In October 2011, the American military endeavor in Afghanistan entered its eleventh year of combat. Never before has the U.S. been involved in a war for so long, and never before has such a small share of the American population been directly involved in the war effort. At the height of the Second World War, nearly nine percent of the population was in the military, whilst only one half of one percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty at any time during the last decade of sustained warfare – all according to The Pew Research Center’s study The Military-Civilian Gap.
A soldier participating in the study claims that the civilians do not know the military, and he says, “I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”
Those who wish to understand the soldiers employed by the U.S. military forces (not all are American) can read Sebastian Junger’s War. It is a journalistic tour de force about the nature of the warrior and war.
Junger spent 14 months embedded with a platoon – that’s about 30 men – of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. It is a tiny outpost of U.S.A.’s mighty military machine, and out here the U.S. soldiers know that they may get overrun by the Taliban, who – heavily armed – engage in battle “as calmly as if they [are] organizing a game of cricket.”
The men portrayed in Junger’s book are not the polished soldiers that are on display during an NFL game. These men sometimes throw themselves into battle wearing shorts and flip-flops, some of them have big tattoos saying “Infidel” – as that’s how the enemy describes them – and when boredom sets in (and there is a lot of that) someone comes up with the idea of sending Junger and his colleague “down to Darbart wearing burkas made out of American flags. (Surely that would kick something off.)”
This is war as it is – not glorified, but not all hell either. Modern warfare moves furiously fast and is supremely violent, but it also has a certain beauty. And few civilians will ever experience the highs that a soldier may experience in combat, when endorphins and dopamine kick in.
War is a book that is well researched, engaging, and deeply moving. A large number of U.S. soldiers engaged in the war in Afghanistan come and go and only a few are portrayed in a multi-layered way, but overall Junger paints an image of the warrior that is complex and honest, and War offers anthropological, biological, historical, psychological, and sociological insights as it shows the warrior in fear, killing, and love.