In mid-April, the U.S. military executed what it called a "strategic withdrawal" from Korengal, a small valley in northeast Afghanistan that it had tried for four years to pacify. Dozens of U.S. soldiers and many more Afghans had died violently there. When the U.S. pulled out, the valley was still so dangerous that officers had to offer village elders six thousand gallons of fuel as a bribe not to attack the convoys during their drive to safety.
This is about as close to an acknowledgment of defeat as one is likely to see in this war. Sebastian Junger's new book, War, is a depiction of one year in the life of the U.S. soldiers who tried to turn the occupation of Korengal around, and whose battle against a steady barrage of Taliban attacks was eventually judged to be not worth the trouble. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a reporter for Vanity Fair, visited Korengal's forts and outposts serially for one year, and his dispatches present a sometimes unbearably gritty look at the daily life of soldiers there. As a narrative of combat in Afghanistan from the U.S. ground perspective, the book has no rivals. It makes one wonder how any army could hold ground in Korengal, and indeed why it would even want to.
The Korengal of Junger's narrative is "an Afghanistan within Afghanistan," crystalizing all the violence and enmity of that country in a divot of earth just six miles long. The local people are completely uninterested in helping their occupiers. The fighters among them are hellbent on overrunning the bases, not only to kill Americans but also to carry off their corpses as prizes. The strategic value of the valley is essentially nil, because it is not really on the road to anywhere; only six thousand people live there. Its sole products, timber and wheat, are not particularly lucrative. Some say Korengal has a sort of "flypaper" role, and attracts fighters who might cause even more damage elsewhere. But none of the explanations is convincing (invocation of flypaper is always a sign of strategic bankruptcy). At one point a soldier tells Junger that the base he commands is really just "a huge middle finger pointed at the Taliban fighters in the valley," a monument to remind them that shooting Americans will only make them fight harder, until now at least.
With that middle finger now publicly amputated, one might ask what force of will kept it extended for so long. In Junger's telling, the effort was horrendous, and the stresses it put on American soldiers nearly unimaginable. In several engagements, the Americans take more than fifty percent casualties, and Junger is unflinching in reporting the worst of them, particularly the head shots (usually a quick death) and the "bleed-outs" (ripped arteries, which only a swiftly applied tourniquet can save). His accounts of the few times when Taliban have literally overrun outposts, breaching their walls and shooting freely among the soldiers, are particularly harrowing, and produce the bulk of the American body count in these pages.
The narrative is always compelling but at times difficult to take, for reasons both of squeamishness (though rarely gory, the accounts are wrenching) and of emotional drain. Junger has deliberately ignored strategic questions in favor of an intense and sustained soldier's-eye view. And while that view does justice to the boredom of base life, it does pack into just a couple hundred pages a full year of death and mayhem, which simply cannot be processed by anyone in the level of detail at which he offers it. Just as a war movie that showed only the most intense scenes of battle (think of the Omaha Beach scenes of Saving Private Ryan drawn out over a full two hours) would be unwatchable, by its own potency Junger's book is rendered unreadable in large doses.
That, perhaps, is the goal. The book is less about fighting with the brain than about fighting with the muscles and glands, and taxing them beyond what they can normally sustain. The soldiers with whom Junger embeds do not care about politics. They are endlessly practical and look for any way at all to bear the physical and psychological burdens of their situation. They know that if you cut off your shirt below the armpit you will stay cool, yet appear still to be in uniform, under your body armor. They know how to sustain bucket-loads of stress hormones in their systems, in anticipation of a wave of Taliban attacks. And they know that wearing flea-collars on your ankles doesn't do much to protect you against Afghan fleas, who on every forward base I have visited have been roughly as ferocious and bloodthirsty as the humans.
This practicality is at times unnerving. The soldiers are concerned at every moment with survival, and that fierce reality reduces them temporarily to bundles of instincts, capable of being described in the language of machines, or as sums of their chemically constituent parts. Junger says they reek of ammonia, because in the course of fighting in nearly a hundred pounds of combat gear they quickly burn off their bodies' natural grease and start burning muscle, with ammonia as a malodorous byproduct. In firefights they live or die by their reaction speed, like machines or robots. Junger looks up the neurobiology (there is a surprising amount of academic research in this book, though it is worn lightly) and does the math, finding that one might feasibly dodge a bullet, if it is coming from more than ten football fields away.
What does all this amount to? The book certainly explains less than its grandiose, single-word title promises. (The section headings, equally grandiose, are "Fear," "Killing," and "Love." Why this extremely specific and detailed book requires these general and pretentious headings is a mystery.) There are no Afghans with prominent roles in the narrative, even among the Americans' comrades in the Afghan National Army, so it would be a strain to claim that it revealed much about the Afghan war as a whole, or about Afghanistan as a country -- although since Junger suggests that the Korengal, that unfriendly and valueless place, is a microcosm for Afghanistan, one wonders whether the strategic withdrawal portends one on a larger scale. In the end, and especially with the ignominious coda of last month's base closing, War reads as a melancholy tale of frustration, an account of an inexorable slide toward defeat, with many dead and damaged, physically and psychologically. To foreclose the possibility of a sequel, six thousand gallons of diesel is nothing short of a bargain.
Read an Excerpt
By Junger, Sebastian
Twelve Copyright © 2010 Junger, Sebastian
All right reserved.
By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice… is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair.
— Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage
NEW YORK CITY
Six Months Later
O’Byrne is standing at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 36th Street with a to-go cup in each hand and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. It’s six in the morning and very cold. He’s put on twenty pounds since I last saw him and could be a laborer waiting for the gate to open at the construction site across the street. Now that he’s out of the Army I’m supposed to call him Brendan, but I’m finding that almost impossible to do. We shake hands and he gives me one of the coffees and we go to get my car. The gash across his forehead is mostly healed, though I can still see where the stitches were. One of his front teeth is chipped and looks like a fang. He had a rough time when he got back to Italy; in some ways he was in more danger there than in combat.
O’Byrne had been with Battle Company in the Korengal Valley, a small but extraordinarily violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He was just one soldier out of thirty but seemed to have a knack for putting words to the things that no one else really wanted to talk about. I came to think of O’Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon, a way to understand a group of men who I don’t think entirely understood themselves. One valley to the north, two platoons from Chosen Company accumulated a casualty rate of around 80 percent during their deployment. Battle Company wasn’t hit that hard, but they were hit hard enough. This morning I’m going to interview Justin Kalenits, one of the wounded from Chosen, and O’Byrne has asked if he could join me. It’s a cold, sunny day with little traffic and a north wind that rocks the car along the open stretches and on the bridges. We barrel southward through the industrial dross of New Jersey and Pennsylvania talking about the deployment and the platoon and how strange it is — in some ways for both of us — to find ourselves in the United States for good. I spent the year visiting O’Byrne’s platoon in the Korengal, but now that’s over and neither of us will ever see it again. We’re both dreaming about it at night, though, weird, illogical combat sequences that don’t always end badly but are soaked in dread.
Kalenits was shot in the pelvis during what has come to be known as the Bella Ambush. Bella was one of the firebases operated by Chosen Company in the Waygal Valley. In early November, fourteen Chosen soldiers, twelve Afghan soldiers, a Marine, and an Afghan interpreter walked to the nearby village of Aranas, met with elders, and then started to walk back. It was a setup. The enemy had built sandbagged positions in a 360-degree circle around a portion of the trail where there was no cover and the only escape was to jump off a cliff. By some miracle, Chosen held them off. Six Americans and eight Afghans were killed and everyone else was wounded. An American patrol hasn’t taken 100 percent casualties in a firefight since Vietnam.
We turn into Walter Reed Army Medical Center and park in front of Abrams Hall, where Kalenits lives. We find him in his room smoking and watching television in the dark. His blinds are down and cigarette smoke swirls in the slats of light that come through. I ask Kalenits when was the first moment he realized he was in an ambush, and he says it was when the helmet was shot off his head. Almost immediately he was hit three times in the chest, twice in the back, and then watched his best friend take a round through the forehead that emptied out the back of his head. Kalenits says that when he saw that he just “went into awe.”
There were so many muzzle flashes around them that the hills looked like they were strung with Christmas lights. The rounds that hit Kalenits were stopped by ballistic plates in his vest, but one finally hit him in the left buttock. It shattered his pelvis and tore up his intestines and exited through his thigh. Kalenits was sure it had severed an artery, and he gave himself three minutes to live. He spotted an enemy machine-gun team moving into position on a nearby hill and shot at them. He saw the men fall. He went through all of his ammunition except for one magazine that he saved for when the enemy came through on foot to finish everyone off.
Kalenits started to fade out from lack of blood and he handed his weapon to another man and sat down. He watched a friend named Albert get shot in the knee, and start sliding down the cliff. Kalenits’s team leader grabbed him and tried to pull him back, but they were taking so much fire that it was going to get them both killed. Albert yelled to his team leader to let go and he did, and Albert slid partway down the cliff, losing his weapon and helmet on the way. He finally came to a stop and then got shot three more times where he lay.
Rocket-propelled grenades were exploding all around them and throwing up so much dust that the weapons were jamming. Men were spitting into the breeches of their guns, trying to clear them. For the next hour Kalenits faded in and out of consciousness and the firefight continued as one endless, deafening blur. It finally got dark and the MEDEVAC bird arrived and started hoisting up the wounded and the dead. There was a dead man in a tree below the trail and dead men at the bottom of the cliff. One body fell out of the Skedco harness as it was being hoisted into the helicopter, and a quick-reaction force that had flown in from Battle Company had to search for him most of the night.
The last thing Kalenits remembered was getting stuck with needles by doctors at the base in Asadabad; the next thing he knew, he was in Germany. His mother had come home to a message telling her to get in contact with the military immediately, and when she did she was told that she’d better fly to Germany as fast as possible if she wanted to see her son alive. He was still alive when she arrived, and he eventually recovered enough to return to the United States.
O’Byrne has been quiet most of the interview. “Did anyone bring up the issue of walking at night?” he finally says. “On the way out, did anyone bring that up?”
I know why he’s asking: Second Platoon left a hilltop position during the daytime once and got badly ambushed outside a town called Aliabad. A rifleman named Steiner took a round in the helmet, though he survived.
“No — the lieutenant said, ‘We’re leaving now,’” Kalenits answers. “What are you going to say to him?”
“Fuck off?” O’Byrne offers.
Kalenits smiles, but it’s not a thought anyone wants to pursue.
Excerpted from WAR by Junger, Sebastian Copyright © 2010 by Junger, Sebastian. Excerpted by permission.
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