Guest Author - Ray Hanisco
The combat soldiers, who have lived it, may find the reading of War, written by Sebastian Junger, as cathartic. Civilians might be left looking for some deeper meaning within this novel. The concept of living with violence, evil, and its effects on the human spirit are incomprehensible. Junger gets it!
Sebastian Junger the author of The Perfect Storm, the documentarian behind Restrepo and contributing editor to Vanity Fair tackled the story from the physical and psychological effects of modern day warfare. War takes place in an extremely active zone of combat from the viewpoint of the soldiers stationed there. His interest had nothing to do with the geopolitical maneuverings of governments, or the morality of war, but it is the chronicle of the effects of hazardous duty on the psyche of the human element.
The author of War, spent a total of fifteen months (2007/2008), on five separate occasions, with the 2nd Platoon, 2nd Battle Company, a part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in the Korengal Valley in Northeast Afghanistan. The Korengal Valley is a relatively small area of approximately twelve square miles. This six miles long valley is some of the most unmerciful terrain, of barren rock, sparsely populated with pine trees, and stone terraced agricultural fields. An occasional village is built vertically up the steep mountains’ faces. The Korengal Valley is the main traffic route for insurgent Taliban fighters traveling from the Pakistan border, twenty five miles away, into the rest of Afghanistan. The American/NATO Troops were hated by the local residents, and seen as invaders. The 2nd Battle Company was one hundred and fifty men strong as compared to the seventy thousand NATO Troops in Afghanistan, yet that little valley was involved in twenty percent of the combat. It is no wonder the American forces dubbed it with the name of “The Valley of Death.”
The 2nd Battle Company was charged with the duty of killing the insurgents while winning the hearts and minds of the locals. They represented their presences as being in the best interest of a peaceful existence.
Although Junger bemoans the fact that he was never accepted as an insider within the 2nd Platoon, his ability as an observer of people and their behavior has given him a unique insight into the reality of combat and those involved. He observes the fear, the terror, the honor, and the trust that grows out of an extreme situation of survival within an unfamiliar environment under the stress of war.
“The Army might (mild foul word) you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.”
It is through his chronicling of the daily lives of the 2nd Platoon that Junger gains an understanding of the dynamics of group welfare over personal wellbeing. He observes the metamorphic change that occurs in an individual as he adapts to a life of squalor, seeking pleasure in those little things reminding him of home. He sees the macabre humor and philosophies of life which develops over a short time period. Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne, one of the main characters, makes a rationalization that combat is the devil’s game thus; there is just no use in praying because Satan is the only one listening.
Junger expresses his surprise when he was finally permitted to go with the 2nd Platoon on patrol. His amazement was not that he was permitted to go, but rather the soldiers he accompanied dressed in a manner similar to that of the enemy they hunted. He learned to appreciate the reality of seeing a muzzle flash several hundred yards away and the bullet arriving before one could react to it. He grew to understand the celebration that occurred after a severely wounded enemy finally died. It was not in celebration of his death, but because he would not have the opportunity to kill our troops.
Junger’s War is a study in human devolution to the basic instincts of survival under extreme environmental pressures. The soldiers learned to embrace war with all its evil and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, making the reality of life in the United States become a distant memory. Is it any wonder that those living in the nightmare of war find it almost impossible to return to normalcy?
I came to read this novel through a conversation, with a friend, over the evolution of warfare in the past forty years. He recommended War, by Sebastian Junger. I borrowed his copy, and read it. Junger was insightful enough to realize he needed to write this piece through a series of visits. In that way, he would be able to maintain his objectivity by having his visits, to the Korengal Valley, punctuated with normal life.
This may not be a book for the faint of heart, or the recent returnee from Afghanistan who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For the rest of the population, from the late teens through the elderly, this book is a must read. The physical presence and techniques of the modern infantry is nothing like the infantries in the past. Other than that, nothing has changed.
FTC Requirement: The book, War by Sebastian Junger, use for this review, was borrowed from a friend.
If you would like the audio version of War, on CD, click on the image below for a source. There are also many other sources, for this book to which you may go. It is available at almost every book store.