European Affairs

"War" by Sebastian Junger     Print Email
Reviewed by Robert Steck

Combat in Afghanistan has the Ferocious (and Horrific) Intensity of Bigger Wars: Searing Account of American Platoon Evokes Old Questions about Understanding Warfare


Editor’s Note - The war in Afghanistan has triggered a great deal of commentary to the effect, put simplistically that Americans still believe in war and Europeans have stopped believing it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly spoken about a “demilitarization of Europe.” In European Affairs, a book reviewer analyzed a recent study – its title is “Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?” – that traces the growth in revulsion at the concept of war in Europe in the last century. Afghanistan, after the Balkans and Iraq, has brought out clear the transatlantic divergences about “the use of force” – war. Broadly speaking, Europeans clearly feel that the war in Afghanistan is a pointless, blood-soaked campaign. On the other hand, Americans, who bear the brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan, still support the war. In the current European mood of pacifism (or passivity), how much can be explained by a lack of military muscle and means to prevail in modern conflict? How much can be traced back to Europe’s searing experience of war on its own soil, including the suffering of its civilian populations? In the U.S., attitudes may owe much to the fact that the Afghan conflict has had astonishingly low media attention, and has certainly not had the raw firsthand coverage that brought the Vietnam war into every household via the nightly television news. The book reviewed here powerfully delivers the literally awesome effect that combat has on soldiers in modern Western armies.

Several years ago Sebastian Junger wrote a run-away best selling book called The Perfect Storm, chronicling what happened to a fishing boat caught in a horrific storm off the New England coast. He has now written an even more compelling narrative, a book called, simply, War, about a small group of soldiers caught in an even more horrific ‘storm of steel’, to borrow a phrase from a book written almost 100 years earlier. The storm of steel in War takes place in a very small place, a vicious, narrow six-mile long strip called the Korengal Valley, aka the “Valley of Death”. This especially bloody patch of ground first came to public attention in 2005 when 19 commandos were killed there in one of the biggest losses in a single incident in Afghanistan. Altogether about 40 soldiers died in this bloody section of Northeast Afghanistan before the commanders, the grand strategists, ordered a withdrawal from the valley soon after the publication of Junger’s book. The race, it seemed, was not worth the candle after all.

Considered in the spacious, carpeted and air-conditioned offices of military strategists, the question of "re-deploying" forces – moving them out of one area when it’s no longer worth the price – is a simple matter of calibrating ends and means. But things look different down on the ground where the killing and dying tick the relentless chronology of daily life, hour by hour, corpse by corpse. At that level the larger theories and rationales are as elusive as phantoms, unutterably beyond understanding: “I went out to use the piss tubes one night," one soldier tells Junger, “and I was like ‘What am I doing in Afghanistan?’ I mean literally, what am I doing here? I’m trying to kill people and they’re trying to kill me. It’s crazy …”

But those big questions only very seldom occur– maybe only in the middle of the night. Usually soldiers are caught in a kind of pervasive preoccupation with the present moment, in which the past loses its meaning and the future loses its promise: a tyranny of the now. And that’s where “combat stops being a grand chess game between generals and becomes a no-holds-barred experiment in pure killing.”

How grim is that? Actually, not as grim as we might like, as it turns out. Because as Junger and most combat veterans know -- but few talk about -- war can be a terrific rush for a large swath of a certain category of human beings. They’re called young men. “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 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that nobody has ever heard of.”

But Junger, is too smart an observer to conclude that the attractions of war revolve around anything so simplistic as a series of adrenaline overdoses. As he points out, you can get the adrenaline rush from sky-diving. The deepest attractions of war consist in the almost ineffable strength of the bonds that bind soldiers to each other and to their units. In a firefight it shows in “the choreography – you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you bring your team up.”

That’s why “perfectly sane, good men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for. Not killing necessarily – that couldn’t have been clearer in my mind – but the other side of the equations: protecting. The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you have been exposed to it, there is almost nothing else you’d rather do.”

That quotation underscores that Junger wants his book to be seen as about war, any war, all war, from Homer’s Troy to today’s Afghanistan. He provides the reader with a "key-hole" view of the war in Afghanistan from the viewpoint of the soldiers. His focus is on what happens inside the bubble of combat, the tyranny of the moment where there is neither history nor future, neither serious politics nor larger perspective. Down on the ground it’s just killing and dying. War is war and soldiers are soldiers. And the beginning of wisdom is the recognition of its universal attractions.

But in fact all the soldiers Junger writes about are Americans. While NATO is heavily represented in Afghanistan, all the soldiers who have fought and died in the Korengal Valley have been Americans. Is it possible to generalize – indeed to universalize – the experience and perspectives of one group of American soldiers in a particular time and place to all soldiers at virtually all times? Or does history frame the ways not only that war is fought but even how soldiers experience it? And how they reflect upon it afterward.  Because the effort to make sense of combat after the guns fall silent is also a part of the experience of war. Many of us who fought in Vietnam found the return even more disorienting than the war itself, and only one of the men in Junger’s book decided not to re-enlist when his term of service expired. In a column Junger wrote after the high command decided simply to pull out of the Korengal Valley, he reports that the soldiers with whom he was embedded “took enormous pride in the outpost they built, and they can now go online and watch videotapes of it being blown up by an American demolition team. It is a painful experience …” The point is that even if we foreshorten our perspective to focus just on the intense moments of combat, as Junger does, the soldier’s experience of war doesn’t stop on the plane home; the larger experience is ultimately shaped by history and results and politics, as well as the killing and dying.

Almost one hundred years before Sebastian Junger wrote his book, Ernst Junger, (no relation) a German writer who was awarded the highest German award for valor in WWI, wrote a very powerful book called Storm of Steel. Like Sebastian Junger, Ernst Junger also found a kind of mystical transcendence in combat, elevating the ordinary soldier to a life multiplied by “some number nobody ever heard of.”

But, of course, Europe’s experience of the Twentieth Century was very different from the U.S. experience: we never experienced the full devastation of war in our own country. We saw only a slice of war. And Sebastian Junger, when asked recently to describe the effects of American firepower in the Korengal Valley, answered that neither he nor the soldiers ever really saw what happened at the other end of their storms of steel.

And those differences make a difference – a difference in the ways that Europeans and Americans have come to see warfare. Toward the end of his life, Ernst Junger came to describe the ideology of war in Germany before and after World War I as a “calamitous mistake.”

Robert Steck is a writer, consultant, sometime professor of philosophy and a combat veteran of the Vietnam war.

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