War: A love story
by Andrew Potter
I finished Sebastian Junger’s War last night, the companion book to the documentary Restrepo that he made with Tim Hetherington. The book is divided into three large sections – Fear, Killing, and Love – and while it is slow to get going, the second half of the book, and the final third especially, is outstanding.
There is some attempt at replicating the structure of The Perfect Storm, with the war-zone reporting cut with digressions into topics such as military tactics and weaponry, the politics of the war in Afghanistan, and the psychology of courage. Only the last is executed in a fully satisfying way, but that doesn’t harm the narrative much. After spending the better part of fifteen months embedded in the Korengal, the material Junger has is crackerjack.
If you’ve seen Restrepo, most of the plot points of War will be familiar, though the book gives so much more background and context that it is, in retrospect, an almost essential companion to the film. Like most books that give the grunts-eye-view of combat, War is really a book about masculinity, and the distinctly male ways of bonding, in-group/out-group dynamics, and the relationship between male sexuality and violence. These are the same themes that haunt the film, only amplified, and I don’t have much more to add than what I wrote in my review of Restrepo.
Most of what Junger has to say on these themes is not new, but he writes it very, very well, and when it is used to frame the goings-on at the KOP and OP Restrepo, it adds a really nice tension to the story. (The bit about soldiers creeping around, afraid of being gang-raped by a pair of over-the-top platoon mates, is pretty wild).
The one element that is new, and I think, exactly right, is Junger’s discussion of courage. Aristotle defined courage as the mean between cowardice and recklessness, but this has always been totally unhelpful. Courage has always defied rational analysis, largely because its most extreme manifestations – e.g. a soldier throwing himself on a grenade – seem completely irrational. Junger finds the crack in the nut, I think, when he argues that courage is something largely indistinguishable from love. And therein lies the great conundrum of war: it isn’t that men enjoy war, so much that they will never love any one as much as they do the men with whom they go into combat.