After I got a copy of Sebastian Junger's latest book in the mail, it sat ominously on my desk for weeks, like a parking ticket that I knew I should pay but for whatever reasons hadn't. Partly, I had a problem with the book's name, which is War.
It's a brave little title for a book and even braver considering it was written by an embedded journalist. An embed, I thought, writing a book called War? Seems slightly absurd, as if a virgin had written a book called Sex.
I also feared coming across the word we, since some embeds remind me of sports fans. The ones who use the word we when referring to their favorite team — for example, "we won" or "we lost." Well, no you didn't; you watched it from the comfort of your living room sofa, you loser.
Finally, I picked up the book and forced myself to read it. I'm glad I did. I realized that Junger, who made five trips to Afghanistan for Vanity Fair magazine, is one of the few embeds out there who gets it. He writes, "I'm interested in what it's like to serve in a platoon of combat infantry in the U.S. Army. The moral basis of the war doesn't seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero. Soldiers worry about those things about as much as farmhands worry about the global economy, which is to say, they recognize stupidity when it's right in front of them but they generally leave the big picture to others."
Junger is not a faux embedded Green Zone reporter; the author of The Perfect Storm experiences war up close and knows what it's like being shot at by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and targeted by roadside bombs. Both of which I would consider occupational hazards, but what was interesting was reading the embed's take on such things happening to him.
"Journalistic convention holds that you can't write objectively about people you're close to," he writes, "but you can't write objectively about people who are shooting at you either."
The book is broken into three sections: "Fear," "Killing" and "Love." Each has a bit of an insight on war — "As Soldiers Really Live It" — which is great, I guess, for those who care to know more about such things, but the real story, I thought, was the group of guys Junger tracks throughout the book:
"They wore their trousers unbloused from their boots and tied amulets around their necks and shuffled around the outpost in flip-flops jury-rigged from packing foam used in missile crates. Toward the end of their tour they'd go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips."
Junger follows a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade for 15 months, in 2007 and 2008, on a remote outpost near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan's infamous Korengal Valley — it's the so-called "Valley of Death" that American forces withdrew from just last month.
The platoon is not some unit that's in the rear with the gear and a lot of free time on their hands. These are soldiers who earn every single penny of their hazardous-duty pay.
Junger writes about what these guys go through, the way they talk, how they view their war, the rush it gives them — honestly and in a language that's reminiscent of Michael Herr's Vietnam War classic Dispatches. So much so that it might be safe to say that Junger has written the Dispatches of the Afghanistan war. Only time will tell whether he has or not. My guess would be that he has.