This past Memorial Day I saw a graphic reminding us to recall all those who have lost their lives in armed conflicts on behalf of the United States. The bars reflected war dead in the conflicts that we’ve engaged in since the Second World War. Somehow, the tiny bars associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made those conflicts seem like blips on a larger screen dominated by losses in the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. The Iraqi and Afghan conflicts have taken place just below the radar of our national lives.
Sebastion Junger’s War was a necessary corrective. Individual acts of heroism and individual deaths matter. War isn’t a statistical exercise; it is the stuff of flesh and blood, one bleeding soldier at a time.
I’d missed the book when it was first published two years ago. Last weekend, a friend recommended it. I dove in, and was immediately captivated.
The day-to-day tedium and terror of warfare is on display as Junger embeds himself with a platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, a hellfire and brimstone kind of outpost that is the site of firefights, ambushes and the terrifying alchemy that transforms ordinary men into warriors drawn together by deep and primitive bonds.
The book doesn’t really soar until the second half, when Junger waxes philosophic about the bonds of love and commitment uniting combatants. Facing the chaos the unknown, men find a lodestar in the form of commitment to one another. Whatever else is lost when the flesh wearies, blood has been spilled and death has claimed souls, there remains, among the living, a heroic warrior’s dedication to the group. Men suddenly become less concerned with individual acts of survival than assuring that the group endures. War, paradoxically, yield the sort of love Jesus bespoke: Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for a friend.
Junger doesn’t write to glorify war. Far from it. The conflict in the Korengal Valley seemed irrational, even meaningless, to many of the men stationed there. What matters were the human bonds. War becomes a metaphor for everyman’s struggle for survival. The warriors, young men with long lives ahead of them should they survive, worry that they will miss warfare, and the bonds they formed in terror.
There is much to love in this book. I read the second half as though in a confessional. I earn my living in the high stakes arena of the criminal courts. While I return home each night, my clients sometimes and too often, do not. There is the unknown lurking in the form of each new witness, each verdict. Each new case is a new firefight, a contest ending in the zero-sum form of a verdict. Surely I, a civilian, can summon something like courage to remain in justice’s game. Men far younger than I am lose their lives and limbs, Junger reminds. Their courage can teach.
"Life is strife," Theodore Roosevelt once famously said. Junger sheds a relentless light on the strife we call war. There are truths in what he observed that we can all share and rely upon in our day-to-day struggles. Read Junger’s fine book. It teaches the necessity of courage and its close companion, love.