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.
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.
“[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.