Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'War': Sebastian Junger On What Men Miss Upon Leaving The Battlefield (VIDEO)

Downtime - from a Vanity Fair article by Junger (2008).

This is a very interesting video - Sebastian Junger's new book, War is out this week, so he is making the rounds on the talk shows. Thanks to Shawn Phillips for the link to this story.

One of the topics he looks at in the book is the ways in which men bond in the military, but especially in combat. That sense of "brotherhood" is crucial to their survival and when they are home, they miss that element of their experience.

It's long been said that war changes men - yet, to my knowledge, this is something that has not been adequately looked at in the psychological literature. And it also seems that each new generation experiences war in ways similar to and markedly different from their predecessors.

Men - young men in particular, with the highest testosterone levels of any humans not competing in a Mr. Olympia show - are the tools of war. We recruit them to serve, strip them of personal identity in basic training, and then reshape them into flesh and bone weapons. But, despite the military's best efforts, these are still human beings. They suffer, they fear, they get injured, and they mourn.

The greatest loss for most soldiers is not their own injuries, it's the loss of a fellow soldier, a comrade in arms, a brother. In the process of forming a unit, these men (boys, really) become a family of brothers - some you hate, some you love, some you trust, some you don't, but all the men in your unit are your brothers - and you will die for them.

That kind of brotherhood and bonding exists nowhere outside of battle, not even on a football field in the Super Bowl. The heightened emotional atmosphere of the battlefield, of searching houses, of stopping a caravan of Afghans who may or may not be Taliban - adrenaline makes emotion-laden memories much more permanent than other memories.

The question then becomes, knowing these things, how do we care for these men when they come home? How can we support them in re-integrating into their families, their communities? How do we provide some semblance of that brotherhood they are leaving behind when they come home?

'War': Sebastian Junger On What Men Miss Upon Leaving The Battlefield (VIDEO)

First Posted: 05-11-10 11:48 AM | Updated: 05-11-10 02:33 PM

Sebastian Junger, the author of the bestselling "Perfect Storm," has a new book out called "War," based on the time he spent with an army platoon in Afghanistan and chronicling the experiences of the men in that platoon.

Junger gets at some huge questions about war in the book, from its relation to love and to fear to why people desperately miss it when they leave the army. What it comes down to in most cases, said Junger, is brotherhood. "There are guys in the platoon who straight-up hate each other, but we'd all die for each other," one soldier told him. When they leave, they miss that brotherhood. They miss being fundamentally necessary. "That is a very very reassuring place to be," Junger said.


Philip Caputo at the Washington Post has reviewed the book, quite favorably. Here is a brief section of that review:
Most of what we read and hear about the conflict in Afghanistan focuses on politics and strategy. Junger makes plain that he isn't interested in such abstractions but in the men we've sent far away to do our dirty work. I say "men" because this book takes place among the hyper-male front-line infantry, where women are prohibited from serving.

With his narrative gifts and vivid prose -- as free, thank God, of literary posturing as it is of war-correspondent chest-thumping -- Junger masterfully chronicles the platoon's 15-month tour of duty. But what elevates "War" out of its particular time and place are the author's meditations on the minds and emotions of the soldiers with whom he has shared hardships, dangers and spells of boredom so intense that everyone sits around wishing to hell something would happen (and wishes to God it was over when, inevitably, it does).

"War" is divided into three long sections: "Fear," "Killing" and "Love." In each, Junger makes us see the terror, monotony, misery, comradeship and lunatic excitement that have been elements of all wars since, say, the siege of Troy. He thus becomes a kind of 21st-century battle singer, narrating the deeds and misdeeds of his heroes while explaining what makes them do what they do. These reflections, drawing on his wide-ranging research into military history, biology and psychology as well as on his personal experiences, overreach once or twice. Otherwise, it's the best writing I've seen on the subject since J. Glenn Gray's 1959 classic, "The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle."

Here is an excerpt from the book - this is from the ABC News website.

Read a Portion of the Book Sebastian Junger Wrote After His Time in One of the Most Dangerous Areas of Afghanistan

1. Fear

By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair. - Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage

New York City

Six Months Later

O'Byrne is standing at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 36th Street with a to-go cup in each hand and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. It's six in the morning and very cold. He's put on twenty pounds since I last saw him and could be a laborer waiting for the gate to open at the construction site across the street. Now that he's out of the Army I'm supposed to call him Brendan, but I'm finding that almost impossible to do. We shake hands and he gives me one of the coffees and we go to get my car. The gash across his forehead is mostly healed, though I can still see where the stitches were. One of his front teeth is chipped and looks like a fang. He had a rough time when he got back to Italy; in some ways he was in more danger there than in combat.

O'Byrne had been with Battle Company in the Korengal Valley, a small but extraordinarily violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He was just one soldier out of thirty but seemed to have a knack for putting words to the things that no one else really wanted to talk about. I came to think of O'Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon, a way to understand a group of men who I don't think entirely understood themselves. One valley to the north, two platoons from Chosen Company accumulated a casualty rate of around 80 percent during their deployment. Battle Company wasn't hit that hard, but they were hit hard enough. This morning I'm going to interview Justin Kalenits, one of the wounded from Chosen, and O'Byrne has asked if he could join me. It's a cold, sunny day with little traffic and a north wind that rocks the car along the open stretches and on the bridges. We barrel southward through the industrial dross of New Jersey and Pennsylvania talking about the deployment and the platoon and how strange it is in some ways for both of us to find ourselves in the United States for good. I spent the year visiting O'Byrne's platoon in the Koren-gal, but now that's over and neither of us will ever see it again. We're both dreaming about it at night, though, weird, illogical combat sequences that don't always end badly but are soaked in dread.

Kalenits was shot in the pelvis during what has come to be known as the Bella Ambush. Bella was one of the firebases operated by Chosen Company in the Waygal Valley. In early November, fourteen Chosen soldiers, twelve Afghan soldiers, a Marine, and an Afghan interpreter walked to the nearby village of Aranas, met with elders, and then started to walk back. It was a setup. The enemy had built sandbagged positions in a 360-degree circle around a portion of the trail where there was no cover and the only escape was to jump off a cliff. By some miracle, Chosen held them off. Six Americans and eight Afghans were killed and everyone else was wounded. An American patrol hasn't taken 100 percent casualties in a firefight since Vietnam.

We turn into Walter Reed Army Medical Center and park in front of Abrams Hall, where Kalenits lives. We find him in his room smoking and watching television in the dark. His blinds are down and cigarette smoke swirls in the slats of light that come through. I ask Kalenits when was the first moment he realized he was in an ambush, and he says it was when the helmet was shot off his head. Almost immediately he was hit three times in the chest, twice in the back, and then watched his best friend take a round through the forehead that emptied out the back of his head. Kalenits says that when he saw that he just "went into awe."

There were so many muzzle flashes around them that the hills looked like they were strung with Christmas lights. The rounds that hit Kalenits were stopped by ballistic plates in his vest, but one finally hit him in the left buttock. It shattered his pelvis and tore up his intestines and exited through his thigh. Kalenits was sure it had severed an artery, and he gave himself three minutes to live. He spotted an enemy machine-gun team moving into position on a nearby hill and shot at them. He saw the men fall. He went through all of his ammunition except for one magazine that he saved for when the enemy came through on foot to finish everyone off.

Kalenits started to fade out from lack of blood and he handed his weapon to another man and sat down. He watched a friend named Albert get shot in the knee, and start sliding down the cliff. Kalenits's team leader grabbed him and tried to pull him back, but they were taking so much fire that it was going to get them both killed. Albert yelled to his team leader to let go and he did, and Albert slid partway down the cliff, losing his weapon and helmet on the way. He finally came to a stop and then got shot three more times where he lay.

Rocket-propelled grenades were exploding all around them and throwing up so much dust that the weapons were jamming. Men were spitting into the breeches of their guns, trying to clear them. For the next hour Kalenits faded in and out of consciousness and the firefight continued as one endless, deafening blur. It finally got dark and the MEDEVAC bird arrived and started hoisting up the wounded and the dead. There was a dead man in a tree below the trail and dead men at the bottom of the cliff. One body fell out of the Skedco harness as it was being hoisted into the helicopter, and a quick-reaction force that had flown in from Battle Company had to search for him most of the night.

The last thing Kalenits remembered was getting stuck with needles by doctors at the base in Asadabad; the next thing he knew, he was in Germany. His mother had come home to a message telling her to get in contact with the military immediately, and when she did she was told that she'd better fly to Germany as fast as possible if she wanted to see her son alive. He was still alive when she arrived, and he eventually recovered enough to return to the United States.

O'Byrne has been quiet most of the interview. "Did anyone bring up the issue of walking at night?" he finally says. "On the way out, did anyone bring that up?"

I know why he's asking: Second Platoon left a hilltop position during the daytime once and got badly ambushed outside a town called Aliabad. A rifleman named Steiner took a round in the helmet, though he survived.

"No the lieutenant said, 'We're leaving now,'" Kalenits answers. "What are you going to say to him?" "F*** off?" O'Byrne offers.

Kalenits smiles, but it's not a thought anyone wants to pursue.


Spring 2007

O'Byrne and the men of Battle Company arrived in the last week in May when the rivers were running full and the upper peaks still held their snow. Chinooks escorted by Apache helicopters rounded a massive dark mountain called the Abas Ghar and pounded into the valley and put down amid clouds of dust at the tiny landing zone. The men grabbed their gear, filed off the birds, and got mortared almost immediately. The enemy knew a new unit was coming into the valley and it was their way of saying hello; fourteen months later they'd say goodbye that way as well. The men took cover in the mechanics' bay and then shouldered their gear and climbed the hill up to their tents at the top of the base. The climb was only a hundred yards but it smoked almost everyone. Around them, the mountains flew up in every direction. The men knew that before the year was out they would probably have to walk on everything they could see.

The base was called the Korengal Outpost the KOP and was considered one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan. It was a cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire. There was a plywood headquarters building and a few brick-and-mortars for the men to sleep in and small sandbag bunkers for mortar attacks. The men ate one hot meal a day under a green Army tent and showered once a week in water that had been pumped out of a local creek. Here and there PVC pipe was stuck into the ground at an angle for the men to urinate into. Since there were no women there was no need for privacy. Past the medical tent and the water tank were four open brick stalls that faced the spectacular mountains to the north. Those were known as the burn-shitters, and beneath each one was a metal drum that Afghan workers pulled out once a day so they could burn the contents with diesel fuel. Upslope from there was an Afghan National Army bunker and then a trail that climbed up to Outpost 1, a thousand feet above the KOP. The climb was so steep that the previous unit had installed fixed ropes on the bad parts. The Americans could make the climb in forty-five minutes, combat-light, and the Afghans could make it in half that.

Continue reading at the ABC site.

Finally, here is Junger on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart:


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