I never imagined myself reading a book about war. When I read books with battle scenes I typically skip over the gruesome details. But I was having dinner with my nephew, who had recently returned from a deployment as a physician in Kuwait and our conversation turned to the complexities of war.
"If you want to know what war is really like, read Sebastian Junger's book WAR," he said. My nephew is a reflective observer of life so I thought I would give it a try.
I couldn't put it down. Because Sebastian Junger helped me to see the very human side of war. It's easy to keep the realities of war at more than arm's length, living here in the United States. It's easy to think about war as a relatively abstract concept.
This book didn't allow me to do that any more. Junger showed me what goes on in the hearts and minds of soldiers, mostly young men, confronting death on a daily basis. I felt as though he could have been writing about my nephew, or my son, he took such care with capturing their humanity.
"War," says Junger, "is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men."
Junger, better known for his book The Perfect Storm spent the better part of a fifteen month deployment in the Korengal Valley, considered the most dangerous zone in Afghanistan in 2008. This is no "hail the conquering hero" view of this war. It's a story of the psycho-emotional experience of war, told, not in dusty interviews but in action and discourse, observed in real time.
And I will never look at war the same way again.
It made me stop and ponder how soldiers psycho-emotionally manage the experience. There is a respect I have for the soldier's experience. I wouldn't presume to even imagine how they process the trauma. Nor would I presume that it is anything but an individual experience; different for each person. But I was fascinated to read in Junger's book an account of how, in the deeply confusing and conflicting nature of war, true heroism is birthed from the love these warrior's shared.
I am always curious and attracted to ways that love makes itself known in this world. Especially in the most brutal of human suffering. And Junger had the audacity to title the final section of his book "Love." To suggest that love not only existed in war but shaped the way humans experienced war.
"The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body. The inability to participate in others' lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death." - J. Glenn Gary, The Warriors
What I gather, here, is a truth about love. About how love looks in the face of death. Gary says that a coward is a coward because he is unable to love. That rings true to me. And Junger says that when you get a team of men together in a small group, and they face the risks and challenges of war, some of them begin to love each other. It may not look like love as we expect it to look. The "hazing" ritual of beating up new recruits or officers when they arrived at the outpost may not have looked like love. But the ritual showed much about how the men both respected one another, had a bit of fun, and took the physical challenges with dead seriousness.
They also began to love the tribe they created in a very short period of time. They create their own tribal love where the protection of the platoon matters more than the protection of their own body. And when they return from war, it is the tribe that they most miss, that they most long for.
This debunks a lot of what I thought about courage and faith. I make the assumption that when a person is willing to sacrifice their life for a greater cause it is because they have faith that their life will continue in spirit. But it doesn't appear that it was faith in God that motivated this love, so much as faith in their tribe. Faith in each other.
"The nearly narcotic effect of a tightly knit group might have made faith superfluous. The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away. It was an anesthetic that left you aware of what was happening but strangely fatalistic about the outcome. As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever."
"The defense of the tribe," Junger says later, is an insanely compelling idea, and once you've been exposed to it, there's almost nothing else you'd rather do. The only reason anyone was alive at (and he names several high-risk outposts) was because every man up there was willing to die defending it."
"Collective defense can be so compelling - so addictive, in fact - that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place."
At one point in the book Junger ponders with a soldier about the Godless nature of the Korengal Valley. We always seem to say that God is absent in the face of great suffering. But I say, Religion may not have been present in that valley, but God was there. God existed in every breath of love that the soldiers shared. God existed when a man fell to his knees in grief at the site of dead friend and his platoon was there to comfort him. Jesus knew something of this when he said "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for a friend." Junger showed me how these soldiers tasted the real stuff.