I've been putting this book off for a while, but decided to finally read it in honor of Memorial Day. It was worth it, and the only reason I give it four stars instead of five is that I have no desire to read it ever again.
There is quite a bit of military in my blood, though I'm a generation removed from it. All three of my grandfathers served in the military--two in the Navy and one in the Army. One of my uncles served briefly, and at least one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI. I have a few friends who either have served or are currently serving in various branches of the armed forces. This book makes me realize that no matter how much I may want to understand their experiences, nothing I can read will ever make that truly possible.
Sebastian Junger spent fifteen months on and off embedded with troops in Afghanistan's Korengal valley, easily the most dangerous and fatal area in all of Afghanistan for American soldiers. He goes on patrols with them, spends time with them during the interminable hours between firefights, gets shot at with them, and even gets hit by an IED with them. The book is basically documenting the experiences he witnesses while he is observing, and the way that his perceptions of the soldiers change. He also uses research to discuss the way the soldiers (both those he is embedded with and those throughout history) cope with the things they've done and seen.
Junger spends a lot of time talking about the difficulty for these men of transitioning back into civilian society after spending more than a year isolated in the wilds of Afghanistan. His position is that the problem is less about the violence, stress, and trauma they encountered and more about the lack thereof on their returns. These men spent months bonding with one another, and functioning amid a level of never-ending lethal tension. At any moment--while they sleep, eat, piss, or simply sit around--they could die. Every single moment of the day could be their last, and they spend all available mental and physical energy dealing with that fact. Every action has to be considered as to whether it will beneficial or detrimental to the group. They begin to act almost like ants or bees--every individual gives himself over to the group, and behaves accordingly. And the group in turn protects each member. The men know that no matter what happens, their brothers-in-arms would each give his life to save the others. Everything beyond that fact is more or less unimportant. This behavior is what keeps them alive on the battlefield, but becomes problematic in a civilian setting. The men aren't used to having to deal with subtleties. They can become frustrated by the minutia of daily life--car payments, arguments with wives or girlfriends, the small decisions that those of us on the outside take for granted. After spending a year on constant high-alert, watching friends die or be injured, living in a place where not only the population but the land itself is hostile, it's difficult to muster up an interest in working an office job or mowing the lawn. Not to mention that they've gone from being in a place where every man has his back--whether they like one another or not--to having to survive entirely on their own. Reading this made me surprised not that there are so many soldiers who have trouble returning from duty, but rather that so many manage so well.
It's a great book, and not really political in any way. Aside from a very brief mention at the end, the President is not mentioned at all. The military leadership are not mentioned often, and when they are, it's usually questions from the author, not from the soldiers. Frankly, most of them have little interest in the broader politics of the campaign, and are only focused on doing the job they've been assigned. The author's questions about why they are in Korengal in the first place are mostly met with shrugs. The only question the soldiers seem to have is not why they are at war in Afghanistan but why they are NOT at war with Pakistan (a prescient question at the time, considering what we now know about Pakistan's role in harboring Osama Bin Laden). For the most part though, they are merely interested in keeping their fellow soldiers alive.
I found this book pretty emotional--several of the soldiers featured do die--but not graphic. The language is a bit salty, but that's to be expected. On the whole, I thought it was a well-written, well-researched story of a world I can never truly understand.
And to all members of the military--past, future, and present--thank you for your service to our country. Maybe we don't say it as much as we should, but your courage and sacrifices are appreciated.