Sebastian Junger is stunningly successful in his effort to capture and convey what life in a combat unit is truly like, what true brotherhood is, and how taking on the role of protector ignites a primitive clarity inside a man, a clarity that makes men effective in battle but can also leave them at sea when they return to “civilised” society.
For soldiers on the thin edge, “life skills” consist of staying alive and protecting your men, not owning an iPhone or writing an office job C.V. War examines the feelings of contentment that come from understanding your reason for living, your responsibilities—stripped back to absolute basics of life or death—as much as it charts a year-in-the-life of the modern American soldier.
Junger spent 12 months with the 30 men of the US Army’s 2nd battalion at the pointy end of the stick—Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, where just getting out your bunk might get you killed, and where reliance on the watchfulness of your fellow soldiers is as essential as breathing. “For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly,” explains Junger.
The incredible bond between men at war began to take shape after the advent of the machine gun in WWI, when an inevitable shift in soldiers’ psyches transferred blind loyalty from the brass and its decisions made from afar to absolute loyalty to the men on the ground and the split decisions they make in battle.
“For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly”
Says Junger: “Combat obscures your fate…and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on… The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.”
“Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up,” says Junger. “War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea that there could be anything good to it feels like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men… have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power.”
“In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out—can, in fact, kill you. As a result you lose a sense of the importance of things… Back home mundane details have the power to destroy you, but the cause and effect are often spread so far apart that you don’t even make the connection; [in combat] that connection was impossible to ignore.”
War is much more than just another book about strategy, about conflict, about killing; it is a book that honestly, accurately and entertainingly provides a high-definition glimpse into the mind of the combat soldier. Gripping stuff.
War by Sebastian Junger (Harper Collins) is available in bookstores now.