Sebastian Junger tells it like it is.
Understanding the finer nuances of military life - from the motivations of its soldiers to its acronym-riddled language to the dark humor that pervades every combat unit - escapes most embedded journalists. They never quite get into the gritty details of what it's like to fight a war. So for those of us who've been through it they seem like voyeurs and their coverage always maintains a safe distance.
Such is not the case in Junger's "War," a book certain to join the annals of definitive war literature penned in the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) era. Having embedded with an infantry unit on a remote outpost in Afghanistan in 2007-08, Junger reports on what he saw and survived with raw immediacy. The result is a poignant book that is part-memoir and part-case study analyzing why men fight, and continue to fight, in the midst of chaos.
Junger burst onto the literary scene in 1997 with the nonfiction thriller "The Perfect Storm," and followed that with "Fire," a collection of articles reported from the brink of various catastrophes, and "A Death in Belmont," a murder mystery rehash. The same taut, active language found in these works power "War," and it fits ideally with the immediacy that this subject demands.
Much of "War" follows the exploits and tribulations of a lone company in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, nicknamed Battle Company, which proves to be the tip of the spear if ever there was one. This 150-man company, consisting of three line platoons and one headquarters platoon, fought approximately a fifth of the total combat engagements reported by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. Spread throughout the Korengal Valley, an isolated pocket of land near the Pakistan border, Battle Company more than earns their moniker, and Junger chronicles the terrible beauty of it all without romanticizing their struggles.
The war becomes personal for Junger as he gets pinned down during firefights between Battle Company and a mix of Taliban and foreign jihadists, and especially when a roadside bomb strikes his vehicle, destroying the engine block instead of its occupants. "Journalistic convention holds that you can't write objectively about people you're close to," he writes, "but you can't write objectively about people who are shooting at you either." That type of honesty drives WAR forward, rather than hindering it, if only because the words offer up the writer's humanity rather than betraying it.
Much of the soldiers' time and efforts - and thus much of Junger's time and efforts - are spent defending Restrepo, a tiny outpost deep inside insurgent territory and named after a fallen comrade. Here, as far away as possible from the ironclad rules and uniform regulations of Higher, we get tight with men like Jones, a former drug dealer for whom firefights are nothing new. Then there's Bobby, an "unreconstructed Georgia redneck," and Lieutenant Steve Gillespie, who reminds his platoon of the character Napoleon Dynamite while still managing to earn their respect. Though initially cautious of Junger's intentions, the men Battle Company grow to trust him as the deployment evolves and he suffers as they suffer. Candid thoughts and reactions follow, and readers reap the extraordinarily enlightening benefits.
"War" interweaves the immediacy of these micro experiences with grander macro analysis, and this also helps separate the book from just another harrowing war tale. Junger takes anecdotes of these infantry soldiers' heroism - acts, by the way, they consider to be just part of the job - and directs the questions of "why?" and "how?" towards history. Scientific studies and academic works from previous wars are trotted out to better explain the actions of soldiers in combat, discussing eternal questions like why do some men become overwhelmed by fear while others thrive in it? The results, while nothing earth shattering, strengthen the narrative of Battle Company's deployment and help make the insanity slightly more comprehensible.
Junger saves his strongest material for the epilogue, where he meets up with the men of Battle Company, now home from Afghanistan. They wait, impatiently and violently, to either separate from the military or for their next rotation into a war zone. Many of the soldiers describe longing for the clarity of purpose they found while fighting in Afghanistan, but which seems to elude them in civilian society, something all combat veterans can attest to. In closing, Junger writes, "Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got in."
As the so-called "forever wars" of Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, Junger's words remind us all that the casualties of battle don't end even when the wars do.