Sebastian Junger heads to Afghanistan
London: Sebastian Junger, in reviewing Karl Marlantes` new novel ‘Matterhorn’ about the Vietnam War, writes that every war novel must confront a central contradiction: It "contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience."
But Junger seems determined to tread precisely that contradiction in ‘War,’ his non-fiction account of a year in Afghanistan`s remote Korengal Valley.
If Marlantes wanted to give his readers the same experiences that radically altered him more than he wanted to portray the bravery or drama that makes war compelling, then Junger most wants to show us "a miraculous kind of antiparadise," rife with boredom and dust and punctuated by the occasional fatal firefight. He discovers the young soldiers that he wanted to understand have found many of the same emotional challenges and satisfactions in the Korengal that they would at home, and they have recreated many social structures.
Fundamentally, Junger concludes, a platoon can function almost indefinitely, given sufficient supplies, because it`s just the size of a community, with about 150 members, that humans can identify with. "By the time you got to brigade level three or four thousand men any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical," Junger writes of research on community identity that he says applies to the soldiers he came to know.
As readers scramble along with Junger on confusing and terrifying raids and watch men he knows die, the whole question of greater purpose seems irrelevant. A new, respected commander wants to give residents debit cards they can use to obtain food, independent of local healers, with the idea that more aid would get to its destination and that U.S. forces would get more information about who needed it and where. But even this noble idea fades into the monotony of outpost life in 2007 to 2008, along with the commander`s incisive observation that valley residents are like indentured servants.
‘War’ gains clarity but also a painful poignancy with the US abandonment of the valley last month. It`s a lot harder now than even a year ago to argue that the soldiers Junger knew were naive or somehow particularly unaware.
The overwhelming problem Junger describes is of military brass with little sense of the war on the ground who didn`t grasp that the locals were getting more organized, not worn down. That understanding, a basic evaluation of the real costs of war whether, for instance, the Korengal was worth the 50 American lives lost there is "the one thing" a country owes its soldiers, Junger writes.
Junger leans away from comparing Afghanistan and Vietnam. But nothing struck this reviewer more than the fundamental similarities between what Junger in his New York Times review calls the "horror and absurdity" of Vietnam and his take on the Korengal. Why else the stark title ‘War’?
Best known for ‘The Perfect Storm,’ about a rugged fleet of New England fishermen caught in a hurricane, Junger is a longtime journalist and has covered regional conflicts around the world.