You don’t read Sebastian Junger’s War (Twelve, $26.99) so much as get drafted. Within paragraphs, you find yourself deployed in eastern Afghanistan, rooted deep inside the lives and minds of Second Platoon.
From June 2007 to June 2008 (while on assignment from Vanity Fair), Junger made five trips to the deadly Korengal Valley, where 70 percent of all bombs in Afghanistan are dropped.
He lived with Second Platoon for as much as a month at a time, documenting their entire 15-month deployment. He ate like a soldier, slept like a soldier and patrolled like a soldier. Instead of carrying a gun (which would have made him a combatant instead of an observer), Junger armed himself with a camera and a notebook. While the soldiers shot at enemies, Junger—along with British war photographer Tim Hetherington—shot footage, amassing more than 150 hours of digital video. The resulting documentary, Restrepo (co-directed by Junger and Hetherington), took the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Some war books are all body armor and bloody battles. War is more interested in the psychology of it all: why these men enlisted, how they deal with imminent death, and how they cope with the loss of their fellow soldiers. Junger’s unique position allowed him to get inside their collective mind. He witnessed their camaraderie first-hand, while confronting the same dangers. In one vivid incident, Junger’s Humvee encounters an IED (improvised explosive device) which—because it was detonated prematurely—exploded under the vehicle’s engine block, 10 feet from where the soldiers were riding. Another second, another few feet, and none of the passengers would have survived.
War is divided into three sections. In “Fear,” Junger addresses the soldiers’ trepidation about fighting; in “Killing,” he discusses the act itself, and what it means to take a life; in “Love,” Junger examines the special bond formed when the soldiers learn to entrust their lives to each other, and how these virtual strangers with little or nothing in common, can forge such a close, life or death bond.
Junger (The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont) has a gift for writing unforgettable, thought-provoking non-fiction that readers connect with on an emotional level. War is much more than mere war correspondence; it’s a deeply affecting book.
War is available now. National Geographic Entertainment plans to release Restrepo in theaters this July.