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To understand America's fighting men in Afghanistan, read Sebastian Junger's book "War."
BOSTON — I’m watching Sebastian Junger smoking a cigarette with Capt. Dan Kearney and Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne outside the Museum of Fine Arts, where Junger’s new film about the war in Afghanistan has just opened to a packed audience and strong reviews.
The three men stand in a triangle and each has found a way to keep his back to the walls and pillars of the Gothic revival building. Their eyes dart quickly across the horizon between sentences, but mostly they look each other dead in the eye. If you’ve seen war, you know almost immediately by looking at these men that they have, too. There is an ease and a closeness all stitched together by an intensity that comes from being in the line of fire together.
And Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, where journalist and author Junger chronicled one year with Kearney and O’Byrne’s platoon, is definitely in the line of fire. I have been to the edge of the Korengal Valley, and it didn’t take me long to decide there was no way in hell I was going down into "that damn valley," as the men who have fought there call it.
You could hear the crackle and then echo of sniper fire from the high ridges flanked by Cedar trees that look down into the shadows. You could see the haunted look on the faces of a platoon just coming out of a supply mission into the Korengal Outpost. It was the late summer of 2006 and it was the most ominous corner of Afghanistan I have ever seen, “a small but extraordinarily violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush,” as Junger describes it in his excellent new book titled simply and appropriately "War."
The book and an accompanying documentary film, “Restrepo,” which Junger co-directed with cameraman Tim Hetherington, are equally powerful accounts of one year in the Korengal Valley with Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is drawing large crowds this summer for an independent documentary. In a country where it is far too easy to forget the fact that we are fighting two wars, this film seems to be opening American eyes to the reality of war.
“Restrepo,” which takes its name from an outpost named after Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo, an American field medic who was killed in action, has riveting footage of the adrenalin-pumping confusion and chaos of war and a convincing and very human portrait of a platoon trying to keep each other alive in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan.
But the book offer more. It explores an intensely interior narrative of war. It is about the truths — physical, biological and psychological truths — of war and their inevitable impact on men. (And make no mistake: This book is about men. Women may serve in large numbers in Afghanistan, but not in combat units and therefore they don’t appear in this book.)
I first met Junger about 15 years ago while he was in the process of writing his New York Times best seller, "The Perfect Storm." In the spirit full of disclosure, Junger is a contributing editor to GlobalPost. I’ve been a long-time admirer of his foreign reporting in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. He’s a generous colleague and a good guy. But as I watched him standing with these two soldiers on a hot night just before the Fourth of July weekend, nervously shifting from foot to foot as he spoke and still scanning the horizon in between pulls on a Camel Light, I realized there was something troubling me about his book.