IT TAKES a very good book to carry off a title as portentous as “War”, and Sebastian Junger has written one. The story of a year-long tour of Afghanistan by an American army platoon, with whom Mr Junger was “embedded” for several spells, it is, among other things, an outstanding war report: a precise and gripping account of some of the fiercest battles involving American soldiers in recent times.
Mr Junger’s study, a platoon of airborne infantry, was deployed to the Korengal valley, a remote and craggy tract of north-eastern Afghanistan. Of negligible strategic importance, the Korengal gained notoriety in 2005 after 19 American commandos were killed there, in one of the single biggest human and military disasters for the Americans in the then four-year campaign. An army company was subsequently deployed to the narrow, six-mile-long valley, to restore American pride, many assumed. Yet the mission failed—for many of the same reasons now threatening America and its allies’ overall effort in Afghanistan.
The American military presence was detested by the local Korengalis, a fierce and radicalised tribe who speak a language of their own and have never been ruled from outside. It also drew waves of jihadist fighters from nearby Pakistan. In the carnage that ensued, 42 Americans were killed and hundreds wounded by an enemy, Mr Junger’s account suggests, that they respected yet hardly understood. Many civilians were also killed in crossfire and aerial bombing—to which American efforts to win Afghan “hearts and minds” also fell victim. Shortly after he assumed command of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan last year, General Stanley McChrystal speculated that his soldiers in the Korengal were making more enemies every day than they were killing. Last month it was announced that the Americans had been withdrawn from the valley.
What Motivates The American Soldier?
Mr Junger, an American journalist known for his 1997 bestseller, “The Perfect Storm”, about the loss of a trawler and its six-man crew off the coast of Nova Scotia, offers little overt analysis of the wider war. Nor, revealingly, does he shed much light on America’s enemies in the Korengal. He sometimes suggests they were mostly foreign, at others that they were entirely local. Mr Junger is more interested in the war as it is experienced by the American soldiers, mostly white 20-somethings, with whom he eats, sleeps and very often nearly gets killed. This is not an objective account of the war; nor, Mr Junger insists, can war reporters ever provide one. He is in awe of his fellows’ fighting skills and mostly good-tempered acceptance of, indeed sometimes relish for, appalling danger. This leads him to a broader inquiry into why this is generally true of modern soldiers.
The main reason, Mr Junger observes and numerous studies have confirmed, is love. The Americans in the Korengal, heroes by the standards of any warrior culture, are not especially religious or patriotic. They show little interest in the war overall or allegiance to the army at large; indeed, they cheer other units’ misfortunes. Rather, with passionate intensity, they fight for each other. “What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses slowly came to understand was that courage was love,” Mr Junger writes. “In war, neither could exist without the other.”
“War” becomes a love story, which Mr Junger sees unfold among a bunch of filthy infantrymen on a shot-up Afghan crag. He suggests many explanations for their growing attachment: a shared experience of suffering; an absence of other close relationships; an instinctive appreciation that the best hope for self-preservation lies with the group. In fact, as Mr Junger shows with several examples of suicidal bravery, this impulse can be fatal. Pondering the irony of that, he argues that the fame societies reserve for fallen heroes provides small compensation for their premature deaths, ensuring their names live on after their genes have been extinguished. This book provides that service for Juan Restrepo, Larry Rougle, Jason Bogar and the other Americans killed in the Korengal.
One thing Mr Junger does not do, however, is push his main point to its logical conclusion: if soldiers fight bravely for love, then so may the Taliban.
Text: The Economist