“For a Long Time I Hated God…”
“People can sleep easy in their beds at night,” George Orwell wrote, “because rough men stand ready to commit violence on their behalf.” War, Sebastian Junger’s latest endeavor into the surreal world of reality, chronicles these rough men in the roughest place on the planet: the eastern reaches of Afghanistan.
Over the course of a year, Junger paid five visits to the men of 173rd Airborne brigade in the Korengal Valley, the precise middle of nowhere. The terrain is treacherous, dangerous, some of the worst that any soldiers can fight in, especially considering the history of the region: many armies have marched into the bowels of the Hindu Kush, the 500 mile mountain ridge that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, but all have failed to conquer it. Alexander the Great suffered enormous losses there, as did the Russians two millennia later, pushed out of the area by the locals they were slowly pounding into the ground with steel and force. In 2006, the 10th Mountain Division made history by becoming the first army to ever set foot in the southern region of the Hindu Kush. Ever. The United States military believed the Taliban would have a significant presence in the area, which they do; however, as Junger points out, even the Taliban feared the area.
The day after Junger and his photographer Tim Hetherington got off the Chinook helicopter and headed towards the Korengal Outpost, KOP, they got hit. Junger was on a patrol with Battle Company, Second Platoon when a distant tapping erupted in the hills surrounding them. Looking at the hills of the Korengal Valley, one would think the soldiers were wandering around the green and yellow slopes of Northern California. Rocks cover the barely discernable trails the soldiers follow, and one can’t fathom how any vegetation can grow in the area. Even the soldiers complained about the terrain, saying that whenever they climbed up a hill and came back down, their trousers would be torn to shreds.
It is the first tracer round passing by a Lieutenant’s head that catches Junger’s attention, and when the rocks start jumping up in the air from incoming small arms fire, Junger slams against the wall with the soldiers. Inconceivably, Junger turns his video camera (which is always on, so he can capture the reality of the situation accurately), and points it towards the fire. Small puffs of smoke are seen coming from a nearby hill, with the cracks of rifle rounds following shortly thereafter. Junger writes, “I keep trying to stand up but psychologically it’s almost impossible; my head feels vulnerable as an eggshell.” He watches as the soldiers don’t hesitate to stand up and return fire, without apparent hestitation. Soon, Junger (who’d been given arms training prior to his deployment, though he felt uneasy about it) finds himself doing this as well.
War is a wonderful portrait of, well, war – because it illustrates what this tiny action inside a much larger theater (nor does it ignore the internal parallel with the conflicts in the minds and hearts of the men involved). Before reading this book, whenever I heard about Afghanistan, I thought of several things, none of which had anything to do with the soldiers in the Korengal Valley: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an abandoned war that came back into the spotlight after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the terrorist bombings throughout the country. War tells the story of soldiers far removed from Kabul, politics, generals, creature comforts and just about anything even normal soldiers take for granted. The firebases they live on are walled off with Hesco barriers, plastic containers that look like the off ramp dividers on a highway, filled with sand, rock or gravel. There is usually a single building built from brick, left over from the civilian towns the soldiers took over to build their bases, which happen to be at the tops of the highest hills in the region, so the flatter, easier-reached areas could be devoted to grazing pasture. This makes every return to the base a 100 meter climb up a steep hill. Tubes are hammered into the ground sporadically, intended to be urinals. Oil barrels cut in half and burned daily with diesel are affectionately known as ‘shitters’. There is no diversion other than dog-eared books, years-old magazines and personal stories that everyone has heard many times before, no hot meals, no privacy.
There is only one real entertainment in Firebase Vegas, Phoenix, Restrepo or the KOP: guns.
At one point, a sergeant decides that Junger and Hetherington will need to understand the weapons they are constantly around. Junger explains the objectivity that a journalist must maintain at all times – including not shooting at the enemy. The sergeant shrugs and teaches him how to arm, fire, clean, repair and clear a jam on all the guns in the bases. Junger grants that this information might be useful, in case a scenario came up where he might have to use a gun, like if the base was overrun and he would actually have to fight for his life, but he never actually wants to admit that this might happen.
Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington in the Korengal Valley
Junger also never complicates his descriptions of the weapons, making them seem simple and mundane, as if stumbling over a 240 or listening to the thump of a distant DISHKA is completely normal. By using the names and descriptions that the soldiers use for their tools, Junger brings us that much closer to their daily way of life. He also pulls the curtain back on what life inside a firebase is like: a dirty world filled with men who haven’t showered in a month, haven’t shaved in weeks, who fart, burp, swear, tell filthy stories, utilize the ‘shitters’ in front of each other, scratch themselves, all in between, and sometimes during, the onslaught of flying metal coming from Taliban fighters in the distant hills. This freedom with each other is much like moving in with a lover for the first time; the privacy disappears and the real individual is shown for the first time.
Junger emphasizes that the safety of the group (the entire purpose of every soldier in the bases) is more important than anything else that has to do with the war:
The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you’re exposed to it, there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do. The only reason anyone was alive at Restrepo-or at Aranas or at Ranch House or, later, at Wanat- was because every man up there was willing to die defending it. In Second Platoon Tim and I were the only one who benefited from that arrangement for ‘free’, as it were, and it’s hard to overstate the psychological significance of that…There was a debt that no one registered except the men who owed it. Collective defense can be so compelling-so addictive, in fact- that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place.
Using scientific research and studies conducted by the United States Army, Junger makes the point that the bonds of brotherhood in war are more than just a temporary phenomenon; they might actually be psychologically necessary. Junger references research that states humans cannot have individual caring relationships in groups of any more than 150 – the exact size of the standard Company in the United States Army. If the standard Company is the maximum size for the casual caring relationships then those between the twenty-odd men in the firebases that Junger visited is that much more intense.
There are many scenes in which soldiers die and others break down. One team leader in particular gives way to the awful, inhuman keening that humans only make when death is seemingly impossible to comprehend. The death in a firefight of another soldier, named Restrepo, hits the Company so hard their next encounter is fought with more passion than any previous battle. As O’Byrne, one of the soldiers closest to Restrepo says, “For a long time I hated God. Second Platoon fought like animals after that.”
This bond is Junger’s point for much of War. These men, some just boys, are sitting in the deepest part of the crappiest country in the world, fighting not for the American way of life, liberty, freedom or the Leader and Chief, but for each other. This is what war is truly about: running into incoming fire to drag a wounded comrade out without a thought, moving on reaction more than anything else.
The reality of war is also apparent and made almost tangible. Junger first describes the firefights as terrifying and horrific, explaining the pops and snaps of bullets as they pass within inches. He describes the mortars that hiss into range and explode as loud booms nearby. He takes down stories from the soldiers about the firefights that occurred on the patrols he didn’t follow; the accuracy of the soldier’s stories is almost scary, especially since the stories themselves can only be distorted by the adrenaline, fear, and aggression their tellers had to have felt at the time. Junger hits a point where the war almost seemed normal:
I don’t leave the valley, I stay, and after a few days the war becomes normal again. We go on patrol and I focus on the fact that one foot goes in front of the other. We get ambushed and the only thing I’m interested in is what kind of cover we’ve got. It’s all very simple and straight-forward, and it’s around this time that the killing begins to make a kind of sense to me.
War is one journalist’s perspective about the most visceral act men commit against each other. War is usually either romanticized, as it most often has been with World War II, or made into an ugly Grendel-like monster, as in Vietnam. Attempts were even made to gloss the Iraq War of George W. Bush in such soft-focus patriotic ways. The war in Afghanistan is also becoming forgotten by an American public long tired of conflict – but it’s as important as ever. In Afghanistan, the battles are far-reaching – and none further than the Korengal Valley, now void of any American servicemen, who pulled out in early 2010 because the entire valley seemed to rise up against them at the same time. The Russians, and long before them the Macedonians, would have recognized the same ugly realities. Let’s hope future would-be invaders of the region read Junger’s coldly capable book before they lay their final plans.
Andrew Warner is a freelance writer and military history buff living in Boston. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.