Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Hooah! Good God, Y'All!

My cousin Paul is an inveterate reader... that is to say, he is a true King.  Every time we meet he has at least one fascinating new book under his belt that he is eager to discuss.  His interests bend more towards nonfiction, while mine bend more towards fiction, and as a result he is a great source of new works.

His most recent find is "War" by Sebastian Junger.  He went so far as to lend me a physical copy.  Here's a secret - I get recommended books all the time, I rarely am able to keep up with the suggestions, and the best (though still not foolproof) way to make me read something is to give it to me. 

It took me a while to get into it, and it was relatively slow going once I did.  That isn't at all a reflection on the author or the writing.  It's nonfiction, but it's exciting, emotional, compelling.  It was slow going for me precisely BECAUSE it was so compelling _ I felt overwhelmed as I went through it, and had to take regular breaks before diving back in again.

This book is primarily about a particular platoon of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.  Junger does step back to give some larger context - we lean the hierarchy above the soldiers, some broader initiatives, and so on - but most of the book is almost claustrophobic in its description of the intense lives these soldiers lead.  We learn about their living conditions, their senses of humor, the violence regularly visited upon them and dealt by them. 

Junger doesn't really have a political axe to grind here; he does give voice to some of the soldiers' own opinions, but the book as a whole is neither pro- nor anti- the war in Afghanistan.  It isn't exactly neutral either, though.  The strongest impression I'm left with after reading this book is one of admiration for the infantry soldiers at the heart of the book.  It's even less sympathetic towards the Taliban than, say, "Where Men Win Glory" was.  Junger does briefly pause toward the end to mention how the young fighters in the Taliban must have felt similarly to the young American solderis, but he isn't really trying to equate the two at all.

He does give some voice to the divisions within the U. S. military.  I suppose that in a way, "War" is ultimately about chasms.  The largest is the chasm between soldiers and civilians; civilians just can't understand what soldiers go through, and that chasm makes it difficult for many to readjust to civilian life afterwards.  There's also a huge chasm between combat infantry and other military, though.  The platoon at Restrepo, who spend more than a year putting their lives on the line in direct line of fire to establish an American presence in a two-mile by six-mile-long valley, feel contempt towards the soldiers who never leave their Forward Operating Base.  Conversely, the Fobbits look down on the Restrepo warriors as uncouth and undisciplined louts.  The Restrepo soldiers feel (and rightfully so, one thinks) that they have earned the right to be respected by their actions, and simply cannot deal with the arbitrary rules imposed by people out of danger.

This is primarily a narrative book, but the statistics Junger does share are astonishing.  Only a tiny fraction of the enormous U. S. military force in Afghanistan ever sees combat.  Of those who do, just a tiny number of soldiers see fighting over and over and over again.  It's a very inequitable distribution that makes a lot of logistical sense (you want your best and most experiences soldiers in the toughest spots), but does not seem very fair.

Junger's psychological investigations are fascinating as well.  When you step back and think about what war is, it's pretty amazing, even aside from the obvious matter of life and death.  War takes a group of 20-50 males between the ages of 18 and 22, sticks them in one physical location, and makes them spend an entire year there without seeing any women, without good food or coffee, wakes them up almost daily when strangers shoot at them, hones them to instantly respond to stimuli without thinking.  War shapes these men, it forms incredibly strong bonds between them, and Junger discusses studies done by the US and Israeli militaries on how those bonds and those characteristics form something we can scientifically call "courage." 

All in all, this was a fascinating book.  It was tough for me to read, but I'm glad that I did.  One section opens with a quote from Churchill (or Orwell) to the effect that we can sleep soundly in our beds at night because we have violent men standing ready to punish those who would do us harm.  That isn't a sentiment that I particularly like, but it's also hard for me to argue against.  This book helped me catch a fraction of a glimpse into the lives soldiers lead, and helps me appreciate the incredibly debt we owe them.

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