I hope this is as close as I ever get to being shot at. Sebastian Junger’s War is that real, that immediate. Junger follows the 173rd Airborne’s Battle Company into the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Next to the definition of Hell on Earth in the dictionary? That’s the Korengal Valley. The weather (“Summer grinds on: A hundred degrees every day and tarantulas invading the living quarters to get out of the heat.”) and the terrain (“The last stretch is an absurdly steep climb through the village of Babiyal that the men call “the Stairmaster.””) would have challenged Atilla the Hun, except that Atilla was smart enough not to invade Afghanistan.
As if the weather and the terrain aren’t bad enough, they’re also fighting the culture. “Most Korengalis have never left their village and have almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley. That makes it a perfect place in which to base an insurgency dedicated to fighting outsiders. One old man in the valley thought the American soldiers were actually Russians who had simply stayed after the Soviet army pulled out in 1989.”
How tough are these guys? “Battle Company is taking the most contact of the battalion, and the battalion is taking the most contact – by far – of any in the U.S. military. Nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley.”
Good thing they’re tough, because everyone is shooting at them (“The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap. That’s the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head.”). And that’s just when they’re staying “safe” (hah!) behind the wire of Restrepo, an outpost named for a medic who died in combat. “Restrepo was extremely well liked because he was brave under fire and absolutely committed to the men. If you got sick he would take your guard shift; if you were depressed he’d come to your hooch and play guitar.”
This is an on the ground, eyewitness account of men at war, today, this minute, our guys in Afghanistan at work. The prose is clear and sharp and while Junger is inevitably a part of the story, he doesn’t put himself forward too often and he never makes the mistake of thinking anything but the men of Battle Company are the subject.
The larger subject is, of course, war, and Junger does go there later in the book. Armies have a vested interest in figuring out what makes a man fight and fight well, and Junger cities a lot of studies and makes a praiseworthy attempt at explaining why men fight. Testosterone and other hardwired biological stimuli come into it, as you knew they would, but that’s not all there is to it. “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.”
The men of Battle Company love combat, and this book is as close as most people will get to understanding that. “Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up.”
But mostly? You come away from this book thinking, Okay, if it is biologically inevitable that young men are going to fight wars? We should pick our fights with more care. These guys are too good to waste.