On a typically blissful Sunday morning in Southern California, physically and figuratively about as far as you can get from eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, hundreds of Angelenos have come to hear author Sebastian Junger speak about men at war on the other side of the world.
Junger’s latest book, “War” (Twelve: 290 pp., $26.99), has been compared to Michael Herr’s Vietnam-era “Dispatches.” To an audience at this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, the journalist is quick to highlight the differences between Herr’s subject and his own.
Vietnam, he explains, was an unpopular war fought with draftees, while the war in Afghanistan has broader public support and a force that willingly signed up to fight.
The point is driven home by the audience when Junger introduces George Santana Rueda, a 23-year-old from the platoon Junger followed for more than a year, who happens to be in town on leave. The audience breaks into heartfelt applause. This is the age of Al Qaeda, not Aquarius; as in the book and among the soldiers themselves, political debate was largely absent from the auditorium. And there’s a book festival outside, not a ‘60s revolution.
With his blue-eyed, chiseled and starting-to-grizzle looks, Junger is just the specimen Hollywood would cast as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan to ensure a box office hit. The author of “The Perfect Storm” and “A Death in Belmont” is a guy’s guy type who would seem certain to get along with an all-male unit that saw more combat than almost any other ahead of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan.
But to assume that Junger had easy access diminishes his reporting skills and his commitment to the story. At age 48, he’s a generation older than most of the soldiers he accompanied into combat over the course of their 15-month deployment and who instinctively put up their guard against an outsider. In fact, Rueda admitted later, the guys spent most of their time trying to avoid Junger during his first couple of monthlong stints with them.
“But he kept coming back,” Rueda said. “I guess it was when he got blown up by the IED [Junger was in an armored vehicle that ran over an improvised explosive device] that we realized he really wanted to be there, that he was going through the same things we were, and we accepted him and decided we could teach him what we knew.”
As Junger’s books on fishermen at the mercy of a storm-stirred sea and the Boston Strangler suggest, he has long been drawn to the subjects of courage and danger, although he insists he’s not a risk junkie.
“I’m careful,” he says. “I wear a seatbelt when I drive. You couldn’t get me to bungee jump.”
Yet he did spend months — between summer 2007 and summer 2008 — in hostile territory, dug into the steep hillsides at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains and surrounded by Afghan Taliban, where soldiers ate one hot meal a day, showered once a week, burned their feces and alternated between weeks of unbearable boredom and as many as 13 gun battles a day. He calls it the “Afghanistan of Afghanistan,” remote and unconquerable, with June heat above 100 degrees and winter snowstorms, a place that previous units had said could “alter your mind in terrible and irreversible ways.”
A Wesleyan graduate with a degree in cultural anthropology, Junger explains that countries in crisis and men in danger reveal “pretty interesting things” about the human condition. On previous trips to Afghanistan, he had written about the Afghan people, but this time he wanted to document the life of a platoon of combat infantry in the U.S. Army and was embedded with Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, now on the front lines of the fight against the Taliban.
In the Korengal Outpost and its satellites, Junger explored what he calls the emotional terrain of combat. The resulting book is written in the first person, but it is observational, offering no critique of the combat he witnessed, taking no position on the efficiency, logic or value of the war. He offers a close-up view of men and the raw elements of war: fear and courage, killing and death, love and brotherhood. “I wanted to understand it unburdened by the very important but confusing and complicated political and moral issues that usually surround a discussion of war,” he says.
Soldiers, he discovered, generally don’t worry about the politics or moral basis for war, or even necessarily the long-term prospects for its success. They are consumed with the job they’ve been sent to do. Junger would sometimes lie awake at night thinking that everything could end at any moment. Often he worried that a mistake on his part could endanger the others, so even though he abided by the unwritten rule that correspondents don’t carry weapons, he violated another by wearing a military-issue camouflage shirt. What if someone died during an ambush, Junger asked himself? He would always wonder if he had triggered the attack. He was determined, he wrote, “not to become a liability.” According to Rueda, he didn’t. “He never panicked,” Rueda says. “He’d always get out of the way when he saw you move with purpose.”
Junger realized that this need he felt of protecting the group was central to the soldiers’ experience. “In combat, something awakens in men that is compelling and intense and confusing to them,” he says. They develop a bond so strong that they are willing to put the security of the group above their own, to risk death to save others.
“I’d never been in a situation where my life depended on other people, and the other way around,” he says.
Junger’s book variously describes this bond among soldiers in terms of family, religion and love. “You’re necessary to everyone else and everyone is necessary to you,” he says. This is a part of what makes the return to civilian life so difficult for soldiers. Another is the fact that while every action in combat may have life-or-death consequences, that isn’t the case in civilian life: “You don’t tie your shoes, you don’t drink water, nothing has consequences in civilian life and if it doesn’t have consequences, it doesn’t feel important.”
Junger found himself deeply affected by his experience with Battle Company. “I was incredibly emotional writing the book,” he says. “People think you get emotional because you’re upset and traumatized. In this case it wasn’t that. I just felt a lot of connection with these guys.”
Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington also have produced a documentary about the unit, “Restrepo,” which refers to a satellite base named for a popular combat medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed in the early days of the deployment. The film, which won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, will be released in theaters this summer and will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel in the fall with a hybrid e-book to follow.
“It was important for me that the movie not come out with the book. I wanted each to be considered on its own merits,” he says, adding that he wanted to make sure to reach out to soldiers, who get much of their information on the Internet. He believes the visual media will help ensure the survival of the kind of narrative writing he does, rather than undercut it.
For Rueda, the hope is that the book and documentary will convey the sense of brotherhood that he and his friends developed, the sense of accomplishment they felt in the Korengal Valley, even though a new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has since decided to abandon the zone after nearly 50 casualties there.
“The biggest thing for the guys was being able to tell people what it was to depend on each other,” Rueda said. Junger “got a lot of it. Some parts are missing, the parts that are harder for civilians to understand, but, yeah, he got it.”
Miller is a Times editorial writer and the paper’s former foreign editor.