I bought this book on spec, mostly because of the strength of Junger’s other book THE PERFECT STORM, the book by which all other maritime disaster accounts are held up to (and usually found lacking). In WAR, Junger takes on the war in Afghanistan. He follows a platoon for fifteen months into firefights, in summer and winter, and even home on leave. It reminded me most of the film THE HURT LOCKER, and if you prefer watching your documentaries rather than reading them, Junger has made a film called RESTREPO based off the material gathered for this book. I have not seen this film.
The strength of this book is in Junger’s exhaustive research. He doesn’t just follow the men and talk about their firefights, he lives with them. He jumps when they jump, eats what they eat, sleeps where they sleep, and gets shot at with the rest of them. He has also done research on everything physiologically and psychologically related to soldiering. He talks about the effects on the body of adrenaline, what happpens to your body when your pulse rate gets to high levels, for example. He talks about army research into what makes a good soldier and what makes a poor one. He even touches on the history of warfare. He talks about how radically machine guns changed war, and how the courage in warfare is a uniquely human trait.
In addition to the factual research, Junger follows the stories of these men’s lives at Restrepo, about the firefights they get in, the ambushes they plan, and the lengths they go to to entertain themselves when there’s no one to shoot at (some of these are hilarious.) More of the stories about the soldiers are sad. War is about death, after all.
The actual combat descriptions were the aspect of the book that I found most frustrating. On occasion, Junger’s descriptions were too sketchy for me to follow. When describing an ambush, I couldn’t figure out how the terrain was laid out and what their actions were. I reread the scene more than once and found that I still couldn’t understand what was going on. On another occasion, he described being part of a patrol that snuck in under cover of darkness, hid all day, and then attacked at night. Except that before he got to the attack part, he went off on a discussion of something factual. This was fine, but he never went back to where he left off, which drove me crazy. If an author starts out with the story of star-crossed lovers in fair Verona who are planning to elope, then breaks off to tell us about the history of Verona, that’s fine, but when he goes back to the story, I want it to pick up where it left off, sneaking out of a window, not have the wrap up “and they both died.” If I’m given the beginning of a story, I want the middle too. I understand that the book is about war, not about this particular platoon, so maybe Junger felt that having too many action scenes would bring this book further from science and more into sensationalism. I still found it frustrating to hear about our heroes in danger, and then never figure out how they got out of it.
I admire and appreciate that Junger went to such great lengths to give an in-depth reporting of a life that I would never be allowed to see first hand. You’d have to be a serious manly-man to even attempt this, which would disqualify over half the writers right out of the gate. (I, for example, am neither manly, nor a man.) This book didn’t blow me away like THE PERFECT STORM did, but it’s still interesting and worth reading. I recommend it for people who are interested in science (especially psychology and sociology) for people who are interested in Afghanistan, and for people who like to read about war.