I was shot at once.
In the 1990’s I taught English at a Korean University, and during their winter break I took a three-month trip to Southeast Asia. In Cambodia I observed people walking through the markets with AK-47 assault rifles and I felt afraid. Some friends and I decided to take the fast boat from Phnom Penh to Angkor Watt. We had been advised that the slow boats sometimes went aground. I still have a photo somewhere. Two Australians, a Portuguese guy and me, wearing our sunglasses, on the exposed front of the speedboat, enjoying the sun. A couple of hours later we would hear a pop, pop, noise and then gasps from our fellow passengers. I thought for a moment about ducking behind the pretty Australian boy with olive skin and brown eyes, before I realized I would be using him as a human shield. Great, I’m a coward, I thought. Then I thought, that could have been my last thought. Pop pop pop. The boat kept moving. What a stupid way to die, I thought. Then, that could have been my last thought.
Khmer fishermen, possibly in the interest of protecting their fishing nets, had been firing off machine guns in the direction of our boat. Once the danger had passed and we arrived at Angkor Wat I felt a small wave of consolation. A little bit of euphoria. Those few moments of heart pounding terror may be the closest I’ve come to the emotional life of a soldier.
* * * *
There’s something impossibly disproportionate about reading books about war from the comfort of your own home. Libraries or coffee shops aren’t an improvement. I’m going to write about my experiences reading Sebastian Junger’s dramatically titled book, War, describing his five month embed with an Afghanistan combat unit in the Korengal Valley. What Junger describes is to war what courtrooms are to attorneys. Although soldiers prepare for combat, Junger estimates that only 5% of troops participate in the kind of heavy frontline action that he records.
I chose Junger’s book because of the exquisite story telling ability he demonstrated in The Perfect Storm. But War isn’t organized as coherently or chronologically. He divides his experience into three sections, chapters he titles Fear, Killing and Love. What can you learn about the most intense aspects of war from reading?
“Wars are fought with very heavy machinery that works best on top of the biggest hill in the area and used against men who are lower down. That, in a nutshell, is military tactics, and it means that an enormous amount of war-fighting simply consists of carrying heavy loads uphill.”(75)
The people native to the Korengal Valley, where the fighting takes place, only converted to Islam in 1896 because invading armies forced them to. Junger says the people in the valley dye their beards, use kohl around their eyes, and the women don’t wear veils but colorful dresses “that make them look like tropical birds in the fields.” Most have no comprehension of the world outside of the villages where they have always lived. Yet, their land is the stage for the U.S. military’s clash with Taliban insurgents.
A Pashtun honor code referred to as lokhay warkawal which literally means “giving of pot” means that the villages of the Korengal Valley will take in individuals to protect them from their enemies. A soldier to managed to escape an ambush and make it into a village where the native people protected him until the American forces arrived to rescue him, even though this meant that while they were waiting, the Taliban surrounded that village threatening to kill everyone in it.
In another instance, this same code seems to work against the U.S. military as they try to convince another village that they will suffer severe consequences for sheltering anti-coalition militia. Despite an impassioned speech about the good that American soldiers can do, building schools and hospitals, when drone missiles kill five people and wound ten, elders in the village convene to declare jihad "against every American in the valley.”
But the fear Junger describes is primarily that experienced by American soldiers, not only during combat but also during interminable hours spent between periods of “contact.” For example, in 100 degree heat, he describes tarantulas invading the tents seeking shelter. All soldiers are trained in medicine including how to use bandages and tourniquets to keep themselves and others, from “bleeding out,” or dying by blood loss, and in case it is necessary, trained to do it all with only one-hand. All tasks, Junger points out, even the most mundane ones like sleeping or drinking coffee carry more weight when they might be thing you do before a deadly explosion.
As for moving machinery uphill, with body armor, food and medical supplies and camera, Junger, like the soldiers, carries fifty or sixty pounds on his back. His blood type, O POS, is written in bold letters across his boots, helmet and vest.
He cites studies that show that sometimes combat soldiers’ cortisol levels drop during engagements, only to rise again during the waiting periods. One soldier points out to him, “If you sleep twelve hours a day, it’s only a seven-month deployment.” Many combat soldiers take sleeping pills in order to sleep without jerking awake at the imaginary sounds of gunfire.
“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.” (150)
This section is the trickiest for a reporter to write, and it makes me dislike Junger’s organizational device all the more since killing takes place in, and under girds, every section. It’s also the most ludicrous section to read from a coffee shop beside a pot of earl grey tea.
Junger points out some of the weaknesses of embedded reporting, namely that if a reporter tries to “buddy up to the troops and tell the ‘real’ story of how they were dying in a senseless war, you were in for a surprise. The commanders would realize you were operating off of a particular kind of cultural programming and would try to change your mind, but the men wouldn’t bother. They’d just refuse to talk to you until you left their base.” (134)
This makes me wonder if this didn’t happen to Junger himself. Unlike The Perfect Storm where Junger seemed to know and to learn the heartbreaking details of each fisherman’s life and how he ticked, the character sketches in War are more roughly and distantly drawn. He writes in the beginning that he plans to use one soldier, O’Byrne, as a stand-in for the everyman. A person signifying a platoon. Perhaps because O’Byrne was the only soldier to fully open up to him? Because soldiers act in sync so that the individual tics of any soldier can’t be allowed to exist in the same way that it could, among fishermen?
Yet, this makes this section harder to emotionally follow. Junger reports an instance where some scouts announce over the radio that they are watching a man without a leg crawl around a mountainside after an engagement. “They watched until he stopped moving and then they called in that he’d died. Everyone at Restrepo cheered.” Junger writes that he found the cheer harder comprehend than the killing. He writes, “I got the necessity for it [killing] but I didn’t get the joy. It seemed like I either had to radically reunderstand the men on this hilltop or I had to acknowledge the power of a place like this to change them.” (153)
Restrepo itself is named after an American soldier and medic, very well liked, who died in combat. Junger tries to build a compelling case for why, in the midst of so much terror, killing itself could become pleasurable. But I’m not sure I can take this in or understand it through the second and third hand knowledge of killing his prose reveals. I read to the end of the section. I’ve finished my tea and toast, and on the radio I’m hearing R.E.I. commercials.
I decide to go outside.
“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that mimics the effect of cocaine in the brain, and it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine reward system exists in both sexes but is stronger in men, and as a result, men are more likely to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war.”(238)
I read the last section of Junger’s book in a conservatory across the street from my house in Glen Park. I sit on a bench lined with deep green foliage and near the shade of Canary Island Palm trees. The sun is shining and it’s a late afternoon, on a Sunday.
I have to put the book down for a few minutes.
Junger speaks about attitudes about the war being culturally conditioned, really on many different sides, but he doesn’t speak to how personal experiences can also condition our attitudes toward war.
There were three soldiers that I know of in my family. My father and both of my maternal grandparents. All three, in certain instances, have acted with dizzying physical and emotional violence toward their families. The training that armies provide, of how to emotionally distance yourself, to see your enemy as, well, an enemy, rather than a human being, how to use physical force efficiently, may have hurt the soldiers in my family, long after their tours of duty ended. My sample size is small, but this is my experience.
We see things, in this country, in such short clips. News cycles and regurgitated publicist talking points as opinion. Yet, we have tens of thousands of soldiers returning to a world that may require more courage for them to survive than even than the war zones they have endured. Combat is just a moment. For many of its participants, we know that the greater part of war lives on long after the fighting ends.
Junger’s book stays within the confines of its goals of reportage. He shows the bonds of men, and he makes it clear that these are men that he is embedded with. Although of course women too, such as Leigh Ann Hester, have won medals for exceptional valor during combat.
The inside cover of the book reads “WAR delivers an acutely observed and heartfelt depiction of an experience young men have lived for millennia—one that few of us at home truly comprehend, and which remains, even today, the ultimate test of character.”
But I find myself asking, is war the ultimate test of character? This book dances precariously along the lines of politics, like many other stories of embedded reporting, trying to tell the stories of brave soldiers, without necessarily endorsing or critiquing the larger picture of why they are there. Yet, is war, as Junger implies, a kind of quintessential embodiment of a sort of archetypal masculine mystique?
Traditional stories of war heroism remind me of Jessica Lynch who testified before Congress because she was so disgusted that a false story about her courage under fire was used as “Pentagon propaganda.” In fact, the bigger test of Lynch’s character came not when she was under enemy assault and her weapon jammed, but long after she left Iraq when she coordinated with ABC Extreme Makeover television producers to build a house for the children of her best friend, Lori Piestewa, who died while serving her country.
If cultural memory serves correctly, World War II veterans were largely honored for their service to their country like heroes. Vietnam war veterans were caught in the cultural turmoil of the nineteen sixties, and though many who served were middle and lower class draftees, many bore the brunt of anger against the war, and the blame for graphic images of carnage and destruction depicted on the nightly news. Today’s veterans are relatively older, though still primarily in their early twenties, a volunteer professional military whose primary difficulty in re-embedding in civilian life may be, in addition to the loss of adrenaline, a sense of collective indifference. After nine years of war and counting, there doesn’t seem to be political will in either party, nor in the civilian population to call an end to the fighting, nor to honestly assess our reasons for fighting and whether or not the sacrifices we ask of soldiers are worth their efforts in the larger picture. (Is this an assumption that can’t be questioned? That there is a larger picture for the United States, other than a desire to avoid the appearance of defeat? Until our treasury and collective will to fight “bleed out”?)
Junger writes, in discussion of the willingness of soldiers to lay down their lives for one another, “what the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analysises, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.” (239)
Yet as Lynch’s real life heroicism demonstrates, subtract “In war” from the second sentence, and the idea of love and courage being two sides to the same coin still holds true.
And it is far from unimaginable that for the native inhabitants of the Korengal Valley, in their colorful clothing and refusal to definitively take sides, and even for members of the Taliban themselves, the literal children of refugee camps, wars’ damaged orphans, the concepts of love, courage, and self-sacrifice for one’s group, are also true.