Sebastian Junger’s War:

A Journalist’s Journey into the Heart of 2nd Platoon

Sebastian Junger’s War is a historical narrative, written from Junger’s own perspective, which depicts the events he witnessed and the people he met throughout his trips into the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. Best-seller and award-winning writer, Junger spent countless hours with the men of Second Platoon, B Company, 2-503rd of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and this book, along with the companion documentary Restrepo, are not just a tribute to the men of 2nd Platoon, B Company, but to all combat soldiers that share in their experiences.

War is written as a series of essays that are loosely interconnected. Junger’s depiction of the lives, emotions, activities, traditions, and deaths of men in 2nd platoon is not an attempt at depicting war in the way other writers have before. Junger doesn’t spend too much time going into the details of tactics, strategy, or weaponry beyond what he feels in necessary for the average reader to track what is happening. Junger’s War is an attempt at building a bridge—a bridge that he hopes will connect the life of the combat soldier with the understanding of the average American citizen who isn’t as connected to or impacted by the War in Afghanistan. By removing himself from the political dilemmas of war, Junger is able to depict the heart, soul, and mind of the American professional soldier and share with the reader the personal struggles and conflicts that make war such a horror to witness, an honor to serve in, and that has come to signify so much to the young troopers of 2nd Platoon, B Company.

Throughout the book, Junger makes a number of very interesting observations—conclusions, moments, and experiences he came across as he lived day in and day out with the men of Second platoon. One of these observations is that of courage in the battlefield and the elements present in the American soldier (in this case infantryman) that set him apart from the Taliban insurgent. While out on patrol at night, second platoon was caught in an L-shaped ambush by a dozen Taliban fighters. In a “wall of lead” that tore through the platoon’s long single-file movement. Junger mentions that there were two Apache pilots watching it all happen from above, yet they were unable to do much due to the close distance between second platoon and the ambushing element of insurgents.

As the element under attack began to recover from the initial moments of the ambush, Junger describes how SPC Giunta went looking for the alpha team leader, SGT Brennan, who had gone down within flashes of the initial attack. However, instead of finding Brennan, Giunta notices two enemy fighters dragging the sergeant away down the hillside. Immediately SPC Giunta began firing on the fighters dragging away his team leader and went to the rescue of SGT Brennan—all of this as the enemy fire and ambush continued but began to fall apart little by little as each person in the squad recovered and began to counterattack.

Even though not mentioned in the book, SPC Giunta (now SSG Giunta) went on to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the ambush. Prior to his rescuing SGT Brennan, Giunta had also helped pulling multiple members of his squad back behind cover and also killed one of the fighters dragging SGT Brennan away. Junger mentions that “the Army has a certain interest in understanding what was going through Giunta’s mind during all of this, because whatever was going through his mind helped save the entire unit from getting killed” (120). Junger goes onto to mention that a year later several American squads conducted an L-shaped ambush at night on a column of Taliban fighters. However, unlike the men of 2nd and 1st platoon, the Taliban columns were completely wiped out (Junger 120). Junger goes on to highlight that even in moments of grave danger and certain death, the American soldier is trained to live, move, and fight as a unit and not as an individual or as Junger states it, “in that sense it’s much more like a football team than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win” (Junger 120). Sebastian Junger, even though not a serviceman but a writer and a journalist, comes to a new understanding of what service, leadership, and sacrifice mean to the American combat soldier.

In Giunta’s actions Junger emphasizes the elements of the American soldier that make the difference between them and the Taliban enemy—the difference between victory and defeat.

Continuing his understanding and grasping of the men in Second Platoon, Junger also highlights the psychological impact the war has had on the men. About half way into the book he mentions a conversation with Moreno, one of the men in Second Platoon, regarding firefights: “ ‘It’s like crack,’ he yelled, ‘you can’t get a better high.’ I asked him how he was ever going to go back to civilian life. He shook his head. ‘I have no idea’” (Junger 180). Yes, Junger talks about the great acts of selfless virtue and courage that American soldiers are doing in the War in Afghanistan—he honors those he give all they have. But Junger also mentions the sacrifice of combat and of constant war. Junger states that the thrill and ecstasy of battle is one that is incredibly hard to replicate outside of war. Many of the men in Second Platoon, knowing only the excitement of combat, came to rely on firefights as a source of “life” having nothing else in the mountains of Afghanistan. It can be debated whether this is a good or bad thing, considering these men are trained to engage and destroy their enemies, but the conclusion is that whether good or bad, there are bound to be repercussions as these men will one day go back into civilian life.

Sebastian Junger does state that this isn’t something just experienced by the trained professional soldier, but by anyone who has experienced war period. “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know” (Junger 144). Even though holding himself back from any judgments or criticism of what this does in the human spirit, Junger does his job responsibly by pointing the impact of war on the young men fighting it. Junger shares with the reader the issues, the facts, the good, and the bad and yet keeps himself from making a judgment call—he especially withholds any judgment on the men who are sacrificing their youths doing the fighting.

Even though keeping himself from making judgment on the soldiers, Junger does defend the concept of missing combat. This notion which is often judged on the civilian and outside world as being “trigger happy” or insane is one which Junger clears up for the reader. Junger writes that “when men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at—you’d have to be deranged—it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life” (Junger 234). It isn’t getting a shot that the combat soldier becomes nostalgic of, but the sense of significance, brotherhood, and meaningfulness that comes from being in a state of war and having to depend on the man right next you with your life—and vice versa.

Junger, throughout War, describes the lives of these men: their fears, forms of entertainment, crazy unit rites of passage, their ideas on God and religion, and even their passion for a specific weapon system. War is truly a masterpiece of literature inspired by America’s current war in Afghanistan and the men that fight the war on the ground. However, even though being a responsible journalist and withholding judgment from the men and the situations taking place in the war, Junger does raise a point of warning and also wisdom. Junger, in War, depicts not just the excitement and thrilling aspects of combat, but also the fear, the pain, and agony, and the fact that people die—sometimes, your friends. It is interesting, looking back at the beginning of the book, how the observation post where Second Platoon is at is called OP Restrepo: named after the platoon’s medic who was the first one to die in the deployment. Junger leaves the reader with the responsibility that now knowing and holding a greater insight into the lives and experiences of combat soldiers, it is the responsibility of every American to hold America’s leaders accountable—knowing that when decisions are made and wars begin, America’s young citizens soldiers will be the ones to pay the greatest price.

In conclusion, War is a confession of a world unknown to most of us. War is the result of one journalist’s journey into one valley, with one platoon, throughout their one year tour. Through his work, Sebastian Junger teaches us, the reader, not just the fact that these soldiers are real people with real lives, emotions, and issues, but that their sacrifices are great for much is asked from them. Junger, once again, doesn’t make a judgment call on the war or the reasons for it; however, Junger does make us aware of the fact that when decisions are made and wars are fought, real people pay the price. Some men become heroes, like SSG Giunta, will live on with their lives; however, others, like Doc Restrepo, will become beacons of light to remind us of the ultimate price paid by the combat soldier.

 

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