the ideological valence of Sebastian Junger’s War

I enjoyed War, Sebastian Junger’s vivid report of an American platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan during five months of regular combat. I was a little taken aback to note that the other Amazon customers who had bought War had also bought the memoirs of Dick Cheney and Herman Cain and polemics by the likes of Ann Coulter. On the other hand, some readers of Junger had bought Hadji Murad, by the pacifist Tolstoy, The Chickenhawk Syndrome: War, Sacrifice, and Personal Responsibility by the philosopher Cheney Ryan, and books about the history of Afghanistan. Probably the Amazon customer database is not the best tool for deciding where to place a book on the ideological spectrum, and it’s good to know that ideologically diverse people still share some common reading. Still, the political implications of War (the book) are interesting to think about.

Junger’s focus is tight. He is interested in a platoon of US combat industry in a particular valley in Afghanistan. Although he knows something of the country’s history and culture, he ignores it here because the American soldiers understand little of it. He has almost nothing to say about the overall purpose or strategy of the war. Other parts of the military effort in Afghanistan, such as air support and intelligence, are off stage. Junger describes individual soldiers, but none emerges as a particularly vivid character. The New York Times critic Dexter Filkins sees that as a weakness, but I thought it was a defensible choice. Junger’s thesis is the importance of the group, the bonds that make the platoon hang together even in the direst situations and that submerge individual differences.

(By the way, Filkins generally seems biased against Junger’s book. He complains that Junger digresses into the “unusual physics of fighting in the Korangal: you can see a gunshot but not have enough time to move before it hits you.” But this is true of all modern gunshots and has nothing special to do with the Korangal.)

I’m not sure that conservatives should especially like Junger’s portrait of this platoon. Its soldiers are bad at “free enterprise” and have chosen to be government employees instead. They hold counter-cultural personal values, as reflected by their troubled experiences back home and disciplinary infractions on bases. They put the group well ahead of the individual.

One aspect of the portrait that might appeal to conservatives is its celebration of masculinity. The men of Battle Company have vices as well as virtues, but their virtues are real and at least stereotypically male. They are not so much courageous as determined not to let down the group, in a particularly male way. Of course, the stakes are life and death, and their willingness to sacrifice for the group is what keeps most of them alive.

The book also hints at an idea that Junger captures with an epigraph: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm. — Winston Churchill (or George Orwell).” The uncertain, double attribution suggests some irony on Junger’s part, Churchill and Orwell being rather different types of people. But he at least wants us to consider the possibility that we sleep safely because of “rough” nineteen-year-olds like the ones he lived with in Korengal.

Is it true? On the one hand, I think that every society probably does need people who are willing and able to use violence on its behalf. A more rapid and deadly reaction force would have saved lives recently in peaceful Norway. On the other hand, we could clearly rely less on violence if we chose not to extend ourselves aggressively overseas. Further, even if it’s true that we sleep soundly because we have rough men on our side, we also rely on computer nerds, emergency room nurses, and logistics specialists for basic needs. (So the quote proves more than it intended.) Finally, the men themselves realize their own dispensability.  A Black Hawk helicopter costs lot of money and is a scarce resource. Combat infantry are, or at least they feel they are, “the most replaceable part of the whole deadly show.” Junger’s achievement is to show that their skills and commitment are in fact rare and valuable.