Sebastian Junger’s ‘War’ details the US Army’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
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Still, survival does allow for downtime; Battle Company has enough hours in the day to reenact scenes from the movie “The Hurt Locker.” There are homoerotic antics: “[S]trange pantomimed man-rapes and struggles for dominance and grotesque, smoochy come-ons that could only make sense in a place where every other form of amusement had long since been used up.” There’s that Janus-like dread of/longing for battle: “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them,” Junger writes. Eventually, the journalist goes native.Skip to next paragraph
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“[T]o my amazement the place has started to carry the slight tang of home,” he realizes. On the eve of one major operation, he even offers to carry ammo.
After a few hundred pages, one wonders: Is Battle Company’s stereotypical manly behavior informed by war movie clichés, or does Junger – author of “The Perfect Storm” – feel some obligation to report it that way? “Gunmetal comes in and starts rocketing the next ridge over and then working it with gun runs,” Junger writes. Similar Maileresque compound sentences litter “War,” perhaps intended to show that armed conflict is just one damned meaningless thing after another. Ironically, this attempt to keep it real – to, in the words of Junger’s review, “make readers feel they have endured those things as well” – obscures larger questions about the Afghan conflict, the main one being: Why are these men here and what are they dying for?
“He’s an American hero, right?” one soldier asks Junger about a fallen comrade. Junger answers affirmatively, but how can he? Battle Company seems to be mostly made of bruised men drawn from America’s socioeconomic margins. One was a drug dealer before he joined the Army. Another, shot by his alcoholic father, claimed that his father was acting in self-defense. The alternative – that his father would go to prison, leaving no one to provide for his family – was unthinkable. These soldiers are less heroes than victims. Left with no better option than military service, they seem unable to construct a life not centered around killing or the fear of being killed.
“The core psychological experiences of war are so primal and unadulterated ... that they eclipse subtler feelings, like sorrow or remorse, that can gut you quietly for years,” Junger writes. But does he think than human existence without “sorrow or remorse” is, somehow, cool? A better journalist would understand that war’s “core experience” should be avoided at any reasonable cost. Junger prefers machismo, and his unfocused, unilluminating “War” is an annoying mess, but not necessarily true.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.