WAR, Sebastian Junger, Twelve (New York), 2010.
Review by Karaka Pend of Permissible
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
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?