War & Restrepo by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger
Hachette Book Group, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-446-55624-8

I’ve been puzzled by this book since I read it in February. Shortly after finishing the book, I attended an engaging lecture by Sebastian Junger at Elmhurst College (February 20, 2011). I thought his talk was much more organized and intentional than either his book, War, or his movie, Restrepo (with co-creator Tim Hetherington). Recently I listened again to a talk Junger gave at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago that you can listen to here.

War is Junger’s account of what an Army combat platoon went through on a 15 month deployment to Afghanistan. He was embedded with them five different times over those 15 months. Restrepo is Junger’s and Tim Hetherington’s award-winning documentary of the platoon consisting of footage that they both shot over the months they were there. Sometimes Junger and Hetherington where in Afghanistan together and other times individually. Hetherington was killed earlier this year while covering the civil war in Libya. Sebastian wrote a tribute to his friend and colleague that you can read here.

First: the book War

The pre-publication hype about this book was substantial. I’d come across ads for it in Publisher’s Weekly and on book-related websites and blogs. It was touted as being unlike any other book about war and would give readers the experience of what its like to be in combat. I think it had a negative impact on my reading of the book.

The book left me scratching my head wondering why Junger presented his observations the way he did. From my perspective as someone who has read a fair amount of military literature, I just didn’t get what was so special or different about this book. Junger describes the adrenaline, fear, boredom, loneliness and grab-ass behavior within the brotherhood of these soldiers and how they’re lost without their unit when they find themselves back home, but that’s nothing new in the literature of war. What is powerful about the book was Junger’s description of how a certain type of young man thrives on the adrenaline of war and his advocacy that society has to find a way to work with them, to channel that energy in a healthy way when they come home from fighting our wars. Perhaps Karl Marlantes’s new book, What It Is Like To Go To War, may prove to be a fitting companion book to War.

I’d read Junger’s first book,  A Perfect Storm, years ago and was swept in by Junger’s ability to tell a story, to make characters come alive, to make me feel the power and violence of the ocean and the danger of the job of being a commercial fisherman.

War did not grip me or engage me like that. Junger was reporting what he saw in the Korengal Valley, but he didn’t shape his reporting into a coherent narrative. He relates what the men told him they felt or tries to piece their feelings together from observing them. As a result, at times it seemed rather stereotypical and general, a bit vague even. Junger isn’t reporting what its like to be in combat, he’s reporting what its like to watch others engage in combat. He’s reporting what its like to be along for the ride and I do not mean that to sound flippant or disrespectful. He’s a journalist in a combat zone. Yes, he’s getting shot at, but he’s not a solider who is fighting. And although he claims friendship with some of the men, he’s still an outsider, a civilian who can come and go as he pleases. Maybe that’s the disconnect I felt. He also regularly inserts his own experience which may have added to some of the disconnect.

There was also a vagueness to the chronology so I wasn’t sure when things were happening which took away from any sense of growth between the men or Junger’s relationship with them or even how a particular man changed over the 15 month deployment.

Part of me wishes he would’ve either focused more on the men and the importance of their mission OR focused more on his own experience. Trying to do both seemed to water the book down, to keep it in the realm of the general rather than going deep. I didn’t get a sense of who most of the men were when they’d pop up in various chapters and there’s no sense of his connection with the men (other than his direct statements claiming friendship).

Second: the movie Restrepo

After having confused feelings about the book, I looked forward to seeing the movie Restrepo.  I was hoping it would fill in the gaps and weaknesses that I thought the book had.  But I don’t think Restrepo is meant to be a companion to Junger’s book. The best thing about the movie for me was seeing the landscape of the Korengal Valley. I didn’t think Afghanistan was so green or snowy. Almost all of the pictures that I’ve seen of American military in Afghanistan are gray and rocky with steep, pointy mountains in the background. It was pretty stunning to actually see just how steep those mountains are as the men hike up and down them on patrol and just how large the landscape is. I also liked the footage of civilian dwellings. The movie clarified the importance of the creation of outpost Restrepo and how its presence impacted the war effort.

However, the movie excludes some pretty important facts (such as how the platoon beats each incoming member, including its new lieutenant, which I found to be completely incomprehensible) and it does not set up some of the scenes so viewers know what’s going on. For example, the L-shaped ambush scene that was well explained in the book.

Third: the lecture at Elmhurst College

Junger started his talk by telling the audience about himself, where he comes from, what he did as a young man, how he got into journalism. When covering wars he’s always been with the local civilian population, be they non-combatants or militia.  He’d covered Afghanistan in the 1990s.  After the US invaded Afghanistan it was clear that the US military would be in country for years to come and Junger decided he’d like to see what it was like inside a professional fighting force and became an embedded journalist.  He tried to simply report what he saw and tried to understand the experience of the men he was with.

Junger’s talk was entertaining and informative and several audience members asked insightful questions that lead to powerful replies from Junger.  Three stick in my mind.

1.  The first was a veteran who said he’d read the book, saw the movie, listened to Junger’s talk and couldn’t decide if he was pro- or anti-war.  Everyone laughed, including Junger.  His reply was the he was simply trying to report what he saw.  He leaves it up to the reader/viewer to form their own opinions.  It would have been really lame for Junger to leave it at that.  He added that his background was liberal, he’s seen many wars around the globe, and he’s not pro- or anti-war, but is for doing whatever will end up causing the least human suffering.  Or whatever looks like it might help.  As he said, when a government is killing its people, others can’t just sit there and watch it happen.

2.  The second question came from a high school junior who said he is starting to get recruitment emails from colleges, one being West Point.  He’s seriously considering applying to West Point and asked Junger if he thought he could make a difference in the world as a lietenant in the US Army. There were lots of gasps and wows whispered throughout the audience after the well-spoken young man asked that question.  Junger seemed a bit bowled over by it.  His answer was yes.  In a nutshell, he said you will make a difference in the world whatever you decide to do.  And toward the end of his reply he made it clear that that difference could be positive or negative depending on how aware one is.

3.  The third question from an audience member that sticks in my mind was more of an accusation, the implication being that Junger had glorified the bombing of civilians and the stealing of their food (the cow incident) and would he consider going back and living with a civilian family with bombs being dropped on him. Junger handled the question very well although at least one person sitting near me rolled his eyes and a few others shifted in their seats uncomfortably.  I imagine Junger probably has at least one angry person at every event.  He answered this question by talking about how all his prior war reporting had been from the civilian or militia perspective, how he lived with civilians in northern Afghanistan in the 1990s and how terrifying it was to be bombed.  He repeated that he isn’t pro-war or anti-war, but he is pro- doing whatever can be done to prevent the least amount of human suffering. If the US withdrew its military presence now, the civilian population would be stuck between a government they don’t trust and the Taliban.  Sometimes the presence of a professional military force, particularly one as effective as the United States, can keep the number of deaths lower or prevent them all together while the civilian population has a chance to get it’s government in order.

In response to a question about books to read, Junger recommended reading books by people who have actually been in combat because, he claims, they respect combat too much to glorify it and they respect combat too much to demonize it.  I was struck by this statement and find myself using it to think about the military books I read or movies I watch. I certainly see a lot more glorification, even in books or movies that claim to be neutral or anti-war. Perhaps its just the way I interpret things. What do you think about Junger’s statement?

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