Book Review: ‘War,’ by Sebastian Junger

The Dallas Morning News

Junger observes that “civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up.”

On assignment for Vanity Fair , Sebastian Junger made five trips to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley during 2007 and 2008. What he found was a war that is unknown to Americans whose exposure to the rest of the world consists of skimming a front page or website or glancing at a few minutes of television news. He found skilled and courageous U.S. troops facing an enemy that is so fierce and well organized that it is capable of overrunning American outposts.

Junger, best known as author of The Perfect Storm, spent his visits in the midst of combat, talking to grunts rather than generals. The soldiers he lived with were line infantry: “They fought on foot and carried everything they needed on their backs.” His descriptions of firefights are bloody and thrilling, but the most valuable aspect of his book is his thoughtful examination of what it means to be a fighter – the individual and collective psychology of combat.

He writes that being in battle “is insanely exciting,” and adds, “There’s so much human energy involved – so much courage, so much honor, so much blood – you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place.” He notes, “The moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero.”

What is relevant is keeping yourself and your friends alive, which requires skills that Junger learned to appreciate. “Stripped to its essence,” he writes, “combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men.”

For much of his time in Afghanistan, Junger saw combat almost constantly and watched what it did to the troops he lived with. He learned to understand fear, which he says “has a whole taxonomy – anxiety, dread, panic, foreboding – and you could be braced for one form and completely fall apart facing another.” One soldier observed, “It’s okay to be scared; you just don’t want to show it.”

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