Tuesday, February 8, 2011

War by Sebastian Junger

Why I read it: Read The Perfect Storm when it came out, figured Junger was worth another shot.

Summary: Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, embeds with an Army unit in Afghanistan for the purpose of documenting their lives in the recent war. He joins them on patrols, falls into firefights and watches men die.

My Thoughts: My thought? What a waste.

Not of Junger's time, of course, but of human life. The overall message of this book is that young men are dying on behalf of the United States and nobody but a select few seem to care. We get the news delivered nightly, the story of the world in sixty minutes, and occasionally we glimpse a picture of a clean-cut, uniformed all-American boy with the flag draped behind his shoulder and the message that he's gone. The two hundred or so people in his life that truly know and care about him mourn. The rest of us move on to the commercial break.

War fleshes out the story, in the truest sense. A handful of the soldiers Junger profiles come with greater stories: hometowns, backgrounds, family ties, maybe a life's purpose. That's what makes it so hard when they die. As you read, 19-year-olds, 27-year-olds take bullets to the head. It's far too early for anyone to go, and it seems so unfair.

The story of combat in Afghanistan is remarkably like Vietnam in some ways. Small villages are held, well, perhaps hostage is the right word, by Taliban fighters, much like the Viet Cong held theirs. Supplies are hidden. Locals are forced to lie to save their lives and the lives of their families. By day, Americans move into the villages to talk with the elders, to negotiate with them. By night, the enemy fighters emerge.

And despite the firepower of the American military, despite centuries of tactical study, sometimes combat in Afghanistan comes down to the enemy throwing rocks at American soldiers to get them to jump as if reacting to a grenade.

The psychology of modern combat is a focus of the book, from the rush of a firefight to post-traumatic stress disorder. For many soldiers, the war may never end. Sadly, it's the same old story.

The blame, of course, is on the failure of politics. Our military men and women follow orders, and sometimes those orders result in death. It's a horrible situation of which they are forced to make the best. The best we can do is lobby for change, and thank our soldiers, sailors and marines for the sacrifices they make.

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