Our book today is Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book War, which I read at a gallop when it first appeared and which I initially disliked for what I took to be facile grandstanding on the part of the author. I went into the book with the best of dispositions, helped along by the stunning cover photos by the great Tim Hetherington: the front cover showing the eye of a very young man and the back cover showing a bright-sun tangle of muscular American soldiers grappling with each other like a living re-enactment of Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari. But something in the tone of Junger’s writing, combined with the ubiquity of his square-jawed mug throughout the book looking just so artfully begrimed, soured the reading experience for me as I went along. I’ve always had a low tolerance for the Christopher Hitchens kind of foreign correspondent, helicoptering to hot spots, roughing it without handlers or hair products for a week, then helicoptering back out to do a four-page spread for the glossies on life in the shit. And as I read War, I kept barking my shins on just these kinds of affectations – until finally I sprinted to the end of the book in a fog of irritation.
I recently found a very cheap copy of the book, however, and I felt a pang of guilt at this over-and-settled reaction, especially since I remembered how amply supplied the book was with Junger’s signature punchy writing, this time in the service of the 173rd Airborne in the very worst part of a bad country:
The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn’t dare go in there at all. When 10th Mountain rolled into the valley in 2006, they may well have been the first military force ever to reach its southern end. They were only down there a day, but that push gave 10th Mountain some breathing room to finish building the KOP at the site of an old lumber-yard three miles in. The lumberyard was not operational because the Afghan government had imposed a ban on timber exports, in large part because the timber sales were helping fund the insurgency. Out-of-work timber cutters traded their chainsaws for weapons and shot at the Americans from inside bunkers made out of the huge cedar logs they could no longer sell.
And sure enough, this re-reading – done more calmly and more forgivingly than the first – showed me set-piece gems I’d overlooked the first time. Hyperventilating critics hailed the thing as one of the greatest pieces of writing about men in combat ever written (such talk didn’t exactly do wonders for my attitude at the time), but this time around I was able to remind myself that Junger never said that; he just presented what he’d seen while stationed with his platoon. I was struck by how many vivid scenes the book contains:
The men spend the last hours of daylight packing their gear and making sure their ammo racks are correctly rigged. Chuck Berry is playing on someone’s laptop inside the brick-and-mortar. Donoho helps Rice adjust his rack, cinching it down in the back until it’s balanced and snug. Rice’s assault pack weighs seventy pounds and his weapon, ammo, and body armor will be at least another forty or fifty on top of that. Buno has a pack that looks so heavy, Rueda can’t resist coming over and trying to lift it. Moreno bets Hijar ten bucks that Hoyt can’t do twenty pull-ups on one of the steel girders in their barracks. He does, barely. The men paint their faces with greasepaint but Patterson makes them wipe it off and then they just sit and talk and go through the slow, tense countdown until the birds arrive. Some men listen to music. Some just lie on their cots staring at the ceiling. In some ways the anticipation feels worse than whatever may be waiting for them down in Yaka Chine or up on the Abas Ghar, and every man gets through it in his own quietly miserable way.
I often comment that one of the many unsettling things about novels is the way they can shift and squirm in your mind long after you read them, as shards and facets work their way through your imagination. And I often follow up that comment with an exclamation of relief that nonfiction isn’t the same way; you read a book on Subject A, you assess it against all the previous books on Subject A, and you hold it in your mind in preparation for the next book on Subject A. And because Subject A never itself changes, the writing skills of each historian of it come into greater and more easily calibrated light (the process can actually become easier the more well-known the subject is; Stacy Schiff’s forthcoming book on the Salem Witch Trials being a perfect case in point). But War actually shifted and squirmed around on me while I was away from it and certain I knew what I thought about it. There’s a lot more here than I originally credited – and it was a nettlesome pleasure to discover that.
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