In his latest book, War, Sebastian Junger once more reveals his gift for riveting storytelling. Readers won't get any closer to the front lines in Afghanistan unless they enlist.
As NPR's Afghanistan correspondent over the past 3 1/2 years, I've embedded with U.S. soldiers and Marines all over that country. And in my experience, Junger, best known for penning The Perfect Storm, is spot on in his characterizations of daily life for American troops who carry out their duties away from the comforts of a base.
It's clear Junger won the respect and friendship of those he writes about: the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with whom he embedded intermittently over a 15-month deployment. And yet he delivers their story without whitewashing their beliefs, actions and harsh reality. I found myself sometimes offended by but still rooting for these men, who've seen more action than the overwhelming majority of American veterans of Afghanistan.
But War fails to answer a basic question: Why was the mission of the 173rd — to help secure the Korengal Valley, arguably the most dangerous spot in Afghanistan — doomed to failure? Junger suggests in the book that even the soldiers didn't want to know.
Instead, the writer focuses on what life was like for these combat infantrymen. It's a ferocious and compelling portrait. But it comes at the sacrifice of a more nuanced look at the tangled politics of this particular war and the Afghans themselves. People living in the valley are portrayed like monolithic bad guys in a video game, who need to be blown away whenever they pop up. Certainly, more light could have been shed on who these Afghans are and how they perceived the intrusion of American and Taliban forces into their valley.
The information is out there. I personally know one American researcher who embedded with U.S. forces in Kunar and spent a year delving into the tribal makeup and way of life in the Korengal Valley.
Also, American officers have sent many a patrol over the years to meet with local elders in the valley over green tea. Even Junger's protagonists talk with locals from time to time in the book, albeit in often hostile encounters.
The book also leaves me wanting to know more about the men Junger does write about. Admittedly, my interest is in part personal. I spent time in and around the Korengal as an embedded reporter and met some of the people in the book.
What Junger is a master at is helping readers understand how soldiers feel and how those emotions affect their fight through the course of a deployment. The physical and psychological tension for each one of the 173rd Brigade rises through the course of the book. So does the passion in Junger's narrative.
Near-death experiences time and again change you no matter how tough you are. Junger does an excellent job conveying that. After all, he has lived it. During his embed, he was in an armored vehicle hit by a roadside bomb.