One platoon, one year, one 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.

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.