June 2010

Arts & Letters

‘War’ by Sebastian Junger

By John Birmingham

It might seem strange and contrary, but among the many surprising truths in Sebastian Junger’s brilliant evocation of 15 months, on and off, spent at the front in Afghanistan is the presence of love at the heart of war. The strong bond that can develop between soldiers has long been the stuff of literature, famously encapsulated by Shakespeare’s King Henry V as he screams to the heavens in the moments before Agincourt: “For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.” Junger’s laudable achievement, however, is to allow his readers an unusually intimate understanding of this love – which exists almost exclusively between men in battle – and of how powerful it can become in the midst of increasing savagery during war.

War is arguably one of the most significant works published by a journalist on the topic since Michael Herr’s seminal book Dispatches, about the war in Vietnam. Indeed, anyone familiar with Herr’s work will recognise its core themes reverberating through Junger’s prose like sonic booms.

The American war correspondent and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, already notable for his forensic reconstruction of a killer hurricane in The Perfect Storm, spent 15 months intermittently embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the US Army near the Afghan–Pakistan border – or, rather, he spent it mostly with a single platoon that was detailed to do its tour in the most remote, dangerous and violent outpost in the entire theatre, now abandoned by American forces and controlled by the Taliban. During Junger’s time, the platoon, along with 150 men from its parent unit, the aptly named Battle Company, were responsible for one-fifth of the combat engagements fought by NATO’s 70,000-man command.

Unlike the war in Iraq, Afghanistan remains a hand-to-hand conflict, with small heavily armed groups of combatants regularly engaging each other at point-blank range. Unlike Canberra’s obsession with micro-managing every aspect of Australian Defence Force press coverage – particularly, but not solely, in Afghanistan – the American government allowed the reporter an amazing amount of freedom of movement and access. Junger did not just hop out ‘beyond the wire’ for one or two highly choreographed field trips; he patrolled with “his” men for days at a time, as they picked their way over the razorback ridges of the Korengal Valley, lay in ambush, took fire and hunkered down as wave after wave of Taliban fighters assaulted their positions, attempting to overrun them.

The generosity and trust of the American military, which was so badly burned by the media during the Vietnam War, pays off here, as it has in a number of other recent works by embedded reporters, such as David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. By allowing writers such as Finkel and Junger to experience the same terror, risk and exhilaration as their subjects, the fighting men of the US Army, the Pentagon has been gifted studies of their soldiers every bit as insightful as the massive, multi-year surveys and investigations governments routinely carry out in their never-ending search for a crucial edge – and possibly more so.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

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