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The Best of Sebastian Junger's "War"

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I have a pet theory about war memoirs: reporters write them better. They have a level of competency in their prose honed from years of practice. This isn’t an accident. I’m sure you could graph out a memoir’s quality compared to a writer’s experience, and they would correlate. (Books with ghost writers tend to disappoint. I don’t know what this means, except that people should avoid generalizations.)

Sebastian Junger’s writing, in his memoir War, captures the insanity, pathos, love and humor of war, often all in the one paragraph. As a journalist, he celebrates the small, fascinating details, which is something, unfortunately, is absent in most war memoirs.

Here are some (but not all) of my favorite passages from War, arranged chronologically:

     “Inexperienced soldiers are known as ‘cherries,’ and standing up in a firefight is about as cherry as it gets. So is this: the first night at the KOP, O’Byrne heard a strange yammering in the forest and assumed the base was about to get attacked. He grabbed his gun and waited. Nothing happened. Later he found out it was just monkeys that came down to the wire to shriek at the Americans. It was as if every living thing in the valley, even the wildlife, wanted them gone.” Page 12

     “A couple of months into the deployment Hunter came up with the phrase “Damn the Valley,” which quickly became a kind of unofficial slogan for the company. It seemed to be shorthand not for the men’s feelings about the war--those were way too complicated to be summed up in three words--but for their understanding of what it was doing to them: killing their friends and making them jolt awake of the night...Damn the Valley: you’d see it written on hooch walls and in latrines as far away as the air base at Jalalabad...” Page 38 

     “The Korengalis are originally from Nuristan, an enclave of mostly Persian and Pashai-speaking tribesman who practiced shamanism and believed that the rocks and trees and rivers around them had souls...They terraced the steep slopes of the valley into wheat fields and built stone houses that could withstand earthquakes (and, it turned out, 500-pound bombs) and set about cutting down the cedar forests of the upper ridges. The men dye their beards red and use kohl around their eyes, and the women go unveiled and wear colorful dresses that make them look like tropical birds in the fields. Most Korengalis have never left their village and have almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley. That makes it a perfect place in which to base an insurgency dedicated to fighting outsiders. One old man in the valley thought that American soldiers were actually Russians who had simply stayed after the Soviet Army pulled out in 1989.” Page 47

      “At some point a call came in over the radio that the Scouts were watching a guy crawl around on the mountainside without a leg. They watched until he stopped moving, and then they called in that he’d died. Everyone at Restrepo cheered. That night I couldn’t sleep, and I crept out of my bunk and went and sat on the roof of the ammo hooch. It was a nice place to watch the heat lightning out along the Pech or to lie back on the sandbags and look up at the stars. I couldn’t stop thinking about that cheer; in some ways it was more troubling than all the killing that was going on. Stripped of all politics, the fact of the matter was that the man had died alone on a mountainside trying to find his leg. He must have been crazed with thirst and bewildered by the sheer amount of gunfire stitching back and forth across the ground looking for him. At one point or another every man in the platoon had been pinned down long enough to think they were going to die—bullets hitting around them, bodies braced for impact—and that’s with just one or two guns. Imagine a whole company’s worth of firepower directed at you. I got the necessity for it, but I didn’t get the joy. It seemed like I either had to radically re-understand the men on this hilltop, or I had to acknowledge the power of a place like this to change them.
      “‘You’re thinking that this guy could have murdered your friend,’ Steiner explained to me later. ‘The cheering comes from knowing that that’s someone we’ll never have to fight again. Fighting another human being is not as hard as you think when they’re trying to kill you. People think we were cheering because we just shot someone, but we were cheering because we just stopped someone from killing us. That person will no longer shoot at us anymore. That’s where the fiesta comes in...
      “Nearly fifty American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I’m not saying that’s a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war (for some reason, the closer you are to combat the less inclined you are to question it), but someone must. That evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders.’” Page 153

      “...Later, I point out to Byrne that they actually did kill the cow.
      “Well, it was pretty badly tangled up in the wire,” he says.
       “It was tangled up in the wire because you guys chased it in there.”
      “Okay,” he says. ”It’s a gray area.” Page 202

“The mood eases when Airborne, a puppy that Second Platoon took from the Afghan soldiers, wanders into the courtyard. They named him Airborne because the solders who are going to take over in July...are just regular infantry, and the idea was to remind them of their inferiority every time they called for the dog. (It backfired: I was told someone from Viper just took Airborne out to the burn pit and shot him.)” Page 209

eleven comments

I had a picture from the album “War” by U2, but Michael C said no one would get the reference.

I’ll update it with more pics later.

New photo is up.

Journalists certainly write great war memoirs, but then again they are professional writers, and most soldiers are not. The best war memoirs and novels, however, are written by soldiers who become/were writers. Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn for example. And yes, details make great memoirs.

When I read “War”, I had immediately understood the cheering for the death of the man without a leg, but I brooded after the passage of the shooting of Airborne. I’m wondering if this indictative of loss of innocence or loss of humanity or something else?
“War” has a basic unspoken sense of futility in a macro-sense, but certainly not for those who participated.

@ Derek – I have a theory on why the deaths of animals can affect us more than the deaths of humans, but it is long and detailed, and far from complete. But I think you identified one of the main contradictions in war.

War is an amazing book – should be part of a required reading list for Americans, military & civilians alike. Interesting choices for favorite passages.

My review is going up tomorrow, and I liked it, but there are mistakes. Im looking forward to your thoughts tomorrow.

Who stands up in a fire fight?

@ Harrison – I think they explain in the paragraph right before that that it was his first firefight, and the totally incorrect instinct to look around took over.

It’s odd, but I’ve never been shot at, you know?

You stand up because in video games, FPS, all you do is run around. And you have better situational awareness standing up. Standing up breaks the fog, except for the bullets.

I was re-watching We Were Soldiers and a bunch of guys stood up as the NVA moved in to attack. They were promptly mowed down.