Camaraderie flourishes amid Afghan conflict
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A connoisseur of all things extreme, Sebastian Junger dissects and personalizes armed conflict in his empathetic chronicle of the 15 months he spent embedded in a U.S. Army platoon in a remote and forbidding outpost in Afghanistan.
The book is separated into "Fear," "Killing" and "Love" sections, suggesting its trajectory. Though its chronology is shaky (I often lost track of when things happened), its emotional arc is clear.
The book effectively communicates the feelings, let alone the physical conditions, of men in the platoon, including the nonjudgmental, fair-minded author, who in effect evolved from observer to member. The book can be unsettling -- not surprising considering the topic -- and Mr. Junger doesn't take sides.
This is not an anti-war book, though Mr. Junger deplores the loss of men who become his friends. At the same time, it's not sensational; it's straightforward and analytical, resembling "The Hurt Locker," the Oscar-winning movie about Iraq, in its lack of affect.
By the time Mr. Junger quit Afghanistan in 2008, he clearly felt part of the platoon even though he never deployed a weapon. He did, however, narrowly escape death when an IED exploded beneath his Humvee. A few yards farther and he would have been killed.
The incident solidified Mr. Junger's relationship to the soldiers and seems to have deepened his notion of friendship. Perhaps that's why he frames his book with a portrait of Brendan O'Byrne, a soldier in Battle Company at Korengal Outpost, one of the most dangerous Afghani postings, a "cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire."
Mr. Byrne finds himself in a dilemma at the end, a dilemma the author can't resolve.
The author of "The Perfect Storm" and "A Death in Belmont," Mr. Junger throws himself into reporting on perilous situations that test the limits of loyalty and other social bonds. In "War," he follows the platoon through firefights startling in intensity and murderousness.
He communicates the sounds and feelings of war so vividly, we must wonder what drives him to cover it, what makes war so attractive. Part of it might be the rush:
"Combat jammed so much adrenaline through your system that fear was rarely an issue; far more indicative of real courage was how you felt before the big operations, when the implications of losing your life really had a chance to sink in," he writes of a stay on a hilltop named Restrepo in honor of a fallen soldier. "My personal weakness wasn't fear so much as the anticipation of it."
Part is community:
"The Army might screw you and your girlfriends 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."
He pungently captures the contrast between the Taliban, who excel in surprise and improvisation, and a ridiculously well-equipped U.S. military.
This book is not fodder for tracts or political campaigns. Rather, it's a take on what Mr. Junger calls a "deep game," fueled by his attraction to conflict, the chemistry it triggers and the communities it generates.
Readers seeking explanation of why we are in Afghanistan should look elsewhere. Those seeking insight into war's innards will appreciate the details Mr. Junger so sharply and respectfully delivers.
First Published May 30, 2010 12:00 am