Connect to share and comment

One platoon, one year, one war

To understand America's fighting men in Afghanistan, read Sebastian Junger's book "War."

The trouble is that Junger writes about war as if it is a storm at sea, a force of nature that is thrust upon men. He writes about war as if it is a force put on earth to test their strength, their wits and their courage. Junger’s view of war is a purely apolitical one, a timeless condition of man that places him in combat out of a deep need to be at war and to forge the intense bonds that its unique peril yields.

War in its essence is what Junger calls in the book, “the defense of the tribe.”

He writes, “The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you’ve been exposed to it, there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do.”

He continues: “Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place.”

But I couldn’t help but think there is a problem with that way of viewing war, perhaps even a danger. War is not a force of nature, it is a creation of the arrogance, greed, hubris and sheer violence of man. And shouldn't it be evaluated on those terms? 

I asked Junger about this. I asked whether the book may have chosen a confined and horrific corner of the war as a unique stage set for one platoon that ends up romanticizing the bonds of combat without questioning the policy failures and strategic miscalculations that keep these men in a conflict where they're risking their lives and the lives of so many others civilians around them. But when I asked about this, Junger had a good answer:

“It’s not the book I’ve written ... A lot of journalists are covering the war and what it’s about. I wanted to know what it’s like to be at war. I wanted to understand the terrain of war, what is true about war, what is it that men are willing to risk their lives for each other, to die for each other. What is that? How does it work? Why has it been true forever?”

This book is a powerful and memorable journey across the human terrain that is shaped by those questions. In the end of this book, you understand in a very tactile way what the soldiers who are fighting there in Afghanistan are going through every day. The fear, the courage, the hard physical act of lugging an 80-pound pack in searing heat, the addiction to adrenalin, the chaos of combat, the clarity of certain moments and the difficulty that most men share in coming home. 

This book is about all of that, and all things that bond Junger, Kearney and O'Byrne and the whole platoon. Junger's "War" is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what American soldiers are experiencing this summer as the U.S. escalates the conflict in Afghanistan. And I believe it is a book that will live long beyond this moment in the  U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan and endure as a timeless account of the truth of war.