Book Review: War (2010) by Sebastian Junger.
My dad and I attended some basketball games at the university he taught at. One season, the school's team featured a player who was listed in excess of 7'5". He looked good on paper or walking through an airport terminal, but his performances on the court didn't live up to the promise. My dad characterized his play as "flashes of brilliance". Implied in the compliment, however, was that outside of the fleeting flashes, his play bordered on pedestrian.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Junger's War earns a similar backhanded accolade. There are undeniable moments of brilliant observation, flowing out of Junger's authentic experience periodically embedded between June 2007 and June 2008 with an Army unit in an especially dangerous part of Afghanistan. (p. xi.) For example:
"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. ... 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." (144.)
Explaining the counterintuitive dearth of religion at the front line, Junger observed: "The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away. It was an anesthetic that left you aware of what was happening but strangely fatalistic about the outcome. As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever." (210.)
Junger contrasts war from combat: "War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is a smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly." (234.)
Given these overriding themes about courage and the community of soldiers, Junger rarely gets into the politics or causes of the Afghanistan war. However, Junger drops this bracing, controversial comment (largely overlooked or ignored by the MSM) almost as an aside: "The men know Pakistan is the root of the entire war, and that is just about the only topic they get political about. They don't much care what happens in Afghanistan.... You didn't have to be in the Army to notice that Pakistan was effectively waging war against America, but the administration back home was refusing to even acknowledge it, must less take any action." (249.)
Perhaps the book's unevenness flows from the fact that Junger embarked on this project as both a book and a documentary (entitled Restrepo) (xi), unlike his earlier The Perfect Storm book that was later adapted into a movie starring George Clooney. For this reason, the book doesn't quite stand alone, as if the writer was distracted by making two disparate pieces at the same time. His division of focus unfortunately manifests as an inconsistent book, flashing its brilliance only like lightening strikes against an otherwise gray sky.