Sebastian Junger, War Tourist

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Editorial by Lewis Manalo

NEW YORK: As a sapper in the 82nd Airborne Division I took part in combat missions in Eastern Afghanistan during deployments in 2002 and 2003. A sapper’s main role on missions was to trek along in support of the infantry, sweeping for land mines and blowing up weapons caches and unexploded ordinance. Other times, we participated in village searches and took suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda members into custody. For the bulk of this time, I was based out of remote forward operating bases that didn’t have running water, much less Internet or phones.

Those years are behind me, and I now work as a buyer for Idlewild Books in Manhattan. It’s an easier life, but especially when I sift through the new modern literature from Europe, I can’t help empathizing with poet Karl Shapiro’s lines: “Now when I drive behind a Diesel-stinking bus / On the way to the university to teach / Stevens and Pound and Mallarmé / I am homesick for war.”

More than a few books about the war in Afghanistan have come out since I’ve been a buyer, including Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL, and Where Men Win Glory, a book about Pat Tillman by John Krakauer, but none of those books have captured the sentiment for me as well as those lines by Karl Shapiro have. And none of them have been more offensive than the new book by Sebastian Junger.

Between June 2007 and June 2008 Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington took five trips to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan where they embedded with an infantry unit from the 173rd Airborne. Their longest trip lasted a mere month. That Junger titled his book about the experience War, as if the slim and hastily-written tome could embody the totality of such a subject, gives the first hint of Junger’s baffling naiveté.

Sebastian Junger’s War purports to depict war “as soldiers really live it,” what it feels like, and why humans wage it. From my point of the view, and inevitably the point of view of thousands of other combat veterans, Junger’s portrayal of soldiers is superficial and unsophisticated. It endorses all the detrimental stereotypes that make life in the civilian world harder for soldiers and veterans. The book’s depictions of battle have a jingoistic thrill, and any recruiter would do well to hand out those sections of Junger’s book at the local high school. Furthermore, many of the psychological studies and the statistical data that Junger uses to segue between episodes of battle are completely misplaced and have no application to what he’s reporting outside of the support of his stereotypes.

Junger’s attitude towards soldiers is that of a condescending fan. An attitude shared by most civilians who don’t have a soldier in their lives, the mindset allows a person to voice support for his or her country’s troops and simultaneously sound their lack of support for America’s recent wars. Early in the book Junger asserts that the “moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers” and that they really don’t care about “its long-term success or failure.” He likens a soldier’s concern with who wins the war to a farmhand’s concern with the global economy, in that “they generally leave the big picture to others,” an assumption of willful ignorance that’s patronizing to both professions.

It’s easier for a person who does not support the war to support an ignorant soldier. But it’s a volunteer Army, and a twenty-year-old in the Army is just as politically conscious as any other twenty-year-old. Junger goes to great lengths to point out that these men signed up knowing that they would fight either in Iraq or in Afghanistan, yet he fails to see enlistment as a political act that conceivably has more of an impact than voting. He doesn’t seem to have read anything about Pat Tillman’s political views or read anything by Pat’s brother Kevin. And the very first chapter of Lone Survivor dedicates pages to outlining how politics affects a combat soldier’s day to day survival. The big picture doesn’t leave these men alone. Junger also ignores the existence of those very vocal groups of veterans who now protest the wars they once fought in. These men and women don’t leave the big picture to others.

Stereotypes, Fantasyland

Looking for the sob story, Junger gravitates to a junior enlisted man named O’Byrne, an alcoholic kid who was shot by his own father before he joined the Army. Stacking the deck pays off, and when O’Byrne returns to civilian life, he reacts like a poster boy for PTSD. That Junger “came to think of O’Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon” admits his prejudicial assumption that all combat veterans are traumatized. It’s as if O’Byrne’s issues aren’t O’Byrne’s. They’re supposed to belong to every combat soldier. (The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that only 6 to 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.)

Junger’s misconceptions seem to stem from the fact that he just doesn’t understand men. He spends most of his time with the junior enlisted men, kids in their twenties who have less experience in life and combat and who don’t have families, and Junger actually takes what these men say about their feelings at face value, a mistake that most women would never make. Unaccustomed to self-effacing modesty, Junger believes it when a man named Toves says he signed up for the Army because he was bored. Junger himself later contradicts that this could be possible when he endorses the notion that just enlisting is itself an act of bravery.

Junger’s worst mistake is when he takes O’Byrne at face value when the kid says that he’ll miss the adrenaline rush of combat. The signs of trauma that come afterwards prove that O’Byrne isn’t saying what he means. Most soldiers would never talk to a reporter who wasn’t female as much as O’Byrne talks to Junger. But Junger never sees the young man’s attention as a roundabout way of asking for help, a fact that is painfully clear to the reader. Even after he’s been discharged from the Army, O’Byrne asks for Junger’s attention, going so far as to tag along on interviews with other soldiers. Junger never gives a hint of understanding what O’Byrne wants from him.

Wrapped up in his solipsism, Junger also takes the soldiers seriously when they tell him to carry a weapon, and he thinks that they may actually expect him to shoot on the enemy when they show him and Hetherington how to operate the different weapons in the platoon. The men in Korengal were professionals. I never met a combat soldier who’d even want an Army secretary on the line with him, and those rear echelon soldiers train with their weapons regularly. It’s much more conceivable that the soldiers were making fun of Junger and Hetherington, mocking the fact that this pair thought themselves hard-asses for being in the ‘Stan, and these two journalists didn’t realize they were the butt of the joke. If you actually believe real grunts wanted Junger carrying a weapon around, you’re indulging in Junger’s same fantasy.

And what a fantasy it is. All the thrill of being in combat with none of the responsibility of knowing what to do. He endows the different engagements with the excitement and clarity of a Hollywood action film. The most stirring depictions of combat are those that Junger didn’t actually witness. His own point of view doesn’t cloud the clear facts of these events, and he’s able to detail the shots fired and the men killed with omniscience. As Junger paints them, these fights are where all those big words like “heroism” and “courage” and “sacrifice” come into play, where men achieve amazing things and where they die dramatic deaths. Over and over, Junger and the men he depicts rave about how exciting battle is. In Junger’s world, war is a glorious thing where everyone should want to be.

Sebastian JungerIn the book the men are either fighting or they’re not, and with no real narrative thread holding his book together, Junger bridges the gaps in glamorous action with statistics and psychological studies about wars and men. These empirical facts are meant to elucidate universal truths about war, but Junger bends this data to fit the stereotypes that he believes in. His worse offenses to reason come in the third section of the book, entitled “Love.” Here Junger attempts to explain what motivates these men, what makes them “brave.” His conclusion, which is the same line of propaganda coming from Hollywood, is that soldiers do it for each other, that a man puts his life on the line out of love for the man next to him. Junger cites lot of studies and statistics from World War II, outlining the psychological landscape of the “combat fog” of an industrial battlefield, and he attempts to apply those findings to this contemporary war.

Even if you ignore the obvious differences between WWII and the war in Afghanistan, Junger ignores the findings of WWII “Army sociologists” unless they fit with his preconceived stereotype. The study Junger cites concludes that the primary motivator in combat was “ending the task,” but Junger dismisses this conclusion. For him “ending the task” didn’t mean victory for American soldiers in WWII, it didn’t mean defeating a totalitarian state that had invaded its neighbors. It meant “they could all go home” because for Junger even soldiers from WWII were uninterested in the “moral basis of the war,” nor did they care about “its long-term success or failure.” Junger only gives credence to what the study finds is the secondary motivator of combat, “solidarity with the group.” Solidarity with the group is that “Love” Junger’s talking about.

I don’t doubt many men fight harder because they care about each other, but none of them in Junger’s book knew one another when they enlisted. Soldiers in WWII often didn’t have time to get to know replacement troops before their next mission, much less learn their names. Furthermore, this dedication to the group, the “leave no man behind” attitude, is unique enough to American soldiers that our enemies often exploit it, effectively so in the Battle of Mogadishu. Just because it’s part of a modern American soldier’s indoctrination doesn’t make it a universal truth.

Bad Reporting, Worse Logic

There are few observations in Junger’s book that feel right to me, and they are so entwined in his muck of bad reporting and worse logic that I can’t endorse them. Furthermore, the fundamental aspects of a soldier’s life that Junger forgets are glaringly bad omissions. He fails to depict the chain of command. True, at an outpost in rural Afghanistan the rank of a squad’s members mean less and less, but other than a platoon beating down their new lieutenant (which is not as unique to Battle Company as Junger insists) and a junior enlisted man grumbling about an order, Junger can’t even depict the division between officers and enlisted men. The relationship is a codified class system that saturates every aspect of a soldier’s life and that most civilians cannot understand or relate to.

For example, the office politics of commissioned officers can and do get men killed. I once took part in a mission when over a hundred soldiers air assaulted into the Afghan mountains just so our battalion colonels could show the CIA that they could move that many men on a moment’s notice. Our lives were put at risk so a few officers could prove a point. But Junger can’t be bothered to understand this basic part of being a soldier. He’d rather tell you how many beers O’Byrne drank on leave or what masturbation jokes the men told during breakfast in Korengal.

Junger is fascinated with the gay jokes and the flatulence that fills the boredom between engagements, but he barely makes mention of the families, the wives, and girlfriends these men left at home. Not only are these people back home the only thing that these men think about, but these are the most important people in their lives. None of the women seem to have been interviewed about their husbands or boyfriends, no child about his father, no parent about his son. Junger just wants to see these boys kill and get shot at. Combat is a spectacle in Junger’s world, and he’s got front row seats.

That Junger comes so close to noticing these fundamentals -– the chain of command, the soldier’s families –- but still manages to miss them, speaks volumes about how narrow-minded his prejudices make him. Even if we forgive him missing these basic details, Junger never even attempts to broadly define what war is or to mention the definitions of his predecessors such as Clauswitz or John Keegan. If this book is supposed to show us how soldiers live war and why they wage it, it might help if he defined the thing.

Lone Survivor attempts to tell war like it is (with a politically conservative bent). Where Men Win Glory tries to tell one man’s story. Junger’s just there for a cheap thrill. He tells one soldier he didn’t join up because he was married (which didn’t stop Pat Tillman). Yet Junger insists on his solidarity with the soldiers, in sharing their risk as “a power and logic to the group over[rides] everyone’s personal concerns.” That “Love” again. But Junger’s presence often puts the group at risk, like when he takes an assistant gunner’s spot on a helicopter, or when during an IED strike he becomes just another peckerwood to look after.

If Junger had gone to France for five months, spent all his time with a handful of twenty-year-olds, learned a few phrases, and then come home to write the book France: As the French Really Live It, no one would call it journalism. Such a short visit to a country spent with such a narrow segment of the population could give you little more than a vague misunderstanding of a culture. But because Junger’s a tourist in a place where less of us are willing to go, we’re supposed to take him seriously in defiance of all common sense.

You don’t have to be a former citizen to see that Sebastian Junger, War Tourist, has war wrong in a way that’s offensive to soldiers and that will encourage their discrimination in civilian life. In the face of tragedy on the battlefield and back on the home front, he willfully glorifies combat. He can’t even apply statistics without bias.

In an interview Karl Shapiro likened the veteran’s experience to a tattoo or a scar, a memory that’s practically physical. Just as he attempts to show off his own gaudy imitation of that tattoo, Sebastian Junger would have those who don’t bear the mark accept it as a badge of shame on people other than himself.

War by Sebastian Junger will be published on Tuesday, May 11, by Twelve.

Lewis Manalo was honorably discharged from the Army in 2004 as a sergeant. He now works as the book buyer for Idlewild Books in Manhattan. You can email him directly here.

DISCUSS: Did Sebastian Junger go too far in calling his book War?

VISIT: The Official Sebastian Junger Community Web site

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