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Sebastian Junger On The Thrill And Hell Of 'War'

May 11, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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Five times between June 2007 and June 2008, the writer Sebastian Junger traveled to a remote Army outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Junger, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, made the trip to embed with a company of soldiers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade as they fought to keep the Taliban from controlling a small, treacherous plot of land. After he returned, Junger wrote about the experiences of these soldiers in a book that he says attempts to locate exactly what it is about combat that appeals to young men.

That book is called, simply, War. And, as Junger points out in it, though war may be a lot of things, it is useless to pretend it's not exciting. That's something some civilians may not be prepared to hear.

It may have been thrilling at times, as Junger tells NPR's Renee Montagne, but establishing and defending the outpost was also physically taxing to an extreme degree.

"One night they walked up there and started digging, and they dug all night, and when dawn came they got attacked," Junger says of the soldiers in Battle Company. "That went on for 24 hours straight, and they said that the most relaxing part of that whole thing was the fighting because they got to lie down and drink some water and shoot back. It was way easier than the working was." But the outpost had to be completed.

"From the ground, with pickaxes and shovels, they clawed this outpost out of the rock," Junger says. Then they had to defend it. "They would be up there for a month at a time, they'd come down to the main base, they'd burn their clothes because they were so beat up, they'd take their first shower in a month, they'd call their girlfriend, and they'd walk back up there for another month. And that was how they fought for 15 months."

For all that time, there were reminders that the enemy, which shot at Battle Company's outpost in the mountains from all sides, were more at home in the terrain.

"You'd see 70-year-old guys moving uphill at a pace that no soldier could ever keep up with," Junger says. "And the Taliban, the fighters, would move very heavy weapons around the mountains. They always moved faster than the soldiers thought they could move." The mountains made it difficult to protect against — or even find — the enemy, and despite military advantages, the American soldiers were forced to adapt. "The Americans were effectively forced to fight on foot like the Taliban were fighting. They had air power, but it was 45 minutes away and you could find yourself in a pretty big problem in 45 minutes in the Korengal."

During his time at the Korengal Outpost — the cluster of plywood and brick-and-mortar huts situated on high ground in what Junger describes in the book as "a small but extremely violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan" — he witnessed the young men in combat and in the moments of extreme boredom that stretched between fighting. These soldiers, Junger writes, at a vast remove from the commanding officers who had determined that the Korengal Valley must be defended, began to shake loose some of the order and discipline demanded by those officers:

They wore their trousers unbloused from their boots and tied amulets around their necks and shuffled around the outpost in flip-flops jury-rigged from the packing foam used in missile crates. Toward the end of their tour they'd go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips. When the weather got too hot they chopped their shirts off below the armpit and then put on body armor so they'd sweat less but still look like they were in uniform. They carried long knives and for a while one guy went on operations with a small samurai sword in his belt. The rocks ripped their pants to shreds and they occasionally found themselves more or less exposed on patrol. A few had "INFIDEL" tattooed in huge letters across their chests. ("That's what the enemy calls us on their radios," one man explained, "so why not?") Others had tattoos of angel wings sprouting from bullets or bombs. The men were mostly in their early twenties, and many of them have known nothing but life at home with their parents and war.

As Junger points out, the men in Battle Company were stationed in the thick of the fight for the Korengal Valley because they had volunteered for combat duty.

"If you want to join the Army and change oil in Humvees, you can arrange for that," he says. "These guys — to a man, they wanted to experience combat. And they got a huge helping of it in the Korengal, I have to say."

Over his trips to Afghanistan, Junger lived in the same conditions as many of the men. He and his Vanity Fair photographer, Tim Hetherington, brought video cameras to record the life of the soldiers at the outpost, and produced a documentary called Restrepo. The film, which will be released in theaters this summer, won a grand jury prize after it played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Junger has stayed in touch with many of the men from Battle Company, and, he says, became good friends with one after returning to the United States. One night at a dinner party, surrounded by a group of civilians, that soldier was asked whether he missed anything about being in Afghanistan, Junger says.

"He looked at her without a trace of irony and said, 'Yes, I miss almost all of it.' "

"I think one of the unacknowledged things that is really complicated for these guys is that they get home out of this hell hole and they find that, actually, home is less comfortable than where they'd come from," Junger says. "These guys get back to civilian society and suddenly the relations they have with those around them, those relations are not solid. They're open to ambiguity and interpretation. And they kind of long for the dangerous security of the bond that happens in a small outpost that's under attack almost every day."

That longing persists despite the fact that they faced death on any given day. But Junger argues that the bond also grows from essentially being trapped in a confined space without any entertainment. "There was no Internet up there. For that matter, there was no running water, no phones, no electricity for a while. You know, all they had was their humor, and they had combat."

Despite alternately brutal and boring stretches, the American soldiers tried to find meaning — in humor or aggression or superstition — in the tiny slice of land they were defending.

"There was a guy who found a bullet that had come out of a Taliban machine gun from a Taliban position above the outpost. And it had misfired, had not fired out of the gun," Junger says. "And he picked that up and he put it on a string and he wore it around his neck because he thought, 'That might have been the bullet that killed me, and now it's good luck. And I'm going to wear this for the rest of my deployment.' "

On April 14, the military closed the Korengal Outpost. Junger says many of the men who spent so much time defending the valley have struggled to come to terms with the Army's decision to withdraw.

"That year was both very painful and kind of intoxicating for them, and that place acquired an enormous psychological emotional significance," Junger says. "I wrote in an essay [that] combat doesn't happen because the terrain is important. The terrain becomes important because combat happened there. And I think ultimately these guys reconciled themselves to the pullout by thinking, 'OK, that place where we were for a year ... it has its own meaning that endures no matter what happens on the ground.' "

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