Monday, 16 August 2010

Review: War, Sebastian Junger (2010)

The grunts in Battle Company think that Pakistan is waging a war against America in Afghanistan, so when a higher-up orders a retaliatory airstrike on a position across the border - Battle Company, where Junger is embedded, is located in Konar Province hard up against the Pakistani border - they cheer loudly. "Finally," they think.

Junger gives us access to many - usually invisible - elements of the American campaign, including Prophet, a signals feed that constantly monitors radio transmissions in the Korengal Valley. But he doesn't tell us in what language the insurgents are talking, Pashtun or Arabic. We get the impression that there are a lot of foreign fighters coming across the border from Pakistan, but we don't learn much more about them. So it's hard to corroborate details gleaned from this book against information from other stories, some in the news, that are current or have been current.

I imagine single figures exiting cover, as seen from a vantage point across the narrow valleys that characterise this part of the globe. They flit across open spaces, all the time watching for signs of life in the distance. They don't carry guns - the American terms of engagement stipulate that you can't fire on an unknown person unless they're carrying a gun. The figure passes behind the trees. A few minutes later, another figure appears, looks around, disappears.

Junger gives you this kind of access to the secrets of battle and he has taken the hard road to wisdom by going to a part of the theatre of war that is more often attacked than other parts. He's in the thick of it, and his stories show the strains on the soldiers of the constant anxiety.

Surprisingly, however, there's also the constant fight against boredom. Not fighting can be as hard on morale - if not harder - than fighting itself is. Not fighting might be the result of a slow local economy: poor crop yields may mean no money for ammunition. What Junger is able to show is the human, intimate, side of war. It is fought by men and women, not by generals sitting in offices in far-removed central command posts with press attaches and hot coffee on-call.

Of course, they are the ones who gave Junger access, but they feature rarely in the book. When the Army bureaucracy does feature at all it seems to be too detached and alien. The drama of fighting the enemy has nothing to do with broader logistical or political issues, and everything to do with the men you live - and die - with.

The high-altitude outpost Junger often inhabits is named Restrepo, for example. That was the name of a senior soldier who was killed in action. It may be an ugly and uncomfortable place to live in, but there's no point complaining. Camerarderie demands cohesion. Proximity breeds camerarderie. You fight for your mates, not your country.

And this is the point: the broad-focus analyses of the policies and politics behind the Afghan war disappear amid the humdrum details of quiet days when the enemy is absent and the savage intensity of mortal combat when the enemy engages - usually without any preliminaries to allow you to get comfortable with the idea. The men with clean uniforms are displaced from our field of attention by the men who shoot their machine guns while dressed in their underpants. The White House press conference is replaced by the silence of the forest in the pre-dawn dimness as Battle Company prepares for another day of reconnaissance and, possibly, conflict.

It's a good book with a lot to say about the stupidity and logic of war, but also about its allure. And Junger doesn't pull his punches. He shows us how the troops haze a newly-arrived commander, the practical jokes they play on one another, the frenzy of weathering an attack. It's this intimacy we become privy to that removes the plasticised cognates of the official "line" that we normally get through the press, like removing a fake fingerprint with a pair of tweezers. With the new set of cognates he provides - fixed firmly in place - we are able to enter a new realm where different principles are important.

It's the things of this realm that we're asked to remember when, at annual remembrance ceremonies, we are persuaded to observe a minute's silence. The rhetoric of powerful men and women who are engrossed in geopolitics fade away like a bad dream. So, what is a better vision for the future? Parhaps, this: in Afghanistan men and women died fighting because they were told to go and serve. They served - and their comrades served with them. Let us not forget them.

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