Another review by Jack!
Author: Sebastian Junger
Release date: May 11, 2010
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.”