Author: Sebastian Junger
Release date: May 11, 2010
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: