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War, a reportage of the crude reality of the Afghanistan conflict started in 2001. Junger, the author and also protagonist, let us live as a US army soldier in the “terrible geology” of the Korengal Valley. Even the soil appears to be the perfect place to host something as horrible as the Afghanistan war. Junger’s first accomplishment is surely the terrible masterpiece representation of the US soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan. The combination of descriptive sequences and figurative language throws the reader into the cruel battlefield where Taliban and Americans play a “slow game that everyone was enjoying too much to possibly bring to an end”.
Junger, however, doesn’t limit himself to the plain reportage of his five journeys. His book succeeds at representing the sociological interactions that originate within the platoon. “The men”, living in a hostile environment with extremely poor living conditions, seemed to have established higher social moral values than our society. The courage, the love they feel for each other brings about the “collective defense”, described by Junger, as an addictive feature of the society of this platoon. Through the dialogues, I felt extremely surprised in noticing that those men essentially were happier than us, because, in their societal reality, the core system was taking care of each other. The social institutions of the platoons imposed brotherhood and knowing that you had a family, your platoon, soldiers’ need were accomplished. I was then allowed to understand why the return to the normality is never an easy process for veterans.
Given the sociological representation of war, I could not avoid the comparison between the society of the platoon with our Westernised reality. Isn’t it crazy in our civilized Western society, that all we seem to lack, is care for each other? Our modern society focused on our own self-fulfillment, allows to ignore the moral calling, to withdraw from moral engagement; however, in war, as Junger made me notice, nothing is taken for granted, everything is shared and everyone represents your family. If you save someone, it’s your duty, and accomplishing this duty takes you away from the psychological trauma of the daily atrocities of war allowing you to return to a familiar environment.
I found Junger explanation of veterans’ traumatic return to reality very insightful. As he suggests, once you experience the caring society of the platoon, real-world seems even more hostile than war. Perhaps it is, perhaps the real battlefield is our 21st-century society. Junger made me reflect and wonder whether a hostile external environment is the only criteria where Marx’s communism principles hypothetically could work within a society; as the company of each other’s is all humans have got, the creation of a reality where equality and common goals would establish the social institutions, could in turn act as a defending barrier from the external hostile environment, allowing the shared commitment to a communist system.
Junger in his analytical reflection (220-260) attempts to explain humans’ love of war. As mentioned above, the return to normality seems to scare soldiers more than the combat itself, because there is no combat in the society. Throughout his travels, the journalist never questions who gives us the right to be God. And if somehow we are allowed to fight for God position, as we accept that God was long gone from that Valley and the God position is “vacant”, are the soldiers truly fighting only because they are told to do so? Fighting means killing. Every day, it means taking over human lives. Junger never explores this topic in depth. He superficially justifies men’s engagement into conflict due to a physiological adrenaline addiction. But I reckon that human nature is three-dimensional, and the analytical chapters never explored whether the combat was addictive because killing is a “joyful slaughter” (Bourke, 1999). I felt that this relevant aspect of conflicts was being avoided and it seemed like Junger maybe could not accept our terrible human nature, our “terrible love for war” (Hillman, 2004).
Personally, I believe that war is part of human beings and cannot be avoided, as neglecting it would imply neglecting the human nature itself. Why do soldiers “miss the good stuff”? Junger superficial argumentation of addiction to adrenaline seems too weak to support this argument. It is indeed scary, but war is natural, and I feel confident in claiming this as empirical history shows us war constancy.
Another side of this book review focuses on the consequences that I noticed on my emotional spectrum throughout the reading. My judgment vacillates between the ability of Junger as a great writer and the negative implications of his writing ability on my emotional reaction. War further explores “how easy it is to go from living to the dead” (p. 85), the transcendent condition of being on the “real” battleship: the Koregan Valley. Junger’s writing style leaves its mark, his climax, the vast use of short sentences to finish paragraphs and peculiarity to leave white empty space. It is here in these white where he allows me, the reader, to feel and imagine, and thus bring my persona into those empty spaces; this writing what took me back into my past. Passing from one paragraph to the other, carrying a heavy burden of sadness, I started remembering.
Anxiety made me overthinking rendering the reading experience not pleasurable anymore. Junger was able to make me so engaged that I could not detach emotionally anymore. Junger’s great ability to describe the soldier life conditions triggered the reminiscence of my past, where I could, to a much lesser extent, resemble the soldier’s anxious life situation with my past 13-year-old self. Alone in my own land, now as well, governed by war; my parents, respectively the Taliban and the Americans. The gunfire, in my reality, pictured by the lawyers, and as much as Junger, I’m unable to move, sometimes unable to remember. Until now. My gear, my responsibilities, and as much as the men felt too hot, I felt too young.
I always thought that a good book is like a good soundtrack that accompanies an as well good movie. But would the good movie create the same effect on the audience without the musical notes? The movie would still be good, but emotionally steady. What Junger is able to do in his book is allowing a natural development of this soundtrack throughout the entire duration of the reading travel. For me, the soundtrack were the emotions, I could feel the pain and the emotional dimension of the platoon and linked it back to my personal experience. Could Junger have triggered a better emotional engagement, be it negative or positive?
Another proof of the great ability of Junger in letting the reader assimilating the images of Afghanistan in war through his simple, emotionally detached writing style occurred when suddenly I found myself thrown into a distorted view of what we would recall as reality. Everything, from the soil, the muffled noises, to the deprivation of light. It was a hostile environment. Chaos dominated the scene. Despair could be felt and seen by glancing at other living beings’ eyes. The concept of life was no longer alive. I saw myself running, without a purpose, without a destination, without knowing. I was perhaps running for not dying, maybe because fear impregnated the odor of the air. I was not running to survive. I remember falling, and there I clearly felt a fleece trespassing my skin and hitting my lung. Breathing became an unbearable painful experience. And I was lying there, alone, on that desolated land where God had possibly forgotten to visit for a long time. When the sunrise shone my room, I was recollected into this world that we consider real. It took me a while to remove that negativity from my being. I remember hoping for someone to explain to me what had happened but no one of my war dream comrades was there. I could only grasp the ghost of a memory dissolving without leaving a trace. Indeed, I had a negative emotional reaction, but this doesn’t want to diminish Junger’s skills.
However, his emotional detachment, I could say, made me feel sometimes frustrated. As the reporter, it is essential to remain detached as the sole and unique task is to report. However, I, as a reader, was looking for an emotional judgment from the author. I felt like I could read the mind of a mute child, victim of an abuse, who, due to the trauma, has lost the capability of communication. And the more I was reading, the more the misunderstand was growing. Couldn’t Junger express something, just a small confirmation that what was happening was wrong? It took me a while before understating. Only by reading chapter after chapter I was able to realize that the emotionally detached writing style adopted by Junger, was, in reality, an emotional response to the atrocities that he was subject to witness in his travels. The detachment was maybe the only way to survive, the only way to remind himself that the War was not his reality, that his permanence in Afghanistan was just temporary, unlike reality for the Platoon. Perhaps he also wanted to let the reader develop a critical judgment without intervening.
Overall, the representation of the US soldiers’ life condition in Afghanistan, under a sociological and psychological viewpoint, represents the best outcome of this book. Junger proves to be able to communicate clearly what he went through and he doesn’t stop here; his skills overcome the simple flat reading experience and allow the reading audience to develop an emotional engagement, be this emotional reaction positive or negative. Considering what happened in Afghanistan roughly 10 years ago, and how men had to live daily, I feel grateful and lucky to have had the possibility to read this book, as the probability of a bullet hitting Junger’s hypothalamus seems to have been somehow high.
Bourke, J. (1999). An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-face Killing in Twentieth-century Warfare.
Hillman, J. (2004). A terrible love for war. New York: The penguin press.