By Sebastian Junger, Twelve, May 11, 2010, B0035II95C
Probably the best war book I’ve ever read. Sebastian Junger lived with Battle Company of the 10th Mountain Division in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. He went to forward operating bases, got shot at, and became friends with the soliers. He doesn’t claim to be objective. Rather, his goal was to present the psychology of the soldiers, and he definitely achieved that goal.
[k978] I reassured myself with the thought that I was twice the age of the soldiers but carried half the weight they did, so in some ways it was a fair fight. I also ran track and cross-country in college, and, twenty-five years later, I still remembered how to negotiate the long, horrible process of physical collapse. It starts with pain, of course, but that pain is at the edge of what I thought of as a deep, dark valley. At the bottom of the valley is true incapacitation, but it might take hours to get down there, working your way through strata of misery and dissociation until your muscles simply stop obeying and your mind can’t even be trusted to give commands that make sense. The most valuable thing I knew from all that running was that when you start hurting you’re not even close to the bottom of the valley, and that if you don’t panic at the first agonies there’s much, much more of yourself to give.
[k1069] Once again, a couple of guys with rifles have managed to jam up an entire company’s worth of infantry.
[k1462] Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it’s much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win.
That choreography – you_lay_down_fire_while_I_run_forward,_then_I cover_you_while_you_move_your_team_up – is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.
[k1489] The U.S. military found that, to a great degree, fearfulness was something they couldn’t do much about. A fearful man is likely to remain that way no matter what kind of training he undergoes. During one experiment, completely untrained airborne candidates were told to jump off a thirty-four-foot tower.
[k1496] One of the most puzzling things about fear is that it is only loosely related to the level of danger.
[k1593] I thought of those as “Vietnam moments.” A Vietnam moment was one in which you weren’t so much getting misled as getting asked to participate in a kind of collective wishful thinking. Toward the end of my year, for example, the Taliban attacked an American base north of the Pech and killed nine American soldiers and wounded half the survivors. When I asked American commanders about it, their responses were usually along the lines of how it was actually an American victory because forty or fifty enemy fighters had also died in the fight. Since the Army had already admitted that this was not a war of attrition, using enemy casualties as a definition of success struck me as a tricky business.
And we reporters had our own issues. Vietnam was our paradigm as well, our template for how not to get hoodwinked by the U.S. military, and it exerted such a powerful influence that anything short of implacable cynicism sometimes felt like a sellout. Most journalists wanted to cover combat – as opposed to humanitarian operations – so they got embedded with combat units and wound up painting a picture of a country engulfed in war. In fact, most areas of the country were relatively stable; you had to get pretty lucky to find yourself in anything even vaguely resembling a firefight. When you did, of course, other journalists looked at you with a kind of rueful envy and asked how they could get in with that unit. Once at a dinner party back home I was asked, with a kind of knowing wink, how much the military had “censored” my reporting. I answered that I’d never been censored at all, and that once I’d asked a public affairs officer to help me fact-check an article and he’d answered, “Sure, but you can’t actually show it to me – that would be illegal.”
[k1752] 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 . 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.
[k1760] The core psychological experiences of war are so primal and unadulterated, however, that they eclipse subtler feelings, like sorrow or remorse, that can gut you quietly for years.
[k1794] I DON’T LEAVE THE VALLEY, I STAY, AND AFTER A FEW days the war becomes normal again. We go on patrol and I focus on the fact that one foot goes in front of the other. We get ambushed and the only thing I’m interested in is what kind of cover we’ve got. It’s all very simple and straightforward, and it’s around this time that killing begins to make a kind of sense to me. It’s tempting to view killing as a political act because that’s where the repercussions play out, but that misses the point: a man behind a rock touched two wires to a battery and tried to kill me – to kill us. There are other ways to understand what he did, but none of them overrides the raw fact that this man wanted to negate everything I’d ever done in my life or might ever do. It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn’t. Combat theoretically gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don’t allow for anything.
[k1808] The only way to calm your nerves in that environment was to marvel at the insane amount of firepower available to the Americans and hope that that changed the equation somehow. They have a huge shoulder-fired rocket called a Javelin, for example, that can be steered into the window of a speeding car half a mile away. Each Javelin round costs $80,000, and the idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable.
He is a bit over the top when describing military scenes some of the time. I guess it keeps people reading.
[k2379] No matter how many times you’ve heard it, you always turn toward the flight line when the 15s and 16s take off, a sound so thunderous and wrong that it would seem to be explainable only by some kind of apocalypse. Then the deltoid shape rising with obscene speed into the Afghan sky, its cold-blue afterburners cutting through the twilight like a welder’s torch.
[k2389] Rear-base limbo: an ill blend of apprehension and boredom that is only relieved by going forward where things are even worse.
[k2539] ‘Father, basically God came down to earth and in the form of Christ and died for our sins – right?’ Al asked.
The chaplain nodded.
‘And he died a painful death, but he knew he was going to heaven – right?’
Again the chaplain nodded.
‘So how is that sacrifice greater than a soldier in this valley who has no idea whether he’s going to heaven?’
According to Al, the chaplain had no useful response.
Religion gives a man enough courage to face the overwhelming, and there may have been so little religion at Restrepo because the men didn’t feel particularly overwhelmed. (Why appeal to God when you can call in Apaches?)
[k2574] The idea of spending long stretches in the Korengal without shooting anything made as little sense to the soldiers as, say, going to a Vicenza whorehouse and just hanging out in the lobby. Guns were the point, the one entirely good thing of the whole shitty year, and the fact that reporters don’t carry them, shoot them, or accept the very generous offers to “go ahead and get some” on the . just made soldiers shake their heads. 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.
[k2600] It’s a foolish and embarrassing thought but worth owning up to. Perfectly sane, good men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for.
[k2608] Collective defense can be so compelling – so addictive, in fact – that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo secretly hoped the enemy would make a serious try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting abilityability of the men.
[k2835] Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men like Mac and Rice and O’Byrne have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power. These men come home and quickly find themselves getting berated by a rear-base major who’s never seen combat or arguing with their girlfriend about some domestic issue they don’t even understand. When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at – you’d have to be deranged – it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted.
[k3262] He finally shows up the next day and Nevala drives him around the base trying to take care of his paperwork. I tag along to see what happens. O’Byrne refers to the base as “Coward’s Land,” because it’s a place where guys who havenever done anything but fill out paperwork can boss around guys who have actually fought for their country. A whole new set of rules apply that seem almost deliberately punitive of the traits that make for a good combat soldier. We park in front of something called the Transition Office, and O’Byrne says, “Come in and watch, this is gonna be good.”
There’s a middle-aged black lady behind the desk who seems perfectly nice. O’Byrne takes a mint out of a jar on her desk and gives her one and explains that his paperwork is late and his ID expires in two days. By then he’s supposed to be on a plane home.
“The only acceptable reason for not being on that plane is if you’re in jail,” the woman says. “And if you’re not on that plane you’ll be arrested and put in jail.”
O’Byrne maintains his composure. “So what should I do?” he asks.
“Call your commanding officer,” the woman says, “and ask him to have you arrested. That way you won’t be breaking the rules when you don’t get on the plane.”
If she understands the irony at work here she doesn’t betray it. “Let me get this right,” O’Byrne says. “You want me to ask to get arrested now so I won’t get arrested later?”
“That’s right,” the woman says and returns to her paperwork.
We get up to go and O’Byrne turns to me as we walk out the door. “See?” he says. “See why I hate the Army?”