On the Nightstand

War, (2010) by Mr. Sebastian Junger, (http://www.sebastianjunger.com/) is a well-written and provocative book, the product of Mr. Junger’s having been embedded with an Army infantry company in a remote front line outpost in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The title foretells a broad range of conflict, from the massing of cultures in conflict to the art of overcoming an armed enemy to the tactics and strategies of engagement in arms. War, however, is also a minute clash that is lonely, frightening, personal, and, often, individual, a second-by-second coming to grips with the certainty that one’s fight is not to win or defeat an enemy but, rather, to not cause the death of your brothers in arms, for your squad-mate not to die, for you personally to not lose face in battle. Mr. Junger’s book brings war to the reader on each of those levels.

The Korengal Valley is a wretched outpost on the Pech River in eastern Afghanistan, on the Pakistan border, its inhabitants a remote enclave who came late to Islam and who survive from meager timber stands, wheat fields, and stone cutting. Battle Company is described as the spearpoint of the spear that leads the wave of combat engagements for American ground troops in Afghanistan, the most dangerous of the dangerous. Everyone in the Korengal is an outsider. However, the enemy of Taliban, al Qaeda, and foreign insurgents that Battle Company faces in the Valley dress more recognizably, speak in cognate language, and bomb fewer local homes than do the American troops. Consequently, neither soldiers nor commanders may rely on winning local hearts or minds with offers to build schools or hospitals, proposals that never offset the local belief that all constant civilian casualties are caused by Americans rather than the insurgents. In one such day-long meeting with the elders of Yaka Chine in which the commander pleaded with them to enable American reconstruction and progress, the elders vote instead to declare jihad on every American in the valley.

War suffers fifteen months of a soldier’s life in chapters that suggest that war us fear, killing, and love. Mr. Junger accompanies men in their outposts, base camps, and, unfortunately, patrols and fire missions to seek out the ghostly enemy hidden in redoubts high on the slopes and crevices of Abas Ghar, the southerly-easterly mountain ridge that shields the insurgents who attack nightly, then disappear. In doing so, he learns that in this war men go weeks without showers and have no body fat, existing in a crude base camp where violent death is so random that it is as likely to call on them in their bunk as in an attack. Even the birds make sounds like in-coming rocket propelled grenades. Despite, or perhaps because of, the availability of email, iPods, and computers in their shelter built of rocks and dirt, the men lose touch with humanity and learn to live only for each other. Killing is neither a vice nor a virtue; at most it is a skill at which they become very good and a practice performed to protect the other members of the team rather than to defend one’s own life.

It is this last value that defines war and, perhaps, War. The men of Battle Company love each other. They do so without question, without reservation, and without regard to rank or power. Newly-arrived officers are dog-piled and beaten by the enlisted men as a sign of welcome. Men whose rotations end find themselves utterly alone without their mates. But, more than anything else, the daily grind of patrol, attack, and defend is a grind of living for and dying for their comrades. Men who at the end of their commitment find themselves back in civilian life often fail in a world where they are unable to function without the rush of killing and the high of risking death to save a squad member’s life.

The front line of the war on terror in Afghanistan is not political; the men of Battle Company fight the enemy with every conceivable weapon and tactic, but not because of the war on terror or because of some vague dedication to democracy or freedom. Most of the enlisted men are in the Army because it was a last resort from a life of arrests, jail, or unemployment. As British soldiers sang in the trenches of Flanders a century ago, Battle’s motto could be ‘We’re all here because we’re not all there.’ Battle company fights,first, because that is how they are deployed and, second, because they have become very good at killing, a skill that they exercise while listening to music, changing clothes, lighting cigars, even eating from ration boxes.

It is this brutal recount of the daily life of Battle Company that makes War provocative. The more distant a country is from the safety of home, the smaller it is perceived to be, both physically and in the grand scheme of life. Afghanistan is very far away and the daily gun battles of the distant Korengal Valley are not the stuff of daily news. War is provocative, as a very well-written book ought to be, but not because of its all-the-world’s-a-nail claim that this outpost is the front line of the Afghan war. Indeed, combat soldiers in Kandahar, in Arghandab, and in Helmand suffer the same deprivations and kill and die at the same rate. It is, rather, because War unpeels the deceit of war, that it is honorable, or glamorous, or motivated by noble aims that Mr. Junger’s book is provocative. As he so clearly writes, war is brutal, primal, futile and, here at least, feudal. Unfortunately, peace is nowhere in sight, not in the land, not in the men who engage in war. War, and war, presents much to think about.
War, (2010), Twelve / Hachette Book Group, www.HachetteBookGroup.com, $26.99

Jack Woodville London is the author of French Letters: Virginia’s War (2009), a finalist for Best Novel of the South and Best Historical Fiction of the Year. Publication release date of the sequel, French Letters: Engaged in War, is September 2010.
Comments and opinions expressed in Jack London Reviews do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the author or publisher of any work reviewed. Jack Woodville London may be contacted at jack@jwlbooks.com. Follow his commentary about historical literature, World War II, and related subjects at http://frenchlettersthenovel.blogspot.com/

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