“War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. 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. These hillsides are where the men feel not most alive – that you can get skydiving – but the most utilised. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can’t.
Some men make better soldiers than others, and some units perform better than others. The traits that distinguish those men, and those units, could be called the Holy Grail of combat psychology. They could be called the basis for what people loosely refer to as ‘courage’. An Israeli study during the 1973 Yom Kippur War found that high-performing soldiers were more intelligent, more ‘masculine’, more socially mature, and more emotionally stable than average men. At the other end of the spectrum, eight out of 10 men who suffered psychological collapse in combat had a problem at home: a pregnant wife, a financial crisis, a recent death in the family. Those collapses were most likely to be caused not by a near-death experience, as one might expect, but by the combat death of a close friend.
This points to an irony of combat psychology – the logical downside of heroism. If you’re willing to lay down your life for another person, then their death is going to be more upsetting than the prospect of your own, and intense combat might incapacitate an entire unit through grief alone. Combat is such an urgent business, however, that most men simply defer the psychological issue until later.
Statistically, it’s six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan. You’d have to go to a remote firebase like the KOP [Korengal Valley Outpost] to find a level of risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male in the US. Combat isn’t simply a matter of risk, though; it’s also a matter of mastery. The basic neurological mechanism that induces mammals to do things is called the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that mimics the effect of cocaine in the brain, and it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine reward system exists in both sexes but is stronger in men, and as a result men are more likely to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games and war. When the men of Second Platoon were moping around the outpost hoping for a firefight it was because, among other things, they weren’t getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and dopamine. They played video games instead.
Women can master those skills without having pleasure centres in their brains light up as if they’d just done a line of coke. One of the beguiling things about combat is that it’s so complex, there’s no way to predict the outcome. That means that any ragtag militia, no matter how small and poorly equipped, might conceivably defeat a superior force if it fights well enough. ‘Every action produces a counteraction on the enemy’s part,’ an American correspondent named Jack Belden wrote about combat during the Second World War. ‘The thousands of interlocking actions throw up millions of little frictions, accidents and chances, from which there emanates an all-embracing fog of uncertainty.’
Combat fog obscures your fate – obscures when and where you might die – 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 Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. 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. What the army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing. According to their questionnaires, the primary motivation in combat (other than ‘ending the task’ – which meant they all could go home) was ‘solidarity with the group’. That far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. The Army Research Branch cites cases of wounded men going AWOL after their hospitalisation in order to get back to their unit faster than the military could get them there. A civilian might consider this an act of courage, but soldiers knew better. To them it was just an act of brotherhood, and there probably wasn’t much to say about it except, ‘Welcome back.’”
From Sebastian Junger’s book WAR.
Tonight: be sure to watch Junger’s documentary about the work of his friend, war photographer Tim Hetherington. The documentary’s called Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. It starts at 8pm on HBO.
The pictures are of Junger and Hetherington and were taken while the two men were in the Korengal valley of northeastern Afghanistan to film their documentary Restrepo. Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) and Hetherington (an acclaimed combat photographer) directed and produced the film, which went on to receive an Academy Award nomination. As intense as it is intensive, the movie is a study of combat and the psychological stains it leaves on the individual, both while on the front line and back home. Like the soldiers they documented, Junger and Hetherington forged a bond of friendship during their fifteen month deployment/shoot in Afghanistan, returning to the United States with plans to further document conflict zones around the world.
However in 2011, while traveling with a band of rebel fighters in the Libyan civil war, Hetherington was killed from wounds sustained from an RPG round. He died on April 20th.
If I lived in an uncivilized society — to borrow a thought from Hitchens — that anniversary, this Saturday, would be a sort of Martyr’s day for me.
Following the news of his friend’s death, Junger vowed never to return to war again.
See a sample of Hetherington’s work here and here.
Hetherington, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 2007.
Hetherington, London, 2009.
Hetherington, Bengazi, Libya, 2011.