War by Sebastian Junger

The author of The Perfect Storm embedded himself with an Army platoon fighting in a remote and barren valley in Afghanistan. 

(Twelve, 287 pages, $26.99)

You’d have to go back more than 50 years to find a better book about combat than Sebastian Junger’s War, said Philip Caputo in The Washington Post. The author of 1997’s The Perfect Storm shared “the terror, monotony, misery, comradeship, and lunatic excitement” of a bloody 15-month tour with an Army platoon in remotest Afghanistan, and made it his task to simply show what war at ground level feels like. He succeeds splendidly, rendering the battlefield experience so exactly that it may feel to civilian readers as alien as “a planet in some distant solar system.”

Junger’s narrative is “always compelling but at times difficult to take,” said Graeme Wood in Salon.com. The 150 paratroopers with whom he embeds are fighting for a barren valley that has no apparent strategic value. One soldier tells Junger that the platoon’s presence is essentially “a huge middle finger” directed at the fierce local Taliban fighters. As their reward, these U.S. soldiers take more fire than any other Americans in that country, and “Junger is unflinching” in describing the worst of the resulting casualties. But “just as a war movie that showed only the most intense scenes of battle would be unwatchable,” Junger’s book is nearly “unreadable.” Readers might be aware, even before they start, that U.S. commanders last month abandoned the valley. That only makes this tragic tale of futility more disheartening.

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To create a truly great war book, a writer actually needs to see past the experience of a single platoon, said David Langness in Paste. Junger’s “tough-guys-in-extremis style works well as straight reportage,” but because his perspective is circumscribed, his insights don’t reach the transcendent level of those in Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Junger chose to profile a group of compatriots upon whom he is depending for his very survival: Understandably, he thus “spends most of War glorifying camaraderie” and man’s survival instinct. If he had “embedded with the Taliban, too—then we’d have a story.”

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