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As an 'embedded' reporter in a remote part of Afghanistan bordering on Pakistan, Sebastian Junger risked his life by accompanying a battalion in the everyday heat of war. From June 2007 to June 2008, Junger took five trips to Afghanistan, describing his experience in the six miles long and six miles wide Korengal valley, a valley with 'enormous symbolic meaning' for the war in Afghanistan. He also directed and produced a documentary film, Restrepo, with Tim Hetherington. In this book, Junger provides deeply psychological insight into 'Fear', 'Killing', and 'Love' (the titles of the three parts of the book), revealing an 'inside' perspective of war.
While Junger does not evaluate whether war is a good or bad endeavor and may even glorify some of the scenarios, one cannot help but find evaluations of its less than intelligent aims. Moralistic claims do surface in the text pointing out some of the major flaws of war: 'Accidentally killing civilians is a sure way of losing human terrain--this applies to both sides--and if you do that too many times, the locals will drive you out no matter how many hilltops you occupy' (44) ...'The Koran offers us two choices, revenge and forgiveness…but the Koran says that forgiveness is better, so we will forgive. We understand that it was a mistake, so we will forgive. The Americans are building schools and roads, and because of this, we will forgive' (46). There are many misunderstandings regarding both the American military and the Taliban and this book corrects some of these. But mostly it is an American perspective with very little insight into the 'enemy'. 'Why are they killing us?' is not a question Junger asks, nor do the soldiers with whom he is embedded. They are just 'programmed' to kill. Junger's account does not even enter into the task of winning hearts and minds, the anthropological means of gaining human capital (see the work of David Kilcullen, the mastermind of 'counterinsurgency'), or finding other means of 'winning a war' besides killing or force.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining read with many insights into the nature of battles, the confusion of adrenaline and dopamine rushes, the masculine-inspired anger and frustration as well as emotional breakdown in the immediacy of gunfire and fear. 'Fear', Junger writes, 'has a whole taxonomy--anxiety, dread, panic, foreboding--and you could be braced for one form and completely fall apart facing another' (73). What is it that causes soldiers to break down on a battlefield or bond with each other to overcome all odds? The psychology and physiology of fear then goes together with the experience of it, that is, the feeling and sound of bullets whizzing by your head, and in the midst of battle soldiers are not interested in the overall picture of the war or whether it is just or not. As Junger describes it, ''In the Korengal the soldiers never talked about the wider war--or cared--so it was hard to get a sense of how the country as a whole was faring' (132). Given the fact that more American soldiers were killed in the year that Junger was in the Korengal than any previous year (and the numbers have only increased since then), he acknowledges the brilliance of the Taliban and their ability to engage with better (and more expensive) weaponry. Perhaps it is their ability to overcome fear? 'The fact that networks of highly mobile amateurs can confound--even defeat--a professional army', Junger analyses, 'is the only thing that has prevented empires from completely determining the course of history. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on what amateurs you're talking about--or what empires--but it does mean that you can't predict the outcome of a war simply by looking at the numbers' (83). In the end, this analysis seems incomplete and unsubstantial.
Every soldier and every civilian who is confounded by the nature of war should read this book in order to better understand the psychological reality of war experience. It goes without saying, however, that as much as Junger believes he is not moralizing, the message resounds loud and clear: what foolishness war is.
© 2011 Michael Funk Deckard
Michael Funk Deckard is assistant professor of philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He teaches courses in early-modern philosophy, aesthetics, medical ethics, and issues dealing with war and peace. He is also a Peace Theories Commission Convener for the International Peace Research Association.