War is Sebastian Junger’s harrowing account of a platoon stationed in a remote outpost in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan. Firsthand accounts of war are like triptychs. There are usually three sections: the adrenaline of battle, the crushing boredom in between with paroxysms of homoerotic play (note the photo on the back jacket of the book), and the traumatic aftermath. Junger’s book follows this format. He was embedded with a platoon of soldiers off and on for a year and was dependent on them for his very life.
Junger would have the reader believe that old saw of journalist “neutrality.” He writes in the author’s note, “I was never asked—directly or indirectly—to alter my reporting in any way.…” But the U.S. military doesn’t have to ask embedded journalists to alter their reporting. Many self-censor to ensure continued access to the troops and the battlefield. If his book was critical of a war that sends twenty-year-olds to die for empire in the isolated mountains of the Korengal Valley, access could be lost. Junger’s objectivity is further compromised as enemy bullets whiz by his head in firefights, he sees soldiers he’s befriended killed, and when the Humvee he’s riding in is blown up. Miraculously, everyone survives.
In interviews, Junger is pro-war. Incredibly, in an op-ed in the New York Times, he was dismayed that the U.S. military pulled all the troops out of Korengal. For Junger, it was a betrayal of the soldiers who fought and died there. He asks, “If the Korengal Valley was really worth fighting for, why would we ever pull out?” Junger’s use of the pronoun “we” puts him directly on the side of American imperialism. He then writes, “Some 30,000 British soldiers were killed and wounded in the folly that became known as the Battle of Dunkirk, and yet the Allies went on to win the war.” Is Junger seriously arguing that more casualties in the Korengal would be justified because it would win the war in Afghanistan?
The book is divided into three chapters titled: “Fear,” “Killing,” and “Love.” Junger is fascinated by the psychology of war, how soldiers manage fear and other intense emotions. The book is peppered with observations and studies by military psychiatrists, anthropologists, and sociologists. The mental health of soldiers has been intensely studied since the First World War. Junger wants the reader to understand the fierce loyalty soldiers have toward one another, the male bonding of battle, and the importance of acting as a group, not as individuals in the heat of combat.
The book shows via numerous examples how the soldiers in Korengal put themselves at enormous risk to ensure the safety of their comrades-in-arms. They don’t think of themselves as heroes, either. They’re just doing a job. The presidents and generals who send soldiers to die in battle depend on these deeply held human feelings, beliefs, and actions. But these tight bonds are not biologically determined—which is what Junger argues—and don’t operate at all times and in every war. In the First World War there were mass desertions, orders were routinely disobeyed, and there was fraternization between enemy troops on the front lines. In Vietnam, soldiers refused to fight and fragged (killed) officers who would send them to a certain and useless death. Junger doesn’t include these important examples of soldiers refusing to fight, of hating war, not glorifying it, and turning the guns around.
Junger believes that the brain is wired for war and that the dopamine reward system in men drives them to become “obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war.” He concludes that “collective defense,” bravery, and heroism produce so many chemically induced highs that soldiers become addicted to war. To back up these ludicrous and unsubstantiated claims, he quotes soldiers. One says, “It’s like crack, you can’t get a better high.” A soldier that Junger profiles throughout the book, Brendan O’Byrne, admits, “I like the firefights.” But much in O’Byrne’s backstory set him up to “like the firefights.” His adolescence was full of extreme violence at the hands of his alcoholic father who shot him twice! Jones, the only African American in the platoon, enlisted to get away from drugs, “…I sold a lot of drugs.… I never got caught, my choice was pretty much on the streets dead, or in jail. I didn’t want either so I joined the Army.” A poverty draft operates in the United States to guarantee a steady supply of fresh military recruits.
According to Junger’s warped analysis: once a soldier, always a soldier. He leads the reader to believe civilian life becomes so boring and lacking in adrenaline rushes compared to the high of killing or almost being killed that soldiers have no choice but to reenlist. War is better than sex and a force stronger than the love of friends and family. All lies. Most soldiers count the days until their deployment is over. The Bush administration’s “Stop-Loss” policy—in which soldiers were forced to stay in Iraq even after their deployments were up— was hugely unpopular and implemented over the objections of soldiers and their families.
Soldiers have to be trained to kill; it is not natural or normal for human beings to murder other human beings. Boot camp is designed to break down human empathy and brainwash/train soldiers to kill. Racism and the dehumanizing of the enemy are the core courses of boot camp curriculum. It works. The soldiers cheer as they watch an Afghan fighter with a missing leg crawl up a mountain and then get blown to bits by Apache helicopter gunfire. When their fellow soldiers are killed in an ambush, they swear revenge. Some soldiers have the word “infidel” tattooed on their chests. They treat village elders with disrespect and contempt. All Afghans, even children, are suspected
Junger is enamored of the physics of war and loves to describe all the high-tech weaponry. The Squad Automatic Weapon is his favorite. It weighs thirty pounds and shoots 900 rounds in a minute without stopping. The book is packed with too many dense, jargony, and difficult-to-follow descriptions of firefights and ordnance. After three or four pages, it’s just not that interesting.
The book doesn’t explicitly explore the politics of war in Afghanistan, even though, as Clausewitz’s famously and correctly concluded, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” But it’s clear throughout the book, despite Junger’s fake refusal to take sides, he does. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong one.
Throughout the book it becomes clear what formidable fighters the Taliban are. A third-rate army has been able in some theaters of war to beat back U.S. forces. The Taliban now practice asymmetrical warfare and employ a weapon that strikes fear into the hearts and minds of the American military: the roadside bomb. It is devastatingly effective.
War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know.
It is sickening how Junger legitimates and exalts human warfare. The war in Afghanistan is fought by others while he flies into and out of war zones at will, covering the conflict like the privileged, patriotic paparazzi he is a wealthy and famous documentary filmmaker and journalist writing another New York Times bestseller.
Junger could be a powerful and high-profile voice writing against and exposing the crimes of the decade-long, brutal and bloody war that has claimed the lives of thousands of Afghans and American soldiers. He stands in awe of the extraordinary courage of soldiers who risk their lives in the most difficult of circumstances and yet he has no courage to stand up and oppose the war in the easiest of circumstances.
That is another lesson War teaches us.