War in Afghanistan, Life of the Combat Soldier

War, by Sebastian Junger

When Biden announced in April that he was upholding Trump’s agreement to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, I decided that I would check out War, by bestselling author Sebastian Junger. I’ve long known of Junger’s work as a war correspondent, and I was glad to finally give this book a closer look. War documents 5 trips that Junger made to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan between June 2007 and June 2008.

Like many of the books and documentaries about the wars in the Middle East that I’ve read, watched, or listened to, War is not a treatise on America’s decades-long involvement which has born little fruit. It’s simply a snapshot—one piece of a massive puzzle that has thus far proved unsolvable. In this intimate look at the life of the combat soldier, Junger interwines lessons from biology, psychology, and military history with the day-to-day decisions, challenges, monotony, and terror of deploying to a battle zone.

I found War to be a masterful account that I wish everyone could find time to read it. Here is an overview with a few fragments of Junger’s powerful narrative.

The Most Hostile Setting in Afghanistan

In order to gather the material for War, Junger embedded with “Battle’ Company”, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, of the U.S. Army. He’d been traveling to Afghanistan for many years—since 1996, “the year the Taliban swept into Kabul”—so he knew the country well. Accompanied by photojournalist, Tim Hetherington, Junger’s mission for this book was to understand what it’s like to serve in a combat infantry platoon.

At the time, Battle Company was stationed in an isolated military outpost called Restrepo, named after a popular combat medic who was killed there. Junger’s stays lasted up to one month but the men who were stationed there were serving 15-month deployments. For many, it was not their first.

Very few journalists receive permission to hang out in combat zones. Junger doesn’t explain exactly how he managed to arrange for 5 visits, only that he was the envy of many of the war correspondents that he encountered at the time. Of all the hotspots that he might have covered, none were more dangerous than the Korengal.

The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn’t dare go in there at all.

Sebastian Junger, War
The Korengal Valley 2009
The Korengal Valley 2009

Penetrating a Brotherhood

Junger’s reporting is non-judgemental and in-depth. The book is not centered on the mission of the outpost which was to disrupt enemy supply lines that snaked through the Korengal and to try to earn the allegiance of the local inhabitants. Instead, it focuses on the soldiers’ reasons for enlisting, their commitment to each other, and the thrill of armed combat.

During his initial trips, Junger found it hard to connect with the soldiers. Many of them distrusted journalists and weren’t about to give him an opening. However, he kept coming back. When an armed vehicle that he was traveling in set off an IED and he and others inside the disabled humvee had to flee on foot, his status changed from outsider to comrade. Several soldiers let down their guard and began sharing their stories in front of Hetherington’s camera. By the time Junger made his final visit, he was an accepted member of their brotherhood.

In order to get the story they were seeking, Junger and Hetherington accompanied the infantrymen on numerous missions and withstood repeated assaults on the Restrepo base. They knew that if the soldiers failed to protect themselves, they too would have little chance of survival. Junger’s worst fear was that his mere presence might somehow place the life of one of Battle Company’s soldiers in jeopardy. Both reporters worked diligently to insert themselves at the heart of the action while at the same time staying out of the way.

As a civilian among soldiers I was aware that a failure of nerve by me could put other men at risk, and that idea was almost as mortifying as the very real dangers up there. The problem with fear though, is that it isn’t any one thing. Fear has a whole taxonomy–anxiety, dread, panic, foreboding–and you could be braced for one form and completely fall apart facing another.

Sebastian Junger, War
Junger and Hetherington
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington at Restrepo

Danger on Steroids

It’s hard to imagine a more brutal existence than that faced by the men of Battle Company. For starters, the Korengal Valley is a punishing environment with temperatures over 100 in the summer and driving snowstorms in winter. These men patrol with 50-pound backpacks and 20 pounds of body armor. Some might have to haul a 50-pound gun barrel over one shoulder in addition to their standard supplies. The stamina required to maneuver on the rocky and steep terrain is tremendous. Meanwhile, Afghani operatives can be spotted scampering along paths and hopping over boulders while shouldering canons that are three times the size and weight.

While U.S. soldiers rely on multiple high-calorie MREs and large canteens of water that they carry to keep hydrated while on patrol, the Afghanis are able to last an entire day with little more than their morning cup of tea. The psychological impact of being an obvious fish out of water is significant but it also results in begrudging respect for the enemy. The U.S. soldiers know that despite their superior training and equipment, their adversaries sometimes get the upper hand and are not to be taken lightly.

And then there are the actual firefights. The soldiers of Battle Company faced many days of monotony, where stuck in the base, waiting for their next assignment, they’d discuss mundane topics for hours on end, becoming more and more eager for something exciting to occur. But then there were the days where they engaged in a dozen or more gun battles, the adrenaline surging at impossible levels for hours on end. Junger’s descriptions of many such scenes are breathtaking and in-depth.

The enemy fighters were three or four hundred yards away, and the bullets they were shooting covered that distance in about half a second—roughly two thousand miles an hour. Sound doesn’t travel nearly that fast, though, so the gunshots themselves arrived a full second after they were fired. Because light is virtually instantaneous, illuminated rounds—tracers—can be easily perceived as they drill toward you across the valley. A 240 gunner named Underwood told me that during the ambush he saw tracers coming at him from Hill 1705 but they were moving too fast to dodge. By the time he was setting his body into motion they were hitting the cedar log he was hiding behind. The brain requires around two-tenths of a second just to understand simple visual stimuli, and another two-tenths of a second to command muscles to react. That’s almost exactly the amount of time it takes a high-velocity round to go from 1705 to [where Underwood was posted].

Sebastian Junger, War
Gun Battle in the Korengal
A gun battle in the Korengal, filmed by Tim Hetherington who lost his life during a mortar attack in Libya in 2011.

The Psychological Implications May Surprise You

I’m a pacificist that protested the war in Afghanistan as well as the one in Iraq. But reading books like War has given me a much better understanding of what I thought I was objecting to. Too many Americans have a sanitized understanding of what goes on. Unlike the U.S. war in Vietnam, all of the men and women who have served in the Middle East have done so voluntarily and U.S. citizens have largely supported America’s involvement. Yet, the soldiers in this book consistently asserted that when they returned home, they felt completely misunderstood.

All struggled with depression and mounting anxiety when they were away from the military. They said that civilians assume that their adjustment issues are rooted in the fact that they’ve spent months living under tremendous stress. They’ve served in one of the most hazardous and geographically challenging corners of the world, knowing that the enemy might launch an attack in the middle of the night when few men are on watch; that an IED might go off on any path where they are apt to set foot or drive; that in the midst of an all-to-frequent firefight, they might make a mistake that costs one of their buddies his life. However, the soldiers maintained that this is not the cause of their misery. Rather they say that they’re unable to function back home because they miss the excitement of it all.

War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die—though that does happen—it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.

Sebastian Junger, War
Restrepo Outpost
The Restrepo Outpost

Thrill or Duty?

I like reading books or watching documentaries about war because, like the soldiers in this book, I find war extremely exciting. I’d much rather read or watch a nonfiction account of war than sit through any war movie. Eyewitness accounts are far more thrilling and extraordinarily complex. The line between good and evil becomes blurred almost immediately. The on-the-ground reality is completely detached from the visions of war presented to Americans by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. This may explain why so many soldiers are apolitical. Their primary allegiance is to their platoon. Give them a mission, and they’ll commit to executing it regardless of the risks involved or the possibility of faulty reasoning behind the operation.

I also like reading books about war because I feel a moral obligation to understand what the United States engages in outside of its borders. If we are going to send our young people into harm’s way, we should have a slam dunk argument for why it’s necessary. We should also make an honest effort to understand the consequences of what we’re asking them to do.

If you’re interested in learning more about the men of Battle Company but don’t have time for the book, Junger and Hetherington also produced two documentaries using footage that Hetherington shot during their trips: Restrepo and Korengal. The former won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance. In these two films, the testimonies of Battle Company soldiers provide the narration. There is not a shred of commentary from either reporter. Both are well worth your time.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

2 Comments

  1. He certainly has guts. I could never do that. Aside from the danger and harsh conditions, the worry about putting soldiers in danger by being a burden to them would simply be too daunting. And I can certainly understand why soldiers generally don’t trust journalists.

    I suppose that an all-volunteer military mostly attracts the kind of person who does find battle “exciting” and even misses it when they return home. Back when the military operated by involuntary servitude, it got a broader sample of the population, and I suspect that this was less true.

    It’s not really necessary to go into why the US invaded Afghanistan because everybody knows that — the Taliban, who ruled the country at the time, were shielding al-Qâ’idah at the time of the 9/11 attack. The outcome has often made me wonder how long warfare under that kind of provocation will continue to look like this at all. At a certain level it’s a matter of economics. Because of technology and extreme ideologies, conquest is becoming steadily more and more difficult, while extermination becomes easier and cheaper. We’ve been trying to wipe out the Taliban by conventional warfare for almost two decades now. We could have completely destroyed Afghanistan in an hour. If the government had realized back at the time of the invasion how difficult and prolonged it was going to be, that option might have been seriously considered.

  2. Absolutely fantastic writeup. I’m with you, I feel an obligation to understand what the US engages in outside our borders. We have such an outsize influence and a poor understanding of what that means at home. It sounds like this covers so many aspects of the experience for the soldiers as well, and that’s another area that I think we completely misunderstand, much to their detriment.

    I’ve only read one other book of Junger’s years ago, the one about his mother potentially almost being a victim of the Boston Strangler. It was very weird and I didn’t much like it and kind of ignored his books after that. But you completely convinced me, especially if you say it’s one that everyone should find the time to read. On the list it goes. Thank you for this excellent introduction to it!

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