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5.0 out of 5 stars Men Will Die for Their Friends, March 4, 2010
This review is from: WAR (Hardcover)
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Sebastian Junger is the well-known author of The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont. He is also a world-class war correspondent with over a decade of experience. This book is the product of five months spent embedded with a platoon in U.S. 2nd Battalion in the Korengal valley, Afghanistan. For five months, Junger existed like a regular soldier in the U.S. army: He ate MREs, went on patrol, took cover when the bullets started to fly. As Junger likes to explain in the book, he was the target of the same bullets as the other men in the platoon, and he had the same responsibility to Army rules. Even one broken minor rule risked lives. Junger remained vigilant, won the companionship of these soldiers, and garnered enough of their trust to record their thoughts and beliefs about what it's like to be in combat. That's what this book is about. The war in Afghanistan happened to be just a convenient location to do field research. At one particular scary moment, Junger was in a Hummer that got hit by a roadside bomb. The bomb exploded under the engine block, ten feet away. The blast shook Junger's emotions for days. Needless to say, this book was almost never written.

Good thing it was. Junger provides excellent war correspondence, describing combat as a first-hand observer. Junger's prose remains apolitical, his goal to show the reader what it's like to be in battle, not make a political statement. The book is broken into three sections: "Fear," "Killing," and "Love." All three sections describe combat, but each section is loosely structured around its theme. In "Fear," Junger loosely analyzes why or why not soldiers might be afraid to fight; in "Killing" we learn why soldiers kill, how they feel about ending the life of an enemy combatant, and how they feel when one of their own receives that fate; in "Love," Junger makes an attempt to learn why soldiers would die in combat for their comrades. In fact, this section talks about bravery probably more than the first section. In one particularly long chapter, through interviews with soldiers and references to Army studies, Junger tries to figure out why one young man barely out of his teens (yes, let's not forget that these men are practically still boys) would jump on a live hand grenade. Junger's prose reads like amazing stuff.

I suspect that this book will receive mostly positive reviews, mainly for its reporting. Certainly it deserves it. But the book is not without its faults, and I'd like to point out a few. The faults are mostly literary and organizational, however, and none hampered my reading pleasure. If you're a normal guy who just wants to read about fighting, or if you loved A Perfect Storm and just want another good read, then you'll probably not notice or care about these little problems. Without reservation, buy this book. If you're more literary minded, then maybe you'll prefer to read more this review.

Embedded with Junger was a photojournalist named Tim Hetherington. Between them they shot over 150 hours of video, which was made into a recently released documentary called "Restrepo." (This name comes from the name of a fallen American soldier and the name of an important military outpost in the Korengal valley where Second Platoon spent a lot of their time.) Some (not all) of the combat scenes in the book read like he was watching video, and describing what he saw. This is not bad, but the strength of prose over video is that a writer can slow down time and stretch emotionally charged moments into pages. The writer can dig deep into the thoughts of his characters or himself, set up suspense, tackle fear, do whatever it takes. The best parts of the book are when Junger writes about his emotions and other fighters' emotions, when he writes philosophical about combat, and how he and the soldiers cope with the combat (conveniently recounted a few pages earlier). Much of the philosophy and memoir-style introspection jumps back and forth with combat scenes. Rarely do I recommend that a book be 50 to 100 pages longer, but I wish this book was. I wish that Junger combined his introspective musings and thought provoking observations, while he was describing the action. This type of writing style would have slowed down some of his action scenes and made his writing perfect. As it is, it's pretty good already.

The one other minor complaint I had about the book was organizational. Chapter One describes a very specific start date for Junger's embedment (Spring 2007), but then in subsequent chapters I got a little confused about the chronology. Besides a few references to the heat or snow, it was difficult to get a feel for the exact chronology. Not that it matters too much -- this book is about fighting, and to the men stuck at outpost Restrepo, in the mountains of Afghanistan, far away from home, both physically and emotionally, it doesn't really matter what part of the year it is. Maybe Junger was trying to convey this.

The book has an extensive bibliography that includes up-to-date literature on killing and combat. Junger spends some time philosophizing about fighting, killing, and cognitive processes during battle, and he backs up his writing with multiple studies. PTSD and other "mental casualties" are acknowledged, as well.

Not only does WAR try to describe what it's like to be in combat, but it makes a serious attempt to try and figure out why men actually enjoy it. (Yes, believe it or not, my feeling by the end of the book was that these men do.) Towards the end of the book, Junger provides a neurological explanation: "The dopamine reward system exists in both sexes but is stronger in men, and as a result, men are far more likely to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war. When the men of Second Platoon were moping around the outpost hoping for a firefight it was because, among other things, they weren't getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and dopamine." Then there is the sociological perspective. The men profiled in this book did not necessariily join the Army to die for thie country (although some do). Above all, it's the strong personal bonds, almost love, between young men who have been through challenging training and hardship, drive much of what takes place in war -- courage, bravery, willingness to die -- it all comes down to personal bonds. Men will die for their friends.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 6, 2010 11:24:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 13, 2010 6:29:41 PM PDT
Citizen John says:

Oustanding review! Makes we want to get the book right away. Surely this book will be cited in many subsequent books.

Thank you,


Posted on Apr 27, 2010 12:56:33 PM PDT
Nick Brett says:
Excellent review.

In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2010 5:30:13 PM PDT
Chuck Singer says:
good job, nick, thanks for not giving too much away. I'll get this book.

Posted on May 12, 2010 7:37:14 AM PDT
He was embedded with 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry regiment. The battalion known as "the Rock", is part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. To say he was embedded with U.S. 2nd Battalion is a huge mistake.

Posted on May 13, 2010 2:47:19 PM PDT
An informative, helpful, and wonderful review indeed! Thank you for sharing your views.

Posted on May 19, 2010 6:24:19 PM PDT
prisrob says:
Excellent review- I will purchase it after reading your review.
Nice analysis.

Posted on May 21, 2010 7:40:59 AM PDT
I appreciate the feedback. Thanks, everyone. -Howard

Posted on May 28, 2010 7:58:23 PM PDT
Bean Slap says:
I think the author may have misinterpreted data. This site says women have more dopamine receptors.

"Women had higher D2-like receptor binding potentials than men in the three brain regions studied, and the difference in the frontal cortex was statistically significant. In a more detailed regional analysis, the difference between the sexes was most pronounced for the left and right anterior cingulate cortex. "

However they did a study in which they found that men may release more dopamine when given drugs (they studied male mice)

Posted on Jun 7, 2010 7:58:44 PM PDT
S. Clarke says:
I am a Viet vet. Perhaps Junger has explained, somewhat, why men who have trained and survived combat are drawn to it. Why peacetime USA, what they have ostensibly fought for (though not - they fight for "their guys") isn't satisfying to many, esp. since "peacetime USA - those millions who just don't want to be connected to war, who don't even want to imagine it, is so unappealing to many vets. I think of Ambrose Bierce - most who've read him think of him, probably, as a skeptic and cynic - easy to become after experiencing war. But Bierce was a Civil War hero who saw it smelled it, groveled in it, was intimately familiar with it all. Yet Bierce chose to go back to it in Mexico, as a geriatric, to experience his own death. Why? I think many of us know why.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 11, 2010 9:18:44 PM PDT
RBSProds says:
War correspondents 'existed like regular soldier in the US Army'? As a combat Vet soldier, I object to this characterization: eating MREs, going on patrol (at the back), and taking cover is nowhere near existing like a soldier. They aren't trained in military operations, are not part of the operations, are not armed (although they may have their own-but who supplies ammo? Not us and we don't want them shooting anyway.) They are a constant worry for the commander: give them access, keep them safe, out of the way and answer their unclassified questions. If one of them gets hurt, there will be many questions and an investigation. I appreciate them telling 'the real story' from 'up close and personal' and sharing the danger to an extent, but don't oversell their role out there. They are important visitors who can leave whenever they want. No disrespect intended. "Restrepo", BTW, was an excellent film.
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