If you ever wondered what it was like to be an American soldier fighting the Taliban in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, you now have an option besides enlisting. You can start by reading Sebastian Junger's book "War", which Matt reviewed here. When I first saw the title I thought that was a mighty bold statement calling it simply War. As if one book could really shed much useful light on a topic that broad and deep. After plowing through it cover to cover non-stop, I think it did just that. It is not a ponderous look at war and its effects on societies, grasps for power, geo-politics etc. It is a look at what happens to a group of men when they go to their own small piece of war in a god-forsaken, chunk of Hell in Afghanistan.
After the initial invasion of Afghanistan, there was not a whole lot of fighting there for the next four years. The Taliban had run to Pakistan and those that stayed were not very active. The Pakistanis tried a couple of times to take military action against the safe havens in their border provinces but in the end just made a number of treaties with the Taliban there. This allowed them to refit, recruit, retrain and eventually re-infiltrate into Afghanistan. When they did so the Korengal Valley was a major effort and a major route into the country. The 2nd Bn. 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne was sitting right there and over their 15 month tour they saw more combat than any unit during the war on terror. During 2007/8 more than 20% of all the combat in Afghanistan was these 1,000 or so guys fighting the first large scale efforts of the Taliban to return to the country.
Over that 15 month period, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made a number of trips to embed with the 2nd platoon of Battle Company. They spent a total of 5 months with them and came out with two tremendous pieces of work detailing what that combat tour was like for those men, Sebastian's book "War" and their award-winning documentary "Restrepo" (you can see the trailer here). Taken together they are the closest thing to a virtual tour of the war in Afghanistan you are going to find. There is a tendency for journalists writing about their time in a war zone to put the experience through the lens of their own perspective. Sebastian does add some of his own thoughts and feelings about being there, but always manages to get out of his own way and focus back on the guys with the guns.
It is de rigeur to say this is a rough and raw tale. But that is why it works, everything that happened there was rough and raw and so were the actions and reactions of these men. All of the things they did to cope with the rigors of the terrain, the always lurking possibility of dying, and the crushing boredom when neither of those was in play came through clearly. There was no gray; there was life or death, friend or foe, exhilarating fire fights or stunning silence. When it ended, I was mad, yet happy for them that they were done. As the book told, many of them felt the same way.
The movie Restrepo was stunning.The filmmakers managed to absent themselves from it so completely it was as if you were watching events unfold yourself as a silent observer. Humping up ridiculous mountains, blazing away at elusive enemies who always seemed to have the high ground, dealing with recalcitrant villagers, trying to sort the bad guys from the not quite so bad guys, wondering if you were actually making a difference, wondering if you were gonna make it home. We saw these guys experience all of that and I think almost everyone in the theater had a cold sweat and chills for most of the film.
Just as striking was the commentary from the men after they had returned, which was interspersed throughout the picture. There was no feeling that they were broken, but certainly bent, and scarred and thoughtful. All they had seen and done weighed on them, but they seemed determined to use it rather than allow it to use them. One man talked about never wanting to lose the memory of a friend who was killed. He didn't want to block it out even though it was brutally painful. He said it reminded him of why he was happy to have everything that he still did. That seemed like a perfect metaphor for the experience of all those men. Yeah it hurt, but I'm still here aren't I? So be it.
I don't think I have to say read the book and see the movie and then read the book again. Just do, and then be happy for everything that you still have and thank these men and the rest of our troops for always marching to the sound of gunfire.