If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.
The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."
The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.
What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:
"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 excting 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...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 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." (p. 144-145.)
"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)
Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.