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Sebastian Junger

Later this week I’m going to type up a short review of Sebastian Junger’s remarkable book WAR. Before then, however, I want to introduce those of you unfamiliar with the text to a disturbing (and particularly telling) section of it.

In this scene, which happened midway into Junger’s 15-month stint in Afghanistan, the men of Battle Company have crammed into four Humvees and set off on a routine patrol of the sparsely inhabited surrounding countryside. The Taliban have recently added a new weapon to their arsenal, makeshift roadside bombs (usually consisting of pressure cookers filled with fertilizer and diesel), “because they were losing too many men in firefights” against the vastly superior American force. Through this twisted new tactic, “the enemy now had a weapon that unnerved the Americans more than small-arms fire ever could: random luck.”

And luck isn’t on the American’s side this day. As the Humvees cruise through a neighboring village, a bomb detonates under Junger’s vehicle. The explosion is triggered about a second too early, missing the main cabin by about ten feet and blasting up through the engine block. Junger is one of the only contemporary Western journalists to witness first-hand such a scene, which has now played out countless time over the course of the Allied occupation. Here is a slice of the ensuing half minute:

The explosion looks like a sheet of flame and then a sudden darkening. The darkening is from dirt that lands on the windshield and blocks the sun… “GET ON THAT GUN!” Thyng starts yelling at the gunner. “GET ON THAT GUN AND START FIRING INTO THAT FUCKIN’ DRAW!”… Big, hot .50 cal shells clatter into the interior of the Humvee…

There’s a lot of shooting out there and I’m not looking forward to running through it, but the cabin is filling with toxic gray smoke and I know we’re going to have to bail out eventually. I keep waiting for something like fear to take hold of me but it never does, I have a kind of flatlined functionality that barely raises my heart rate. I could do math problems in my head. It occurs to me that maybe I’ve been injured — often you don’t know right away — and I pat my way down both legs until I reach my feet, but everything is there. I get my gear in order and find the door lever with my hand and wait. There is a small black skeleton hanging from the rearview mirror and I notice that it’s still rocking from the force of the blast. I just sit there watching it. Finally Thyng gives the order and we all throw ourselves into the fresh cool morning air and start to run.

Junger then yanks his reader from combat to the classroom, where he digresses on a vital but overlooked lesson any student of war should assimilate – namely, that combat is one of the most thrilling activities a human being can experience:

War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that many people want acknowledged.

Junger elaborates:

War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die — though that does happen — it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.

This thought is shaped by a closing sentence which could also function as the book’s thesis:

The core psychological experiences of war are so primal and unadulterated, however, that they eclipse subtler feelings, like sorrow or remorse, that can gut you quietly for years…

Junger is still helplessly strapped into this high-low psychosomatic roller coaster as the men tow their wrecked Humvee back to outpost Restrepo that afternoon. In the still of the Afghan sundown, Junger eventually finds a quiet moment to reflect on the day’s events, and in the process offers a glimpse into how this singular experience of combat-at-full-throttle can disfigure a soldier’s understanding of war.

I’ve been on some kind of high-amplitude ride all day since the bomb went off, peaks where I can’t sit still and valleys that make me want to catch the next resupply out of here. Not because I’m scared but because I’m used to war being exciting and suddenly it’s not. Suddenly it seems weak and sad, a collective moral failure that has tricked me — tricked us all — into falling for the sheer drama of it. Young men in their terrible new roles with their terrible new machinery arrayed against equally strong young men on the other side of the valley, all dedicated to a kind of canceling out of each other until replacements arrive. Then it starts all over again. There’s so much human energy involved — so much courage, so much honor, so much blood — you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place. Nothing could convince this many people to work this hard at something that wasn’t necessary — right? — you’d catch yourself thinking.

Junger then returns to the immediate psychological experience of combat, only now it is his subconscious mind, not his front brain, that is processing the day’s traumas.

That night I rewind the videotape of the explosion and try to watch it. My pulse gets so weird in the moments before we get hit that I almost have to look away. I can’t stop thinking about the ten feet or so that put that bomb beneath the engine block rather than beneath us. That night I have a dream. I’m watching a titanic battle between my older brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonlike and murderous and it doesn’t matter how many he kills because there’s an endless supply of them.

Eventually he’ll just run out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win.

Whether consciously or not, Junger tinges this paragraph with the unfortunate residuals of warfare, including survivor’s guilt, isolation from family, and dreams charred with post-traumatic terror. That final coda is perhaps the most lacerating moment of the text: a simultaneous recognition of evil and a resignation to its eventual triumph. Junger is too restrained a writer to paint this conclusion in too bold of strokes, but nevertheless it is latent in the text for some if not most readers. This subtlety is the true achievement of the text, as Junger manages to forge a clear-eyed and wholly human narrative out of a conflict that has been so politicized and depersonalized over the past decade.

Restrepo

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As I said, be on the lookout for a short review of WAR in the coming week.

Both of the above photos were taken at outpost Restrepo by one of the my heroes, the late photographer Tim Hetherington.

Read on:

  • Vietnam veteran, Catholic, and scholar Andrew Bacevich reflects on war and original sin
  • Sebastian Junger describes how combat changed him for the better
  • I relate how the professional structure of our military is partially to blame for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars