Friday, October 9, 2020

"War," by Sebastian Junger--Nonfiction Review

For this Friday, we’re talking about a book called “War” by Sebastian Junger. It’s an in-depth look at what being a frontline soldier in Afghanistan was like—spoilers bad. It was bad. But then that’s true of pretty much every conflict. 


Sebastian Junger


What I love about this book:

Junger’s book is the best book I’ve read about the war in Afghanistan. It’s a tight focus on the Korengal Valley and the men who fought the Taliban there, which creates a human-scale outlook of the war. All of it is told from Junger’s point of view from when he was embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan, and during his time there, he saw some harrowing gun battles—and not just from the base. 

Junger and his cameraman often went out on patrol missions with American forces and were smack dab in the middle of fighting armed with nothing but cameras. The man can’t ever be accused of not being courageous enough to face the same dangers as his subjects, and it’s that kind of visceral experience that informs the narrative of this book. 

You get to know the soldiers who fought in Korengal far more than you could ever learn from a quick thirty-minute interview. You learn the ins and outs of their individual personalities, hobbies, hopes, and personal failings. Most of all, Junger makes you experience their pain and the unit’s pain when one of them is hurt or killed.   

This book’s most controversial point about wars that I appreciated Junger dared to address is—why do young men, and sometimes young women, sign up for them and keep volunteering despite their obvious possibility of being lethal? The acceptable reasons given are; because of patriotic duty, for freedom, to defend America, et cetera. The darker reason Junger points out is that it makes some young soldiers feel alive, sure there is a sense of duty and brotherhood, but the violence itself is seductive. Even after being in combat and seeing friends maimed and killed, they still enjoy the fight. So much so sometimes they re-up because there is no other job with the absolute clarity of purpose of trying to stay alive and keep your buddies alive while people are actively trying to shoot you to death. It might be unsettling to hear, but like any other inconvenient truth, ignoring it is perilous.     


What I don’t love about this book:

War addresses the reasons for the War in Afghanistan—primarily focused on degrading and defeating the Taliban allies of Osama bin Laden, who masterminded 9/11—but it doesn’t do much to address the United States’ overall military priorities of the era. In a way—I get it—Junger wanted to focus on telling the story of the grunt front line soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. What command’s priorities were, and groups within the United States priorities were, aren’t unaddressed, per se, but are mainly brought up as a way of pointing out that they don’t much matter to most frontline soldiers.

Beneath the grime, grit, and fear of war that Junger captures eloquently in a Hemingway-Esque manner, he also infuses the narrative with a certain amount of romantic adventure that I distrust. I don’t mean romantic in the commonly thought of way as in romantic love, but in the sense of an idealized view of reality. Don’t get me wrong—soldiers are incredibly brave people and deserve our respect, empathy, and, most of all, our support. But ultimately, we should be striving for a world in which they’re obsolete, at least in their warfighting capacity. So romanticizing combat beyond seeing it as something that is dreadfully necessary isn’t productive to that goal. I know the cynics will say that humans will always fight and battle each other, and thinking differently is na├»ve. But is it? Is it really? Or is that just an unexamined prejudice that sounds like wisdom when really it’s just bullshit? As a species, we have managed to create airplanes, split the atom, and prevent polio—it just seems that figuring out how not to kill each other in global orgies of death should be within our grasp.   



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Parting thoughts:

As someone who has lived through the era of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars fought largely by members of my generation, including personal friends, both conflicts are never far from my mind. I consider myself a peace-minded individual—but a true pacifist I am not—as readers to this blog may have deduced, I’m clearly interested in the history of war and how they’ve been fought. Personally, I believe violence is the most expedient way to solve a dispute, and like most things achieved expediently, it makes it the worst possible solution. 

So to the question of should we go to war, I’m almost always on the side of no. There is one category of exceptions, though, for me. If the threat posed is annihilation or the annihilation of our friends and allies, then war is unavoidable. Even if that threat is only just possible and not guaranteed, military intervention might be necessary. This standard applies to the annihilation of a people’s agency within society, as well, such as slavery. 

For example, when it came to conflicts such as WW2—there was no coexisting with the Third Reich—no soft power of diplomacy to temper and cultivate civility with them. They were going to spread-and-spread, and most of the human family would have to die for their sick dream world to come into being. War was inevitable.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, upon sober reflection, never reached the standard of threatening to annihilate whole nations. Maybe, an argument could be made about the possibility of vulnerable ethnic groups being wiped out, which should require a military response from a just and unified world—but we’ve yet to achieve such a thing. I’m of many minds about the subject. 

What I distrust are the economic reasons for war. I personally don’t believe anyone should have to die for economics, for any reason, and especially not as a war casualty. This makes me very skeptical of the military-industrial complex that fuels these conflicts—their existence is predicated on building more-and-more military hardware. They pay lip service to the idea of freedom and the sanctity of human life, but it’s ultimately the almighty dollar that they’re after. Then, other companies have an economic “interest” in the whole business of nation-building. While they might not be directly responsible for building bombs and guns, they benefit from the use of such devices in reaping natural resources or merely fulfilling contracts to provide “services” in worn-torn nations.

As a global community—If we fought strictly to save human lives and not because it made some people a lot of money, then the world would be a better place. To demonstrate how far we fall short of that ideal—it beggars the imagination why we can observe from space, places like North Korea put people in literal concentration camps, and yet do nothing but wring our hands.


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