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Uhh! What Is It Good For? A Review of Junger's War

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

      “It wasn’t even fighting season, and the men at Restrepo were having one close call after another. Olsen was on overwatch with the 240 when a round hit a branch above his head and the next one smacked into the dirt next to his cheek...A round splintered wood next to Jones’ head in the south-facing SAW position. O’Byrne was leaning over to help an Afghan soldier who’d just taken a sniper round through the stomach--he died--when a second one came in and missed him by inches. Buno was doing pull-ups when a Dishka round went straight through the hooch he was in. On and on it went, lives measured in inches and seconds and deaths avoided by complete accident. Platoons with a 10 percent casualty rate could just as easily have a 50 percent casualty rate; it was all luck, all God. There was nothing to do about it except skate through on prayers and good timing until the birds came in and took them all home.”
                                                           - War, By Sebastian Junger.

I like Sebastian Junger’s memoir War (the book, not to be confused with the album, band, song, card game or horseman of the apocalypse) because of writing like this. I can easily recommend this solid, but not perfect, book; the good easily outweighs the bad. I wanted to love it, but there are too many mistakes and errors to completely give my literary heart away. (Not to mention that the premise annoys me, as I’ll write about on Monday.)

Why do I like War? First, because I’m a glutton for good writing, and Junger loaded passage after passage of careful detail into War. We had to open with a quote from War today because the post on Wednesday got too long. How many war memoirs have that problem? Not many.

As I’ll explain on Monday, Junger provides context and background information to the events of the documentary Restrepo. This may seem obvious, but it is why I would recommend War over Restrepo. Junger uses the length and depth of a book to describe the history of the Korengal valley, the larger mission, and the soldier’s personal histories.

On those personal histories, Junger describes the soldiers with precision and depth, balancing the noble qualities with the ugly ones. The opening description of O’Byrne is raw, personal and affecting, describing O’Byrne’s rough, violent relationship with his father, and then his turnaround in wood shop with a friendly teacher. Or Junger describes how “a gunner in Weapons Squad claims he made thousands of dollars selling drugs before he joined the Army to avoid getting killed on the streets of Reno.” Sometimes, War just lets the men talk, observing conversations on God, the future and masturbating. (War satisfies most of my war memoir litmus test.)

I love Junger’s approach to research and accuracy. Along with Tim Hetherington, Junger filmed much of the dialogue and action described in the book. This enforces accuracy, at least better than the standard memoir recollected from notes in a journal. In instances without recording, Junger had a reporter’s pen and pad to capture dialogue. “Many scenes in this book were captured on videotape, and wherever possible I have used that tape to check the accuracy of my reporting. Dialogue or statements that appear in double quotation marks (“. . .”) were recorded directly on camera or in my notebook while the person was speaking, or soon thereafter.” Awesome.

But like I wrote earlier, there are problems. As part of his approach, Junger showed “sections with the men to make sure they are comfortable with what I wrote.” I get why he did it, but again, it’s why I think novels can tell us more than non-fiction about the everyday lives of soldiers: a novel can share personal, intimate details behind the guise of fiction. Junger also spends a lot of time writing about battles, but sometimes writes page after page about battles by other platoons and units. If this project was meant to focus on one group, why spend multiple pages dealing with attacks miles away or from years past?

And there are just plain factual mistakes. Junger quotes this quote behaving badly, “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”, and attributes it to both Churchill and Orwell. (We debunked it here.) Despite listing Victory Point as a source, he claims over 200 men attacked Marcus Luttrell. (We debunked that here.) He describes the Korengal valley as unconquerable, but casually mentions that they were forcefully converted to Islam less than 150 years ago. (Again, more here.) And his descriptions of Vicenza, Italy don’t match my experience living there.

Finally, there is the title. In the words of War is Boring, “War is politics and strategy. Combat, by contrast, is a personal experience entirely divorced from the politics driving it. The book should have been called Combat.” I agree. That, and the title is so vague.

These are all mostly minor quibbles. None of them change the fact that I liked War. Maybe it just means more people should read On Violence. But definitely everyone should read War.

four comments

Like I mentioned in the opening post this week, I am hesitant to read War. It seemed like any other book on my reading list felt more important than reading it. Every time I tried, I just would end up thinking about the Korengal and I decided, I don’t want to do that.

Not to take anything away from it, but that is why Eric C reviewed it. Many of my men enjoyed it though.

In yesterday’s New York Times, it was noted that we are withdrawing troops from Korengal and other Taliban hotbed areas. I’m curious about your response to this. My thoughts are inevitably wasted lives.

Secondly, I think that SJ did the “right thing” in showing passages to the soldiers, although it is unusual for journalists to do this sort of thing and even most sociologist-ethnographers. In my own work, I let major characters see materials that includes stuff from their interviews. They have some rights over their interviews. This is a difficult process for me. However, I’ve found it improves the content of the book i.e. individuals add material rather than extract and increase “voice” and accuracy in the process. In addition it diminishes feelings of betrayal that publication without preview might bring. I don’t know if soldiers “changed” content of Junger’s book. Maybe they changed nothing at all (I’ve not read it so I don’t know).

Out of interest, and off topic to boot, have you reviewed/read that other Junger book, Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger?

@ Kosta – It’s high on my reading list. I’ve heard great things, and I think WWI was just a fascinating war, so stay tuned.