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War by Sebastian Junger is the story of the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade fighting at FOB Restrepo. Located in the Korengal Valley's isolated RC East, the 15 to 20 2nd Platoon soldiers fought in almost 500 firefights during their 15-month deployment — some 20 percent of all Afghan combat in that time period. Through five lengthy embeds, Junger followed this single platoon with the goal of conveying "combat" to the civilian audience.
Junger is no novice. Years before he wrote A Perfect Storm, he was traveling from Kosovo to Bosnia to Liberia to Sierre Leone to Kashmir, reporting on human rights violations, war crimes and the kidnapping of civilians as a terror tool. He's also no stranger to Afghanistan; prior to 9/11 he profiled the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud as they fought against the Taliban for a National Geographic special. So his current best-seller War is written from a depth of knowledge and experience that few writers possess. I recently spoke with him about his book and the time spent with 2nd Platoon, Battle Company.
At one point # 3 on The New York Times bestseller list, War brings the reader directly into the fight at Restrepo. The base is isolated in a valley so remote that the locals speak a different language (Korengali) than the rest of Afghanistan. The reader is thrown into the firefights, ambushes and boredom that make up a deployment. It's in the blend of firefights and boredom where Junger excels; his descriptions, from AK rounds snapping past his head to the primitive living conditions to the funny yet totally sophomoric humor, are amongst the most realistic portrayal of soldiers in combat published to date. "If I sleep with your mother, does that make me your father?" one soldier asks another, and the resulting philosophical and genealogical debate lasted until...the next firefight.
Being this close to the fight, however, brings some disturbing observations about war, and comradeship. The 2nd Platoon has fallen into the practice of giving each member a "beat-down," where the platoon pummels each member.
"It's a form of initiation rite," Junger explained to me,"it's a way of bonding, as well as reinforcing the concept that the group, in this case 2nd Platoon, takes precedence over the individual." An anthropologist by training, Junger continued, "It isn't about abuse, similar to Lord of the Flies, it's about demonstrating group inclusion, knowing that everyone is committed to the unit. You've got a small group of young men, heavily armed, in 4-5 TIC's (troops-in-combat) daily... no email, little comm[unication] with family... their world consists solely of their fellow soldiers. Is it a normal ritual? Probably not, but look at where and how they're spending 15 months."
Despite his previous trips to combat zones, these embeds in Restrepo were Junger's first embed with the Army. Impartiality and accuracy are of paramount importance to a journalist, and especially one of Junger's stature, yet in War he writes of the impossibility of remaining impartial. "I'm living in close quarters with the soldiers. I eat, sleep, and go on patrol with them, and too many AK rounds and RPG's have barely missed us all. But remember, I'm not writing an opinion piece; I'm sharing their experiences in order to bring their story to you."
He does this very well as he describes life at Restrepo, "It's a miraculous kind of anti-paradise up here, heat and dust and tarantulas and flies. No women and no running water and no cooked food. Nothing to do but kill and wait."
After spending five months sharing danger and boredom, Junger finds himself drawing closer to the soldiers of 2nd Platoon and losing any journalist sense of impartiality, but he knows he needs to find a balance between being a journalist and being a combatant. After all, press credentials are worthless in a firefight. Despite the daily threat of being killed, Junger draws his own line at potential levels of his involvement "Oh, I'll carry ammo if asked, and they gave me a refresher in combat first aid. But I'm careful not to become like those journalists who confuse themselves with the story they're covering."
Responsible combat journalism is a difficult assignment, but Junger handles the partial-impartial question well. Embedded with a close-knit unit for some 35 percent of their deployment while sharing the firefights, the boredom and the isolation, all thoughts of impartiality disappear once the first AK-47 round hits the Hesco over one's head and the soldier next to him returns fire. Junger acknowledges this conundrum head-on, and in doing so, brings even greater poignancy to the story of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company.
Shortly after War was published, Gen. Stanley McChrystal closed all the Army FOB's in the Korengal, with the bland statement that engagement in the Korengal no longer fit into the Army's strategic vision. Junger mentioned to me that it would be interesting to see what the surviving soldiers of 2nd Platoon thought of the decision that their 15 months and some 500 firefights had been deemed unnecessary.
Embedded journalist, author, and father of a Marine
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