Sebastian Junger goes to War

Aaron Lynett / National Post

If you want to begin to understand the psychology of a soldier, read this book, and see his film, Restrepo:

Originally published:
National Post
Saturday, June 12,  2010

by Brad Frenette
“It’s a miraculous kind of antiparadise up here,” writes Sebastian Junger of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in War. “Heat and dust and tarantulas and flies … nothing to do but kill and wait.”

War is an account of men in combat, formed around a narrative of Junger’s five trips to the Korengal — the “Valley of Death” — between June 2007 and June 2008. The U.S. infantrymen from Battle Company with which he and photojournalist Tim Hetherington were embedded were a particularly rough bunch as a result of their hard-knock training and the physical stresses of Korengal. And yet the journalists were given unfettered access to the soldiers — and the possibility of imminent death: They were shot at by snipers and had their vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb.

Now, on this day, Junger, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, is thousands of miles from the battle front, in the boardroom of his Canadian publisher, HarperCollins, at the tail end of a book tour. The 48-year-old writer looks tired as he reflects on the lasting effects of his experience with war, and War.

“Stuff goes away,” he says. “If you have a bad car accident or a bad divorce, eventually you get over it.”

His intention with War was to write a book with a scope much larger than any one conflict, or of any one time. There are no ruminations on policy or strategy, the geopolitical context of this engagement or any other. Rather, War is social anthropology, an examination of men in combat that explores the small events of everyday life, between the firefights. It is a psychological document of why men fight rather than how.

“There’s no grand premise. They are fighting because they are there. They have a job, which is to do what they are told and survive it. Factory workers aren’t thinking about the economy, they’re just doing their shift. And these guys had a 13-month shift, and they were just trying to get to the end of it.”

One of the men Junger gets to know is Brendan O’Byrne, very much a philosopher soldier, who voluntarily assumes point on patrol, walking first into the unknown ahead of his platoon, and is expansive in his views of religion and loyalty. We learn much about O’Byrne’s life before he arrived at Korengal — for example, the occasion he was shot by his father after a vodka-and-testosterone fuelled fist fight. The experience prompts this reflection: “My father and I put ourselves in that position to be f–king evil to each other,” he tells his fellow soldiers. “It’s a tough story but it’s a good one, too. … It’s a story of triumph. I know bullets can’t stop me know.”

That bravado–an ego-shell required for surviving a hail of bullets — is shared by many whom Junger encounters, all of them well-trained individuals in a rough outpost, where superior officers faced the same dangers as the rank and file.

“They flew in there, and looked out the windows of their helicopters and couldn’t believe the terrain they were landing in,” Junger says, about the untested men who arrived in Korengal. “One guy said that in his mind they weren’t ready for this — that it was beyond anything they imagined they were doing. They learned to function very effectively, but only because they were such good soldiers. Drop a National Guard unit in there, and I think they would have all been killed. They wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Junger achieved acclaim with 1997’s The Perfect Storm, his first book, which chronicled the fate of the commercial fishing boat that sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1991.

There are parallels between the books, Junger says: “For thousands of years, society has been sending young men out to do dangerous things. Whether it’s commercial fishing or logging or drilling for oil or war, psychologically it’s essentially the same thing: You bond with the men you are with and they become more important than the world you have left behind.”

The Perfect Storm was made into a film, starring George Clooney. Junger wasn’t involved in Warner Bros.’ interpretation of that book, and says he would insist on being very involved should War– ” a more personal book” — become a Hollywood property. That’s because he is skeptical of the movie industry’s ability to capture the experience of being a soldier.

“The right wing thinks that soldiers fight out of patriotism. The left wing thinks they join out of socioeconomic necessity. Hollywood thinks that soldiers fight out of adrenaline, like The Hurt Locker. That’s complete garbage.”

This may be at least part of the reason Junger filmed his trips to the Korengal and decided to release them as Restrepo, a documentary named for one of the platoon’s first casualties. It did well at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize for domestic documentary.

War concludes as the platoon leaves the valley, to be replaced by more young men –though General Stanley Mc-Chrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has since given orders that all troops are to be withdrawn from the Korengal.

On his return to the States, O’Byrne tells Junger that he plans to re-enlist for combat. Junger understands the impulse: “I think that what people don’t understand is that the role you step into as a young man in combat is that your sense of purpose is so tremendous, your identity is so clear, your role in the group is so necessary and simple — it’s very hard for these guys to come home. It’s not because they are adrenaline junkies, not because they are patriots and certainly not because they don’t have any choices in life. It’s because they had the most profound experience of their life on a hilltop in Afghanistan.”

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