Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #35, War by Sebastian Junger
“War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them.” -Sebastian Junger
I don’t know how to write about this book.
It took me long enough to even a read it – over a month. That’s unusual for me; I am a freakishly fast reader. But while reading this one, I had to stop every few pages just to stare into space. When I read, I tend to dog-ear pages that have a phrase or a paragraph that stuck out to me, that affected me in some way. This is what War looked like after I was finished it:
Sebastian Junger’s War was written in tandem with a documentary he along with Tim Hetherington filmed called Restrepo. It’s about a platoon of men in the Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous postings in the US military. It is named for the remote outpost at which the platoon spent most of the time; the outpost itself is named for Doc Restrepo, the platoon medic who was killed early in the deployment. According to the website for the film, the goal of it was nothing more or less than to make viewers feel as if they had just been through a 90 minute deployment. At this, both the film and the book succeed.
After finishing the book, I watched the documentary. None of it was a surprise to me; I had memorized every lethal gunshot and IED blast and death, read them over and over again. As a result, I saw most of the violence coming before it played out onscreen – a particularly odd phenomenon when you consider that these are things that happened. Those IED’s were real, those gunshots killed some and didn’t kill others, but won them medals. Waiting for them was strange, but probably no stranger than it felt to be there waiting for them, not knowing for sure if they were coming.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about war – at least modern war, the kind that’s waged with planted bombs and camouflaged snipers – it’s that the waiting is the worst part. It’s not the firefight, it’s the waiting for the first shot. It’s not the explosion, it’s the waiting for your tire to roll over the wrong patch of ground. Even worst is when that first shot doesn’t come, when the patch of ground doesn’t blow up, and the moment of waiting stretches out for an eternity. Wait long enough, and you’ll spend your entire lifetime waiting for that shot, that explosion – long after you’ve been deployed, after you’ve come back, after you’ve had kids and watched them grow up and fight their own battles.
I don’t know how to write about that. I don’t know how to convey that distinctly awful fact of war, the high stakes boredom, the monotonous dread. I don’t know how to write about the adrenaline of combat, and what happens when it’s over. I don’t know how to write about aftermaths.
Luckily for all of us, Sebastian Junger does. It takes a lot of balls to embed in the Korengal Valley; it takes even more to write about what happens there honestly, with no agenda. Junger’s gift for observation is well-documented, but it’s perhaps used to its best conclusion here, when its applied to watching men at war. The emotional terrain he covers is unfamiliar to most of us, not only because we haven’t lived it but because we’re not interested in knowing about it. When one’s country is at war with an all-volunteer military force, it’s much easier to ignore it, or refer to those who are in it as one homogeneous group – “the troops” – then to actually consider the massive emotional debt we’ve asked these men and women to rack up – a debt that, if we are honest with ourselves, we have little to no intention of helping them pay off. Even when writing about war, many of us ignore this. We write about the cost of war. We write about strategy, and whether it’s working. We write about the process of those in command. We write about PTSD and suicide statistics, at best. But we don’t often write about the direct experience of those on the ground.
This is not an option for Junger: he mostly foregoes strategy and statistics, in favor of direct observance of the emotion of war. He covers them all: the addictive appeal of combat, the intense bonds made within a platoon, the insane boredom of a quiet few months on the heels of so many loud ones, the wracking, relentless survivor’s guilt when you lose one of your own.
I don’t know how to write about this any better than the men who lived it knew how to talk about it.
At the end of Restrepo, there’s a scene in which the camera cuts from one man’s face to the next. It’s devoid of any music; just men staring, after being asked to talk about an experience that they will never be able to forget or replicate.
“That’s the problem when they come home…not necessarily that they come back traumatized – which some do – but that they miss it.”
Recommended For: Everyone.
When to Read: Now.
Listen With: Nothing.