WAR, Sebastian Junger, Twelve (New York), 2010.
Review by Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms.
On May 21, 2010, I saw Sebastian Junger speak on the subject of his book War. It was standing room only, with several servicemen and women present; but the audience was mostly older folks. The parents of Private Misha Pemble-Belkin, one of the soldiers Junger writes about in his book, were present that evening, and Junger took care to welcome them. It was clear from that moment on, even before his reading or before I had the chance to read the book, that Junger had written about people who had come to mean a great deal to him. To understand that is to understand the impetus of his account.
War is divided into three parts: Fear, Killing, and Love. There is no distance in Junger's narrative, only detailed accounting of action and feeling with some background explanation that strings along the broad jumps in time, tone, and place. That seems to be what he was striving for--when asked (predictably by the second question at the event) how he viewed his role as a war correspondent and the tenet of journalistic objectivity, Junger answered that he was going for the inverse of objectivity. He wanted to understand and embrace his subject, become a part of it almost to a point. That point, it seems, was carrying a weapon. Junger refused repeated offers by the men he was embedded with to fire at the enemy or carry a weapon because, as he writes:
It was a hard thing to explain to them that maybe you could pass someone a box of ammo during a firefight or sneak 100 rounds on a SAW down at the firing range, but as a journalist the one thing you absolutely could not do was carry a weapon. It would make you a combatant rather than an observer, and you'd lose the right to comment on the war later with any kind of objectivity (212-3).
That seems like a very weak line in the sand. Junger's grasp of his own motivations stutters as much as it does for the men he documents, and as he works to form an understanding of Battle Company, he also confronts the realities of his choice to embed. From several pages earlier than that passage, after one of the soldiers offers him a uniform blouse so he can better blend in with the patrol:
If we get compromised I'll be the only guy in civilian clothes, and suppose someone gets hit? Suppose someone gets killed? Like every other reporter out there I'm eating Army food, flying on Army helicopters, sleeping in Army hooches, and if I were in the Korengal on my own, I'd probably be dead in twenty-four hours. Whatever boundaries may have blurred between me and the Army, the blurring didn't start with a shirt (204).
Part of the purpose of Junger's exercise is to engage as fully in the experience of being at Restrepo, of living with the men of Battle Company, as he can given the constraints of his embed. He mostly succeeds in that, in part because he let himself get swept up in the life-and-death fraternitas of it all, and perhaps more importantly because Battle Company allowed him to become a part of their brotherhood. It would have be a rather different story had he not won his way into the human terrain of that mountaintop.
From how he approached his speaking engagement, and now from having finished the book, it seems as though there were two points Junger wanted to convey. First, that there is a very compelling reason that draws specifically young men into the military, and into war; the second being that there is something fundamental about the experience of combat that changes such young men perhaps irrevocably.
Junger suggests that being a part of a company, particularly an effective company, draws on the sense of group loyalty and necessaryness of one's place in a group under threat. "Loyalty to the group drove men back into combat--and occasionally to their deaths--but the group also provided the only psychological refuge from the horror of what was going on. It was conceivably more reassuring to be under fire with men you trusted than to languish at some rear base with strangers who had no real understanding of war. It's as if there was an intoxicating effect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face" (240). Referencing studies conducted post-World War II and works from the journalist Jack Belden, Junger develops a theory of the attractiveness of combat--not because being fired at is inherently appealing, but rather that the relationship of one individual soldier to the others in his company represents a level of commitment to those men greater than any other commitment they, or he, might ever know.
To the second point, Junger's final exchange conveys his meaning with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball:
"A lot of people tell me I could be anything I want to be. If that's true, why can't I be a fucking civilian and lead a normal fucking life? Probably 'cause I don't want to."
You got me there, O'Byrne; you got me there, brother. Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in (268).
Throughout, Junger's soldiers describe combat, describe firefight, as an addiction or a high; and perhaps that is the only real framework in which their longing for conflict or engagement with the enemy can be understood. If there is no greater high than when you are protecting your brother, how do you return to a world where you need not always watch your brother's back?
That is one question Junger, nor the soldiers of whom he writes, seems capable of answering. In the end Junger poses the question to the nation these men serve: how do we welcome home men who long for a bullet-stained combat outpost? How does one heal from that wound?