War, Sebastian Junger’s account of one American platoon’s experience fighting in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, is intended to give readers an idea of what war is really like for the soldiers on the front lines. It is based on Junger’s experiences as an embedded reporter, and it has all the advantages that first-hand gives a writer, but it also has its disadvantages, and unfortunately at times the disadvantages seem to outweigh the advantages.
Advantages first: there is definitely a sense of authenticity about the book. Battle Company’s life at the Korengal Outpost (KOP) and its various outliers is described with authoritative detail, whether it is the arrangements for handling excrement, the computer games, the problem making a cup of coffee or the pictures of bikini clad young ladies tacked to the walls among belts of ammunition. He describes the physical discomfort — the heat, the bugs, the dirt. He stresses the boredom. There are the occasional patrols. There are the random firings into the compound. More often than not, these seem to be welcomed as relief from days of inaction. Besides, as Junger sees it, these are men who get an adrenalin rush from battle. War may be hell, but it sure can be exciting.
Junger focuses on the sociology of the platoon, the interaction of the men, their dependence on each other and the cohesion that that dependence fosters. He does his best to try to explain what makes young men willing to risk their lives for their comrades, to understand the obligation they feel for each other. He describes men running to their deaths to try to help someone who has been wounded, men having been wounded going AWOL from the safety of the hospital to return to their buddies. There is a group dynamic that is stronger than the individual’s self interest. The platoon is like a family. These men are like my brothers, one soldier tells Junger. Oddly, perhaps, they hide their love for each other by wisecracks about their sisters and mothers and by beating the crap out of each other. On the other hand perhaps this is not so strange. These are, after all young men, young warriors; strong emotional attachments may not be easy to admit. That some of them eventually do is probably a testament to their trust of an author who has done his best to become a part of the unit.
But it is in that becoming a part of the unit that at least some of the problem with Junger’s book is manifest. Too often the attention is on him. Many of the men in the platoon are little more than names. They come to life sporadically and then fade into the background sometimes disappearing entirely. Some never become more than names. It is always Junger that is front and center. There is nothing wrong with that if one is writing the story of the adventures of a war correspondent. If what you are writing the story of a group of young men fighting anonymously in what seems like a hellish environment, it’s probably a better idea to keep yourself off to the side.
Junger took five trips to Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. The longest, he says, was for about a month. The book however doesn’t actually emphasize the chronology. This can be confusing to the reader. It is not always easy, if it is even possible, to distinguish the relationships between events. Of course, this is not meant to be a historical account still chronology can be useful to keep the reader grounded.
If there is one man who stands out, other than the author, it is Sgt O’Byrne. The book begins with O’Byrne in New York six months later and it ends with his problems getting home from Italy when he is mustered out. In a sense this focus is intentional. As Junger says at the beginning of the book, “I came to think of O’Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon, a way to understand a group of men who I don’t think entirely understood themselves.” Despite the hardships, despite the danger, despite the military snafus, Junger sees these soldiers as men who revel in what they do. In battle they have found something valuable. He ends his book with a quotation from O’Byrne: “Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.”