Sebastian Junger’s ‘War’ details the US Army’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
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Each took the world by surprise. Each was the result of complicated events. And, since these events were the expression of complicated economic, political, or geological pressures, each demanded journalists to find out what happened and explain it to general readers. For that is the journalist’s job: (1) get information, and (2) help regular folks understand it. But, at least since Ernest Hemingway gained fame for fictionalizing the fog of war, war correspondents have preferred to write about war’s indescribability rather than describe it.
Take Sebastian Junger’s War, which details the US Army’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, which ended last month. Junger’s recent review of a Vietnam-themed novel in The New York Times is worth quoting at length, as it ably describes an embedded journalist’s ennui: “[T]he truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well.... There is a blizzard of names, ranks and military terms, for instance, and despite the glossary and unit schematic included in the book, I still felt lost much of the time. That confusion, however, was exactly my experience while covering the United States military ... annoying but true.”
While writing about another book here, Junger has perfectly described the one he’s written. Junger’s ‘War’ is repetitive, boring, dismissive of meaning to the point of uncuriousness, and annoying in its inscrutability. What kind of truth can it tell?
At least Junger’s no stranger to Afghanistan. The author took five trips to the Korengal between 2007 and 2008 reporting for Vanity Fair; the battle-hardened soldiers he found were fighting a war on terrorism, but they weren’t fighting the War on Terrorism. “The moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers,” Junger writes. “Soldiers worry about those things about as much as farmhands worry about the global economy, which is to say, they recognize stupidity when it’s right in front of them but they generally leave the big picture to others.” Indeed, whatever the big picture is, the appropriately named Battle Company isn’t interested. Stranded on rough terrain not far from Pakistan and its fresh supplies of jihadi, Junger’s subjects sit around hoping for firefights, keeping the peace with local tribes, and trying to stay alive.