Wild Ice


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/244394367″>Wild Ice – Backcountry Skating Alaska</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/paxsonwoelber”>Paxson Woelber</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

“Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up.”

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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.

Mr. Kill and Officer Oh and — gulp–Dr. Bam are all back.

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The twelfth in Martin Limón’s Sueño and Bascom series, featuring two CID agents in South Korea in the early 80s, and I think his best by far. Three GI’s have gone missing, all of whom have abused Korean women, and Command sends Sueño and Bascom to find them. It’s a solid whodunnit, a window into Korean culture, a sly step into the women’s rights movement, a great villain, and some excellent insights into our heroes’ characters. FYI, Ernie’s the brawn

I’d never known anyone who cared less about the opinions of others. Ernie claimed it hit him during his second tour in Vietnam. “I thought I was dead,” he’d told me. “A load of high-explosive ammo in my truck, the VC closing in. Instead of praying to God to save me, I promised that if I survived, I’d never deny myself anything again. I’d do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and I wouldn’t give a dman what anyone else thought.”
As far as I could tell, he’d stuck religiously to that pledge.

and George is the brain.

“What the hell’s wrong with you, Sueño?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re too
freaking polite.”
“Spanish manners.”
Riley didn’t reply, but gave me a hard stare. Finally, he said, “You don’t belong here, Sueño.”
“What do you mean?’
“I mean you don’t belong in the army. You should be doing something else. Like something at a university, maybe. Or something artistic.”
“Thanks.”
Riley grimaced. “Don’t think that’s a compliment.”

And Mr. Kill and Officer Oh and — gulp–Dr. Bam are all back, too. Need a binge read? Here you go.

“It’s no goddamn wonder I live alone. I’m either working or in intensive care.”

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This book reminds me of Lonesome Dove, only Wyoming instead of Texas and now instead of then. Rancher Barnum McEban (he had a twin named Bailey who died in infancy) with lifelong friend Bennett Reilly goes in pursuit of Bennett’s wife, who left them both for a physicist in Denver.

Women are always leaving guys like these, and Ansel knows why, Ansel being the family cowhand who showed up one day at the McEban ranch and never left, and who is also pretty much the chorus of this story. Ansel on Gretchen, the woman both Bennett and McEban (and, evidently, now the physicist) love.

“Bennett hasn’t got a hell of a lot going for him,” he says, “but at least he wasn’t bashful about telling her he loved her. She never had to wonder whether he cared…”

The story is told in alternating timelines, one of McEban as a boy and the other as McEban the man, and the elder hasn’t learned a hell of a lot more than the younger did. A hard, spare existence told in hard, spare prose, there is a lot of emptiness in the country reflected in the characters. It is an emptiness that drives some of the characters literally insane, and it feels like the only reason some of them keep living is because they don’t know how to do anything else.

He looks down at the dog. “It’s no goddamn wonder I live alone. I’m either working or in intensive care.”

In the end, McEban loses two family members and gains two more, and then he goes home. Gretchen doesn’t, and good for her. At least she has the sense to realize she needs more and the courage to reach for it.

Some wonderful descriptions of the country, but, Spragg says, there is a price for living there.


More of my Goodreads reviews here.