Tuesday, August 10, 2010

War, by Sebastian Junger

On certain days I despair to think that our entire country—especially its youth—isn't reading this book and others like it.

Against that despair I imagine it secretly held under the desks of students across the country; I imagine them clustered in their cafeterias, discussing its somber evocation of life in Afghanistan for a handful of American soldiers. In short, I imagine young America seeing their destinies as indistinguishable from the destinies of the men and women in this book.

But then I remember that everything has changed. We're now a nation with a professional army. Our soldiers aren't us, really, but people who are merely doing their job. In a fashion that has transformed American political and moral life, our military now basically has nothing to do with our private ideas of citizenship and social responsibility.

So we don't read these books, most of us, and the war goes on, and some soldiers die, and it all seems about as important as Sarah Palin's latest tweet.

But for those who care, here it is: War, a book about a single platoon that's been asked to hold a section of the Korengal Valley, in eastern Afghanistan.

For reasons that belong to them, these guys have signed up for war's deadly work. They are extremely well trained and live in desolate conditions. We pay them accordingly. In part, we pay to keep their tragedies—which once belonged to all of us—to themselves.

Junger, who has made a career of writing about dangerous work, has given us an updated Perfect Storm. The men are at least as brave as deep-sea fisherman and by all appearances as economically—and perhaps psychologically—desperate. War, like most forms of hard labor, is tedious, dreary, often boring, occasionally lethal, addictive, sometimes thrilling, and usually hopelessly sad. (It's violence, of course, is uniquely grotesque.) The soldiers, we're told, really just fight for each other. They don't care much about politics; they aren't especially patriotic; their fraternal love might be the most intense love of their lives. And Afghanistan is an impenetrable mystery, as it should be to the 21st century mind.

The writing is excellent. It's not Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Finkel's The Good Soldierswhich it echoes in its accounts of war's unromantic suffering and sudden, irreversible violence, but if you care about Afghanistan, as I do at the moment, not least because one of my life's closest friends, Brad Wahlquist, of whom I wrote in "Playing Pool," is currently fighting in Khost, I haven't read a better portrait of life there for the everyday soldier.

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