To a civilian reader, the word "outpost," at least insofar as the modern American military is concerned, might connote some level of permanence or structure, or at least a little bit of brick-and-mortar security. But not if you're talking about Afghanistan, and not if the year is 2007, and not if you're talking about the tenuous U.S. footholds in the Korengal Valley, a six-mile gash in the "axle-breaking, helicopter-crashing, spirit-killing, mind-bending terrain" near the country's eastern border.
OP Restrepo, the construction and defense of which Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) chronicles in his powerful new book, WAR (and its accompanying documentary film, Restrepo), is little more than a hovel built from sandbags and tarps; there are sturdier dwellings under bridges in Central Park. Its defenders, the combat infantry soldiers of the 173rd Airborne's Battle Company, second platoon, live for the majority of their 15-month deployment without electricity, running water or hot meals. Their days are spent bent over shovels out in the heat, filling 25-ton Hescos with rock and sand, or patrolling steep, rocky hillsides under the crushing weight of 80-pound packs. They urinate in PVC pipes and shower once a week in water pumped from a local creek. They almost never sleep. Many are on psychiatric meds. And they think 30 is very, very old.
Then, of course, there are the ambushes, incoming mortars and nerve-shattering firefights—usually two or three a day—the "war" part of war. The blood-and-death-and-killing part.
By 2007, one-fifth of all combat in Afghanistan is taking place in the Korengal, which U.S. forces consider a critical passageway for Taliban fighters entering the country from Pakistan, and Restrepo is its most remote, most vulnerable outpost. Writing about his five long stays there in 2007 and 2008, Junger dismisses any hope for journalistic objectivity early in the book, and understandably so. "You can't write objectively about people you're close to," he says, "but you can't write objectively about people who are shooting at you, either."
As it turns out, some of the best, most eye-opening parts of WAR (and there are many of them) are the ones in which Junger is, in fact, the least objective. His reactions to what is happening around him help put the reader inside (and outside) that wire. Bullets and bombs are nothing new to the longtime war correspondent and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, who has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, but Junger openly admits that even he was unprepared for the maddening privations and constant fear that go with life at Restrepo. Several men are wounded during his time there, and at least one is killed. At one point the armored vehicle he's in rolls over an IED, and the explosion misses him by inches. He finds himself so enraged that for an instant he understands how an otherwise normal, peaceful man could be driven to kill another:
"It's tempting to view killing as a political act because that's where the repercussions play out," he writes, "but that misses the point: a man behind a rock touched two wires to a battery and tried to kill me—to kill us. There are other ways to understand what he did, but none of them overrides the raw fact that this man wanted to negate everything I'd ever done in my life or might ever do. It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn't. Combat theoretically gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don't allow for anything."
Is all this violence traumatic for the author? Of course. Is it also exhilarating? Absolutely. Echoing two other famous works by war correspondents, Michael Herr's Dispatches and Chris Hedges' War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Junger writes: "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 ... War is life multiplied by a number no one has ever heard of."
But, despite what Hollywood films might lead us to believe, the adrenaline rush of combat isn't the only part of this war that keeps men returning to it, according to Junger, and he posits that it's not what keeps the young Taliban fighters coming back, either. What motivates and sustains the soldiers of Battle Company is actually love—the adamantine bonds forged among young men in hostile territory, ones impossible to duplicate in the civilian world—the notion that any member of the platoon would readily die for any other. That's much more addictive than any romance, and more compelling than any religion. "The nearly narcotic effect of a tightly-knit group might have made faith superfluous," Junger writes. "The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away."
The politics of war, however pressing or controversial they may be for civilians, weigh very little on the minds of men fighting it; they're too busy trying to survive, too busy refining what Junger calls "the Zen of not fucking up." Anything beyond that is conjecture and abstraction, two luxuries that combat infantry in places like Restrepo just don't have. So anyone looking for commentary on the geopolitical particulars of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will not find it here. But Junger's meditations on fear, killing and love—and on the intoxicating allure of combat for one group of young men—will no doubt earn WAR a well-deserved spot among the great works of combat journalism. This harrowing account is critical to understanding this war, or any war.