largely from the perspective of men, both in this story and elsewhere. I would’ve loved to see similar glimpses into the lives of female soldiers, but that would be a different book.

The stories are tied together loosely, and the effect is tremendous. In a world where much fear and pain remains hidden and unexpressed, there is magic in the slow unraveling of the inner lives of each character. The outer strength of a minor character in one story is stripped away in their own narrative, revealing very human struggles and doubts behind the stoicism of survival.

I’m a pacifist. The idea of war, of real men and women willingly putting their lives in danger to defend their country and/or its ideals, is almost incomprehensible to me. But this book, though it doesn’t change my own views of war, made great strides in showing me the motivations of a soldier—and the sacrifices made by and for the ones left behind.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy You Know When the Men Are Gone from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

“War” by Sebastian Junger

Another review by Jack!

Title: War
Author: Sebastian Junger
ISBN: 9780446556248
Pages: 304
Release date: May 11, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction
Formats: Audiobook
Sources: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sebastian Junger’s War follows its famous author as he spends nearly a year in Afghanistan as a writer for Vanity Fair. He also captured his experience on on a small handheld camcorder, the footage of which was used to create 2010 documentary Restrepo with Tim Hetherington.

The two works provide valuable overlap for one another. Many details simply cannot be conveyed in a few seconds of video, and likewise the squalor of the parties involved (Americans and Afghans alike) cannot be easily conveyed in the text.

One noteworthy difference between the two is that Junger does not appear in the film. This is in stark contrast to the book, which is heavy with his own thoughts on the war—sometimes to the detriment of the overall storytelling.

Part of the power of the book is its immediacy. As the Afghan conflict drags towards its second decade, the challenges facing a single army company is a microcosm of why the war is so difficult. The primary strategy is loosely based on convincing the local Afghans to help improve security, so that a road can be built through the Korengal Valley. This will allow for trade, which will make them all wealthy. This is the carrot the US offers—not security or democracy, but roads and money. The overall strategy is never elaborated beyond this, and to the soldiers, it doesn’t really matter anyway. They are there, and they’ll do whatever needs doing.

The stress of being in the Korengal valley is intense. The cover is perfect for ambushes and terrible for maneuver. The company sees combat in some form virtually every day, and there is no telling when it will happen; a man could be shot while sleeping or eating or on patrol.

The book it at its strongest when it focuses on the psychological toll the war takes on the men involved. The catch phrase, “Damn the Valley” (DTV for short), was used by the soldiers to express the emotional strain of war. As Junger writes:

It seemed to be shorthand not for the men’s feelings about the war—those were way too complicated to sum up in three words—but for their understanding of what it was doing to them: killing their friends and making them jolt awake in the middle of the night in a panic and taking away their girlfriends and wiping out a year—no, fifteen months—of their lives. . . Damn the Valley: You’d see it written on hooch walls and in latrines as far away as the air base at Jalalabad and tattooed onto men’s arms.

The men had very few options for dealing with this kind of stress. All dealt with the pressure as best they could, but none remained wholly unaffected by it. One soldier said,

“I’ve only been here four months and I can’t believe how messed up I already am. . . I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’”

But the book is not without its flaws. A bit more of the author’s experiences shine through than is really necessary, and often at the expense of the soldiers he is observing. He seems to share the men’s fascination with weapons, going into great detail on the power of the machine guns, automatic grenade launchers and rockets at the military’s disposal. And while it helps convey the truly awesome firepower an army company has at its disposal, it borders on reverence inappropriate for instruments of war.

Of the men in the book, many are only briefly or intermittently brought up. Only Sgt. O’Byrne truly shines through as a memorable figure. He is the quintessential soldier—tough, foul mouthed and fiercely practical. He joined the army as a way of staying out of trouble with his father and the law. His pragmatic approach and ability to stay calm under fire helps make him a strong soldier and a leader within the group.

The documentary does not follow Sgt O’Byrne as closely, instead focusing on several of the younger men. The title Restrepo comes from the outpost established in the Korengal Valley. The outpost was named after PFC Juan Restrepo, a personable young medic from Florida who was killed only a few weeks before. At first the men regretted naming the new outpost after their friend, because it was a dangerous, miserable place. But as the war goes on, the outpost expands into a more livable place, and they come to accept the name as fitting to their memories. The documentary ends on an uplifting note, as the men eagerly prepare to return home.

The book is not so optimistic. Nearly all of the men have trouble adjusting to life without combat when they return home. O’Byrne worries he’ll start getting into trouble with alcohol and the law once again. The book ends with this quote from him:

“It’s as if I’m self destructive. . . A lot of people tell me I could be anything I want to be. If that’s true, why can’t I be a fucking civilian and lead a normal fucking life? Probably ‘cause I don’t want to.”