By Philip Caputo
Sunday, May 9, 2010; B01
By Sebastian Junger
Twelve. 287 pp. $26.99
The ambitiousness of Sebastian Junger's "War" is summed up in its title. It's a story about war that is much more than a war story.
As a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, Junger made five trips to Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008, embedded with the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company of the storied 173rd Airborne Brigade. "War" is the result of those journeys into a world so alien to civilians it might as well be a planet in some distant solar system.
The paratroopers' mission was to deny the valley to Taliban insurgents, and it proved difficult and costly. Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, arrived utterly unprepared for the level of violence they experienced. The bloodshed was futile, it turns out. Last month, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the Korengal, leaving it to the insurgents. I was reminded of the battle of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, when a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division took heavy casualties in seizing the hill from the North Vietnamese army and then was ordered to abandon it.
Most of what we read and hear about the conflict in Afghanistan focuses on politics and strategy. Junger makes plain that he isn't interested in such abstractions but in the men we've sent far away to do our dirty work. I say "men" because this book takes place among the hyper-male front-line infantry, where women are prohibited from serving.
With his narrative gifts and vivid prose -- as free, thank God, of literary posturing as it is of war-correspondent chest-thumping -- Junger masterfully chronicles the platoon's 15-month tour of duty. But what elevates "War" out of its particular time and place are the author's meditations on the minds and emotions of the soldiers with whom he has shared hardships, dangers and spells of boredom so intense that everyone sits around wishing to hell something would happen (and wishes to God it was over when, inevitably, it does).
"War" is divided into three long sections: "Fear," "Killing" and "Love." In each, Junger makes us see the terror, monotony, misery, comradeship and lunatic excitement that have been elements of all wars since, say, the siege of Troy. He thus becomes a kind of 21st-century battle singer, narrating the deeds and misdeeds of his heroes while explaining what makes them do what they do. These reflections, drawing on his wide-ranging research into military history, biology and psychology as well as on his personal experiences, overreach once or twice. Otherwise, it's the best writing I've seen on the subject since J. Glenn Gray's 1959 classic, "The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle."
An eight-man squad caught in a Taliban ambush suffers 100 percent casualties. Their sergeant is mortally wounded. A team leader named Sal Giunta takes over and saves the unit from annihilation. The action appears chaotic but possesses an underlying choreography that requires each man to make "decisions based not on what's best for him, but on what's best for the group," Junger writes. "If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat."
He points out that while all animals defend their young and some their mates, only human beings are willing to die for a cause. And for these paratroopers, as for most warriors, their most cherished cause, maybe their only one, is each other. It is understood that each soldier will give his life for his comrades, if necessary.
Here is a paradox of war: Comradeship redeems it from becoming total savagery; yet that sense of brotherhood, the fierce protectiveness it arouses, can make men savage -- or seem so. After a prolonged firefight, a Taliban guerrilla whose leg has been blown off is seen crawling on a mountain slope. When he stops moving and scouts report that he has died, the troops cheer. Their joy troubles Junger. "It seemed," he observes, "like I either had to radically reunderstand the men on the hilltop or I had to acknowledge the power of a place like this to change them."
He has to do a little of both when a soldier named Steiner explains that he and his comrades weren't being senselessly sadistic. What tore that wild whoop from their throats was knowing that "this guy could have murdered your friend . . . we just stopped someone from killing us. . . . That's where the fiesta comes in."
Junger's sketches of the men are deft, his ear for their quirky speech (aided by video recordings) spot on. A partial platoon roster includes Jones, a former drug dealer who joined the Army to avoid being killed on the streets; Moreno, an ex-prizefighter and prison guard from Texas; Murphy, a rich kid who went to etiquette school and wonders which side of the plate the sherbet spoon goes on; the supremely weird Sgt. Buno, a man of indeterminate ethnicity who wanders around listening to his iPod and muttering bizarre things (asked where he'd spent one night, he replies that he was in a village "killing werewolves").
The main character, so to speak, is Brendan O'Byrne. Pugnacious and hard-drinking, O'Byrne is very tough -- he humps up mountains carrying a machine gun as heavy as a jackhammer -- but also gifted with an ability to articulate thoughts his comrades can't or won't. He confesses to Junger that he prayed only once in Afghanistan, for a dying medic to live. "But God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus . . . wasn't in that valley," he says. "Combat is the devil's game. . . . That's why our prayers weren't answered: the only one listening was Satan."
Junger thinks of O'Byrne as the platoon's collective mind and voice -- "a way to understand a group of men who I don't think entirely understood themselves." This splendid book should help the rest of us understand them -- and war itself -- a little better.
Philip Caputo is the author of "A Rumor of War" and, most recently, "Crossers," a novel.