I am just reading the amazing, grueling ‘War‘ by Sebastian Junger. There is nothing much to say, except read it, and discover for yourself how bloody awful war is. This book is the closest to the war poems of the First World War I have found for conveying the lyrical awfulness of what it feels like to nearly die, to spend months with fear, and to see your best friends die in your arms. Of course, it won’t stop war any more than Wilfred Owen did, but when advocating war it would be good to know what you are taking about just a little.
Variously ascribed to Winston Churchill or George Orwell is this saying:
‘We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm’
And in so doing they lose their lives, parts of their bodies and much of their minds.
But Junger also sheds some light on another aspect of the horror of war, which might explain why it goes on:
War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of tis use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss this fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains, and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen year old at the working end of a .50 caliber during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways, twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you die – though that might happen – it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.
He wrote that just after surviving a bomb going off under his truck in a convoy and if it had been detonated a little later he would have been killed.
This is Sebastian Junger who spent 15 months embedded with the US Army in Afghanistan in the worst of the fighting there. A neighboring company took 80% casualties and his company did little better. He notes that the parents of serving soldiers differ little on politics: they just want their sons (or daughters) back in one piece.
And with the cameraman Tim Hetherington, who made the movie ‘Restrepo’ with Sebastian on the same set of events, which I will review when I have seen it.
Footnote: Tim Hetherington was killed covering the fighting in Libya on April 20th 2011