@@@@ (4 out of 5)
So, here you are. You’re a reporter who’s long since proven he has the guts and the physical stamina to outlast most people, and now you’ve decided to tell the story of the war in Afghanistan — the story of all wars, really — through the eyes of soldiers on the front line. So, you pick the fightingest company in the most actively engaged battalion in the whole goddam U.S. Army. In fact:
“Nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley,” where the company is stationed, close to the Pakistan border. And, as if that isn’t enough, you decide to embed yourself with Second Platoon, Battle Company’s toughest and most combat-hardened unit. And you spend 15 months with these guys, on and off, until their deployment is up and the survivors depart the country.
And what do you learn from all this? It isn’t pretty. You learn that war, as experienced by the young men who do most of the fighting, is most assuredly not “the continuation of politics by other means,” as the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously asserted. And it’s not even mostly about surviving: killing the enemy before he has a chance to kill you. War, Junger shows us, seems to boil down to obsessive attention to keeping your buddies alive. That’s why soldiers dash through waves of bullets to drag a wounded comrade to safety, or even fall on a grenade that would otherwise kill the guys around you as well as you yourself.
War is much more than the honest, unvarnished account of men in battle that I was expecting. From time to time, Junger turns from straight reporting to analysis, relating the findings of his research into the psychology of combat, the psyche of the ideal soldier, and the psychic consequences of experiencing combat. It turns out, Junger reports, that some of the “behavioral determinants” that are typical of an effective soldier “– like a willingness to take risks — seem to figure disproportionately in the characters of young men. They are killed in accidents and homicides at a rate of 106 per 100,000 per year, roughly five times the rate of young women. Statistically, it’s six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan. You’d have to go to a remote firebase . . . to find a level of risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male back home.”
Previously, Sebastian Junger was best known as the author of The Perfect Storm. During the writing of War, he also shot footage that became the documentary Restrepo, a film that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.