War Is Still Hell

By Nancy Powell

Posted August 5, 2010 in Arts & Culture

Journalistic convention holds that you can’t write objectively about people you’re close to,” writes Sebastian Junger in his latest book, War. “But you can’t write objectively about people who are shooting at you either. Pure objectivity—difficult enough while covering a city council meeting—isn’t remotely possible in a war.”

So marks Junger’s year-long jaunt in the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan, a sliver of land just six miles long and a half-mile wide and lying south of the Pech River in Kunar Province. The area was known as the “Valley of Death” because its extreme isolation, axle-breaking terrain and suspicion of outsiders made it the ideal locale from which to wage war against the West.

From the time U.S. military forces first arrived in 2005 until their reluctant withdrawal on April 14, 2010, 42 American soldiers and countless more Afghan insurgents died in their quest for valley dominance.

Junger’s War takes a brutally honest look at the cost this occupation has had on the lives of its fighters. While he claims difficulty with maintaining objectivity, his semi-detached narrative of events unfolding between June 2007 to June 2008 of Battle Company’s occupation of the Korengal makes for compelling, if not painful, reading. Junger begins his assignment with the typical enthusiasm and bravado most green soldiers claim, going so far as to admitting “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend exciting isn’t one of them.”

A firefight erupts on Junger’s very first day as he angles for video coverage, conducting a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, standing when the soldier he is paired with pops up to return fire behind a barricade, ducking for cover as the same soldier ducks to narrowly avoid enemy fire.

During that year, Junger drinks and breathes the same space as Battle Company. He familiarizes himself with life under siege, recognizes the dangers inherent in the brotherhood protecting an outsider and becomes “one the guys” through careful observation of infantry customs and conventions in order to prevent unwanted provocations.

Junger maintains the journeyman’s tone through much of the first half of the book, although his realization of the rigors of war takes a progressively personal toll. It dawns on him that whatever one thought was fair in life, ends in war. Near ambush misses, the deaths of the men he has been following and a roadside bomb that nearly obliterates his very existence (taking out the engine of the Humvee he’s traveling in instead) changes Junger’s thinking.

The objectivity evaporates during a patrol in which a soldier hands Junger a uniform to don for protection. Junger’s journalistic integrity should simply discourage him to even consider such a proposition; however, for the sake of the men he covers, he is all but forced to wear it.

I’ve been on some kind of high-amplitude ride all day since the bomb went off, peaks where I can’t sit still and valleys that make me want to catch the next resupply out of here,” writes Junger. “Not because I’m scared but because I’m used to war being exciting and suddenly it’s not. Suddenly it seems weak and sad, a collective moral failure that has tricked me—and tricked us all—into falling for the sheer drama of it.”

War is a gritty, honest description of the rollercoaster ride that is the average soldier under fire, and it should rightfully take its place on the shelf of modern wartime greats.

War by Sebastian Junger, Twelve, Hardback, 384 pages. List Price $26.99.


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