Copyright by John T. Reed
Sebastian Junger is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Belmont. He has written for Vanity Fair magazine. He also directed the documentary Restrepo which is about the same subject as the book War. While in Afghanistan, Junger and his partner Tim Heatherington videotaped the events which he writes about in War and which became part of the Restrepo documentary.
Restrepo is the last name of a medic in the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade. His first name was Juan. He got killed in a firefight in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. His unit named their tiny outpost after him.
In 2008, Junger and his partner Heatherington went to Afghanistan for five different one-month visits. They heard 2nd Platoon was the one most likely to do a lot of fighting and, at their request, were embedded with that platoon. They were not disappointed with the amount of fighting they experienced.
As I have said at another article at my web site, our troops in Afghanistan appear to be spread way too thin. I have attended numerous in-person lectures by returning Afghanistan U.S. military personnel as well as journalists. On 5/25/10, I heard Junger speak in person at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco. By coincidence, when I got home, I also saw him interviewed by Charlie Rose than same night. He said about the same in both albeit a little more cleaned up in the Rose version. I later saw him intervewied on the C-Span Book “After Words” program.
I have also read a bunch of books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. See my military book review page.
Junger said about the same thing I had heard and read and believed myself before. U.S. troops in Afghanistan are spread way too thin. My position, and Junger’s if I recall correctly, was take them out or do it right, that is, with more troops and artillery and air-support.
We had a company in the Korengal Valley—about 150 men. Junger said we should have had a battalion: four companies or about 600 men. Junger said if we had had a battalion instead of a compnay, there would have been little or no fighting at all in the Valley and the U.S. troops would have been able to get things done like build a paved road and medical clinics and schools. And, presumably, Juan Restrepo would still be alive, using his medic training on local injured and sick rather than American wounded.
I also have long urged the U.S. military not to respect enemy sanctuaries in adjacent countries. We made that mistake for awhile in Vietnam were I did one tour in 1969 and 1970. We are making it now with regard to Syria and Iran in Iraq and with regard to Iran and Pakistan in Afghanistan. I surmise Junger agrees with that. Certainly he indicated in his book that the men of 2nd Platoon agreed with it. When asked about the war politics of themen of 2nd Platoon Jungers said they did not have any except that they were very angry at Pakistan whom they blamed for all combat in Afghanistan. According to them, the Afghans themselves want peace. The attacks on the Americans there come from foreign fighters in Pakistan. He mentioned a rock in the Korengal valley with Taliban graffiti on it—written in Arabic, which is not the language of the Afghans.
Why are U.S. troops spread way too thin in Afghanistan? Because initially, the Afghan front was relatively quiet. When it heated up, politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent too few troops because they did not want to spend their political capital on an unpopular-with-the-left major additional commitment of U.S troops. Anti-war hippies left over from Vietnam and their younger imitators want every U.S. troop out of Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. Conservatives want more troops in those countries. The commanders in chief split the difference to minimize damage to their approval ratings. Unfortunately, that results in spreading the Americans and their support resources too thin in Afghanistan which maximizes physical damage to the Army’s Juan Restrepo’s.
To be a politician, you have to be the sort of scum who gets U.S. soldiers killed rather than risk your own poll ratings. The presidents would probably tell you they did not have enough votes in Congress to add more troops. That would be because of other political scum like Pelosi and Harry “The war is lost” Reid. It would appear that the war is not lost, but Juan Restrepo is. The blood of Restrepo and the thousands of others who died over there is on the hands of Pelosi et al. But they don’t care either. They are powerful so her anti-war San Francisco radical constituents get to have their way: too few troops in Afghanistan and Juan bleeds out lying on the ground in the Korengal Valley. Are Pelosi’s San Francisco voters happy about Restrepo dying for lack of U.S. troops? No. But they are happier than they would be if there were more U.S. troops there. To the left, Juan Restrepo was expendable, an inevitable accptebale casualty in their war for victory in the symbolism battle where progress is measured in the body count of troops in theater. The left wants that number as low as possible; the right wants it higher.It is an abstract political battle over arithmetic. But on the ground in Afghanistan, that arithmetic has concrete, not abstract, effect on the lives of young American soldiers. Juan is dead—a concrete result of an abstract political debate among much-educated non-military veterans on TV talk shows 7,000 miles away.
I am not especially in favor of either war in Iraq and Afghanistan or abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan, but I despise sending troops to a war that the American people are not determined to win. That is what was done to me and my fellow military personnel in Vietnam. That should not have happened then. It should never happen again. Pelosi, Reid, and Obama are welcome to bring them all home now as far as I’m concerned. And they are welcome to add far more troops so that our casualty rate goes down and our success rate goes up.
What they absolutely have no right to do is leave our guys there spread too thin and getting killed and wounded as a result which is precisely what they are doing now. The politicians in question, who never served in the military, have two choices, not three. All in or all out. Half-ass, half-hearted, half-way in is not an option. And because those politicians chose half way, Restrepo and thousands of men like him will never make another choice.
By the way, before I read War, I worried that the men in these tiny outposts might run out of ammo during a ground attack against them. Scratch that. They have mountains of ammo. What they actually are running out of are unjammed, unoverheated weapons. They probably ought to have two or three weapons for each guy in home camp so they can switch in firefights when they jam or get too hot.
The main point of War seems to be that life can be divided into two categories: fire fights and everything else.
While they were in the Korengal Valley, 2nd Platoon was in fire fights. It sounded like about one a day on average; multiple fire fights on some days. None at all for stretches.
While they were not in the Korengal Valley—either at a rear area in Afghanistan or in Vincenza, Italy which was their non-combat base or in the U.S on leave.—they were wishing they were back at Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley.
Figuring out why was Junger’s main goal. I have been curious about that myself.
In 1964, I went to West Point as a 17-year old. I was naive. There was no war at the time. The Korean War had ended 12 years before; World War II, 19 years before. All I knew about war was war movies and they looked pretty cool.
Senior spring at West Point in 1968, the chief of staff of the Army, West Point graduate and former Vietnam commander General Willam Wesmtoreland spoke to us in the mess hall at West Point. The theme of his speech was “March to the sound of the guns.” It is a military phrase meaning that soldiers respond to wars the way firemen respond to fires. I resented Westmoreland telling us how to live our lives, but I found myself doing what he urged.
I chose a combat arm branch—Signal Corps which is communications. That meant I was also volunteering for ranger school which was so awful no one should ever go there for any reason. See my article about it. We knew it would be awful although it was still far worse than we expected.
I also volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division which meant I was volunteering for parachute training and that I was volunteering for Vietnam as soon as possible, namely four months after I arrived at the 82nd Airborne Division. During radio officer school, I heard about a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP—D Company 75th Rangers) slot in Vietnam for an airborne-ranger radio officer. I immediately volunteered for it and was told I would be sent there for that slot although they warned me someone else might get it if they got there the day before me or some such. That is precisely what happened.
But why did I volunteer for all that stuff? If I had it to do over, I would have selected Air Defense Artillery because they were not considered a combat arm and therefore did not have to go to ranger school. I also would have chosen Germany for my first assignment. My classmates who chose Germany generally never made it to Vietnam. The war ended. I would not have marched to the sound of the guns because I now know those who decided to go to war there were not commited to victory. My fellow soldiers who died there—58,000 of the—died so Republicans and Democrats could posture politically during the 1960s. IT was not freedom or liberty that were at stake—just elections in the U.S. Also, something like 20% To 35% of American deaths in Vietnam were from friendly fire and accidents unrelated to the enemy. The U.S. military is extremely inept and dangerous. In Desert Storm in 1991, the U.S. military killed more allied military personnel by accident than the Iraqis did on purpose.
So what in the name of God was I thinking? My best guess is a combination of peer pressure, desire to prove oneself, a sense of duty that when you graduate from West Point during a war you go to the war, not avoid it. I also wanted to be stationed in New Jersey. I was from there and wanted to invest in real estate there. The Signal School was in New Jersey. The ADA school was in El Paso.
Junger does not much deal with the decisions you make that lead you to a combat assignment where you engage in firefights. Rather, he mostly focuses on how the men react to being in a routine-fire-fights situation.
They love it. All but one of the men in the 2nd Platoon stayed in the Army after their tour in Restrepo. And the one guy who got out regretted it at timesand was talking about going back in.
In other articles at this web site—my review of I Love a Man in Uniform was one—I talked about how being in a combat zone (not firefights per se) was kind of fun in many ways, like the fishing and hunting trips men go on. (I neither hunt nor fish.) You have seen the newsreel footage in movies and on TV from World War II and Vietnam: thousands of guys stripped to the waist moving equipment and supplies, watching Bob Hope and his beautiful women putting on a show, taking cover from incoming enemy fire, riding around in jeeps and trucks and helicopters. Only about 1% of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were killed. The kill rate is probably similar in Afghanistan. Most enemy fire in our recent wars is inaccurate because they usually shoot from so far away—like 300 to 500 yards. They cannot get much closer usually because we have far better firepower and their only chance to survive is to remain hidden and to run away before our artillery and aircraft arrive. On rare occasions the fights are close-up.
But Junger’s War experience was a different level of war. It was the war experienced by the front-line infantry.
He says, and I agree, that there is little resemblance between what front-line infantry do and what the rest of the military does. I’ll class helicopter crews who land at hot landing zones (LZ's) with the front-line infantry. Even artillery is not involved with firefights the way infantry is. I was the communications officer of a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. Our firebases could have been attacked on the ground, but never were when I was there. Had they been, they would have put flechette rounds in the cannons and fired them point blank at the enemy. That would deter me if I had been a member of the North Vietnamese Army (our enemy). They are like giant shotguns shooting thousands of darts with each shot. I expect you would not even find recognizable human remains after firing one at a wall of charging enemy.
We also dropped napalm on concentrations of enemy troops in Vietnam—which discouraged them from concentrating. (Napalm is gelatin powder mixed with gasoline.) Leftists who never served in the military got it outlawed. That was a bit of unbelievable insanity that is still getting Americans killed, especially in Afghaistan where the terrain and nature of the war makes napalm a well-suited weapon. Several years ago, the left tried to get white phosporous similarly banned. The military, to their credit, just dismissed the idea with the contempt it deserved. A press conference reporter noted that when white phosporous gets on your skin in burns all the way through. “So do bullets,” said chairman of the joint chiefs Marine General Peter Pace. End of stupid discussion.
Reading War, it occurred to me that when the public thinks of war and soldiers, they think of units like 2nd Platoon. But the vast majority of active-duty military personnel, even in war zones, are not engaged in regular fire fights. Rather they are primarily acting like construction crews in the states. True, the enemy occasionally takes some shots at them and somebody occasionally gets hurt, but except for the shooting, people occasionally get hurt at construction sites, too.
Non-infantry U.S. military personnel get too much credit for risking their lives in combat and the guys who actually do risk their lives in battle get too little credit for it. The average U.S. veteran of a foreign war was probably a rear area truck mechanic who never personally got shot at or fired his own weapon at a known enemy position. They wear the same uniform, but they arguably should not. Non-infantry bask in the reflected glory of the front-line infantry and need to deflect unsolicited credit for having been a “soldier.”
No one ever offered to buy me a drink when I was in the military “for my service.” Back then, we were more likely to be spit at or taunted as baby killers. If I were in now, and was not front-line infantry, I would refuse the drinks saying, “I’m not infantry. I’m just a radio officer. The infantry are the guys you need to thank. Save it for one of them.” (I do not mean to put down communications guys who served with infantry units. In the 82nd Airborne, I was a communications platoon leader of an infantry battalion. That was at Fort Bragg in the U.S. Had we been deployed to combat, however, my platoon and I would have been crawling right next to the front-line infantry if not wearing the exact same branch insignia.)
Junger’s conclusion is that the attraction of combat for the infantrymen who love it is being totally accepted by a group of peers whose only criterion for acceptance is “Will you do everything you can to keep me alive.” That includes running out in the open under fire to pull me back as well as all the little nitty gritty details of combat like making sure your weapon is clean and in good repair, making sure you stay hydrated, making sure your boot laces are tied so you do not trip over them in combat thereby making yourself useless or even a danger to the group, and so on.
The standards are not rocket science to master, but each and every details is crucial and everyone watches everyone else and everyone is essentially a platoon leader in that they all correct other members of the platoon instantly when they spot an infraction. In garrison, people who do that are considered martinets. But in combat, attention to the truly important details—ammo, weapons, water, food, radio batteries—not stuff like wearing a tie, which General Patton insisted on in World War II—is a universal habit.
Combat infantrymen love their ability to meet the standards and be accepted for it. They may not have met the standards to make the football team back home, or the standards of the first girl they asked to the prom, or the standards of their first summer employer, but they can and do meet the standards of being an infantryman. And they get full credit for it. Furthermore, from the perspective of daily life and death in combat, the high school football team and prom and the summer job are laughably trivial.
In combat, for the first time in their lives, they are loved unconditionally by their peers—all of them—and they are absolutely crucial to the platoon. Each has a crucial role that all the others depend on—really. Not the sort of boilerplate crucialness that stateside office managers claim when they make little pep talk speeches to their subordinates. This is real life-and-death crucialness. When one guy is hurt or injured, the others have to adjust to make up for his absence be it his weapon skill or radio communications skills or calling in indirect fire or aerial fire skills. Replacement troops scare the platoon because the new guys are incompetent at first.
There is no non-combat equivalent to this. In contrast to combat, nothing is at stake back in the states or even in rear areas of Afghanistan. In combat, the right people are in charge: those who know how to deal with the situation from experience in the Korengal Valley. Back in the states or even Afghan rear areas, people are in charge who have no combat experience and know nothing about the reason the military exists: the front-line infantry. 2nd Platoon guys hated being ordered around by non-combat officers and sergeants back in the rear areas or Italy or the states.In the Korengal Valley, if you were new and did not know what you were doing, no one would pay any attention to you regardless of your rank.
Junger said there is also an addiction to the adrenaline of combat. If a few days went by without enemy contact, the troops would get extremely antsy often fighting with each other to release the tension and get some adrenaline flowing.
You might expect a book about a platoon in almost continuous combat in Korengal Valley of Afghanistan would tell about a lot of bravery. Actually, there is virtually no mention of bravery except to note that civilians would probably think a lot of what went on was brave.
I have often been complimented about my honesty. I always thought it was a stupid compliment, like thanking me for not stealing your car. Honesty is not noteworthy. It is a minimum standard or should be. A compliment by Person A to Person B for Person B’s integrity is really a sad comment on society and maybe Person A’s own integrity. That is the way the men of 2nd Platoon regard those actions of theirs that civilians would think are brave, like risking your life to pull a wounded comrade back to safety.
Their attitude, and the attitude of infantry soldiers going back through history, is that pulling a wounded comrade out of enemy fire is a minimum standard. It is the job of every single guy in the platoon to do that. The guy who goes out to do that is not the bravest guy in the platoon. He is merely the closest guy to the wounded guy. Do anything else and you are done as far as being a member of that unit is concerned.
After the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, Commander Admiral Chester A. Nimitz observed that “uncommon valor was a common virtue” there. I think Nimitz was showing his ignorance of combat when he said that. Uncommon valor by civilian standards is a common virtue in all fire fights involving reasonably well-trained and experienced units. Arguably, all of those who make a fuss of such unselfish acts are just showing their ignorance of combat.
If you watch TV documentaries about the Medal of Honor or other recognized braveries from our wars, you will see one medal recipient after another deny that he did anything special or anything that all the other guys in the unit would not have done had they been in his position. And they are sincere, not engaging in false modesty. “Just doing my job” is the most common response. Junger’s book War should cure you of your ignorance if you are one who lavishes praise on infantrymen who acted unselfishly or bravely in combat.
Hell! In a firefight, who isn’t acting bravely? Bullets and rockets and mortar rounds are whizzing all around. Some guys are hit. Which ones is generally random. Everyone who can is shooting. The medic is running to do his thing to the wounded guys until the medic himself gets wounded. The lieutenant is on the radio calling for ground, artillery, medevac, and air support. When he finishes that he is directing his men to form a defensive perimeter or attack the enemy. Every single person is 150% occupied by civilian standards. No one is sitting around deciding whether to be brave. They are all—even the wounded—blasting away with their weapons to keep the enemy back. All actions are instinctive resulting from training and/or combat experience.
The rear-area/civilian notion that participants in combat are contemplating whether to do something brave and should get credit if they do is nothing but ignorance of the situation.
Junger likens it to a mother running out in the street to save her toddler from being hit by a car. No one thinks what she did was brave, least of all her. That is instinct. If you praised her for running out there, she would probably say, “As opposed to what? Like I had some other choice!?” That is one of my answers to the honesty compliment. And it is what 2nd Platoon and all other fire fight vets would say about their actions in combat. “You’re praising me for grabbing Carlos and pulling him back behind cover!? What the hell else would anyone have done!? Leave him out there to get hit by another dozen bullets and die!? Do you think there is a even single guy in this battalion who would not have done exactly what I did!?”
Junger quotes a civilian fire house captain as saying there is no bravery in a fire in the sense of someone having a choice and making the brave choice. Rather, he said the choice to be brave is when you decide whether to put yourself in in the fireman business to begin with. I would add that only applies to fireman or combat veterans, not new guys who have a Hollywood notion of what being a fireman or combat is. Reenlisting in a combat infantry unit during a shooting war is brave—because you have a choice, you truly know what you’re getting yourself into, and you have time to think about it. (Although if you are rejoining your same unit you were already in combat with, it may seem as if you have no choice. Those guys absolutely need you remember? The ones who actually do leave are constantly worried about their buddies who went back to combat without them and feel terrible if one gets killed or wounded thinking, “If I had been there, this wouldn’t have happened.”)
Junger discusses bravery only to say no one perceived any such thing out there in the Korengal. But he never once mentions another word civilians and RAMF (the RA stands for Rear Area) military associate with bravery: medal.
There is no indication in Junger’s book that anyone in 2nd Platoon got a medal for anything that happened in Junger’s time with them. I suspect they did, but he did not think it worth mentioning. I also suspect that far more bravery medals went to officers and sergeants in Afghanistan who did little that resembled 2nd Platoon. I have often commented that all the guys who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day probably earned the Distinguished Service Cross or Medal of Honor (the two highest bravery medals)—although few actually were awarded those medals. 2nd Platoon sounded similar.
I saw a couple of errors in the book. On page 6 Junger says, “An American patrol hasn’t taken 100% casualties in a firefight since Vietnam.”
I believe a squad of rangers was totally wiped out in our invasion of Grenada. A group of SEALs in Afghanistan all died but one. In Black Hawk Down two snipers and a helicopter crew died except for the badly wounded and later returned pilot.
On page 122, he says most paratroopers found jumping out of the 34-foot tower in jump school scarier than jumping out of an actual airplane. Junger uses that to make some large point about fear. The truth is more mundane. I covered it in my article on the airborne. The U.S. Army experimented with different tower heights to find the scariest one. It is 34 feet. They also have several 250-foot high towers at the Fort Benning jump school. They were originally tourist rides at the 1939 New York City World’s Fair. We jumped out of the 34-foot tower the first week of jump school; the 250 tower the second, and the actual airplanes at 1,200 feet the third week.
As the Army figured out, the 34-tower is scary. The 250-foot towers and 1,200 out of the airplane were not. My theory, which I think is fairly obviously true, is that we were not prepared by evolution to protect ourselves from 250-foot or 1,200 foot falls because such cliffs and trees are rare on earth. But we were prepared by evolution to fear 34-foot falls because they are fairly common. The view from 34 feet, which everyone has seen out of third-story windows, is appropriately scary. The view down from 250 feet or 1,200 feet is surreal. It does not provoke fear because it merely reminds you of looking at a photograph or painting.
Junger also relates some interesting data on combat fear. Turns out that autonomy reduces fear. Fighter pilots felt less fear in World War II than bomber pilots because fighter pilots could fly whatever way they wanted when in contact with the enemy. Bomber crews had to fly straight toward their bombing target and were not allowed to evade ground or air fire. Similarly, the walking infantry in Afghanistan feel less fear in combat than the riding-in-Humvees guys in Iraq because they are powerless to defend themselves until they extract themselves from a vehicle blown up by an IED. Infantry guys can instantly take cover and shoot back.
Other studies have found that regular civilians are happier when they have autonomy at work than when they are always following instructions. Autonomy is a multi-purpose tonic.
There are several officers in the book, mainly Lieutenant Colonel Ostlund, the battalion commander; Captain Dan Kearney, the company, and therefore Valle,y commander; and Lieutenant Stephen Gillespie, the platoon leader. Junger makes no mention of source of commission regarding any of them. The officers seem minor figures—sort of footnotes to the stars who are the enlisted men. I have no problem with that, but I know many young West Pointers spend a lot of time obsessing about their leadership skills, techniques, and leadership success or lack thereof. I was not like that. I just played it all by ear because I was not convinced much of the contemplating-your-leadership-navel stuff we got at West Point was valid. See my web article on leadership.
As I read about the officers in War I smiled at the thought of the reaction of young West Pointers who would likely be eager to read it so they could hone their leadership skills. Forget about it. There is a lot of stuff in the book about how to be a more effective enlisted combat grunt, and that should be helpful to the officers, but officers other than Ostlund are not treated as meaningful entities in the book.
Ostlund sounds like he was mainly a diplomat schmoozing with the locals. He also ordered air strikes on people in Pakistan for attacking across the border against his men. God bless him for that. Those politically-incorrect air strikes were probably also the end of his career, especially in light of Junger writing about it in a book.
Junger says Ostlund was unbelievably fit. That’s the main difference between liberals and career military personnel. Both are lovers of government who think their good intentions are a 100% substitute for results—like ending homelessness or winning wars, but the career military lift weights while not getting results. Liberals sip white wine while not getting results. I wrote an article about the military’s current overemphasis on physical fitness and underemphasis on getting the damned war-winning job done and another about the similarities between liberals and career military.
In a C-Span inerview, Junger credited company commander Kearney with ending all the American casualties in the Valley after the first five months.
No one named Stephen Gillespie, or Dan Kearney, or Ostlund ever graduated from West Point. I saw nothing in War that suggested they would have been better off at Korengal if they had, which raises the question of why we spend four times as much money producing West Point graduates as ROTC officers. See my article Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?
I had to laugh at one account in War.
I arrived in Vietnam Thanksgiving weekend 1969. As our charter airliner complete with stewardesses approached Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base near Saigon, I could see heavy black smoke rising from dozens of locations around the area. I assumed there were artillery duels or fire fights of some kind going on there.
I later learned those were the shit burners doing their jobs. Toilet facilities in Vietnam were always outhouses. Unlike farm outhouses in the states, these had doors on the back at ground level. Instead of the farm outhouse hole in the ground underneath the outhouse, there was a cut-in-half 55-gallon drum half under each toilet seat.
Once a week or so, the shit burners—Vietnamese civilians who were probably enemy spies—would open the rear door, pull out the 55-gallon-drum half, pour kerosene into it, and set it on fire. This would destroy the human waste and toilet paper in it. This was the source of the many columns of black smoke I saw. When they burned out, the shit burners would put them back in and close the door. They were sort of a smelly version of the guys who change the water bottles in your water cooler at work.
Apparently, in Afghanistan, they do the same thing, using Afghan civilians, only they call them“ burn shitters.” As a general rule, there are no Vietnam vets in Afghanistan so they may not be aware of the Vietnam counterpart or that they reversed the name for some reason.
As serious as the worst effects are, there is still a lot of funny stuff in war.
2nd Platoon had a guy named Prophet who could speak the local language and who monitored enemy radio frequencies all the time. He was constantly telling 2nd Platoon what the enemy was doing, what weapons they had, when they were going to attack, and so on. I was shocked to see all of that disclosed in War. The enemy will read the book. The Taliban were behaving very stupidly discussing all that in the clear. Although I must admit I spent part of my time in Vietnam trying unsuccessfully to get my superiors to stop talking in the clear on our telephones about secret stuff. They kept calling them “land lines” and switching from the radio—which had an encryption device—to “land line” when they wanted to discuss something secret.
“Sir, the goddamn ‘land lines’ as you call them go to the microwave towers over by the PX. Everything you say on the ‘land line’ is transmitted by radio to the next base and it is monitored by the Russian ‘fishing trawlers’ off the cost of Vietnam in the South China Sea. Every word you say on those land lines is given to the enemy almost instantly. Please use the damned FM radio with the encryption devices turned on instead, sir”.
Their attitude was, “I’m a captain. You’re a lieutenant. Shut up.”
I have to assume that Junger somehow got permission to reveal that the 2nd Platoon was continuously monitoring and translating enemy radio communications. Seems like a very bad idea to me.
Once, “Prophet” commented that the enemy radio operators were whispering. They did not know why. I immediately thought, “Because they are so close to you that they are afraid you’re going to hear them without the radio.” Indeed, that was the case and a rare up-close firefight ensued.
Junge also identifies some local Afghans who ratted out the Taliban. And it seemed to me that he provided enough information that the Taliban could identify and kill those snitches. Maybe he altered the information. But he did not say so. Altered inforamtion could get a totally innocent-of-snitching guy killed because his circumstances match the fake ones Junger made up.
For a correspondent to reveal military secrets that get Americans or our allies killed is extremely poor judgment. I cannot tell if that happened here, but if any other war correspondents are reading this, you’d better have a damned good reason for telling the enemy about successful efforts to spy on him.
If Junger reads this, I would like to hear his explanation about the wisdom of his revealing Prophet and the local snitches. I would have sent him an email but he has an unlisted email address. Too much of a big shot I guess. Athough that begs the question of how I was able to easily get the email addresses of people like Charlie Rose, Rush Limbaugh, Neil Cavuto, Bill O'Reilly, etc. off the Itnernet. My email address has always been at the bottom of every page of my web site.
Junger makes the point repeatedly that all other realistic movies or books about combat make: Who gets killed or wounded and when is generally random. Doing something stupid can get you killed or wounded in combat. So can being in the wrong place at the wrong time when another U.S. soldier does something stupid—“friendly fire.” But with experienced combat units like 2nd Platoon, hardly anyone is doing anything stupid anymore. (3rd Platoon in the Korengal Valley got friends at home to send them vodka in mouth wash bottles which they then used to get drunk in the Korengal Valley. That was stupid.) So the deaths and woundings are random. Young rookies who are eager for combat don’t know that. They think the other guy is going to get killed or wounded because they are too smart for it to happen to them. It doesn’t work that way.
In the long run, I think Junger’s book is more about alcohol than war. It sounded like every single member of 2nd Platoon spent every day drunk when they were away from Afghanistan. The only exception I recall in the book was an officer who gave the men a talk in which he said he had done that, too, until his wife and kids, who had looked forward so long to his return found he had become a drunken bum while away and turned on him. He quit drinking altogether and urged them to follow his example or at least drink in moderation. My impression from Junger’s book was that they all ignored him. If the 2nd Platoon members are not all drunks, they need to complain to Junger, not me, about his handling of the subject in his book. If Junger did identify a greater number of sober platoon members, he needs to give me the page number. I missed it and either he or the publisher chose the corner-cutting, no-index route when they printed the book
Drunks feel they are entitled to drink. Initially, their entitlement stems from harsh experience like combat and losing friends in battle. Ultimately, though, they become experts at finding excuses to get drunk anywhere and everywhere. How do I know this?
I have never taken a drink of alcohol in my life. My father, on the other hand, was drafted into World War II and returned a drunk as a result. (A couple of his budddies did get killed by incoming artillery, but my dad was a battery clerk, that is, a typist—the job made famous by Radar O’Reilly in M*A*S*H.) My father thought holidays were another excuse to get drunk, like Christmas, the ultimate children’s holiday. So we spent our Christmas mornings opening our presents and playing with them and watching dad open his bottle and start working on getting drunk. Around lunch, my mom took us to visit friends—mostly other moms whom she had met in the maternity ward when my brothers were born. Around three PM, we would tell the friends that we had to go home to get Christmas dinner ready, but we did not go home. We could not go home. By then, my World War II vet dad would be drunk. And he was a mean drunk. I personally called the cops on him many times as a child.
Instead, we parked the car by the beach (Wildwood, NJ) in the dark and stared at the ocean waiting for my father to pass out into his leftovers on the kitchen table. We would often go back there and my mom would park the car down the street out of sight. She would then sneak up to the house and peek through a widow to see if he had passed out yet. If he had, we would tip toe in and go to bed so as not to wake him up. If he was still awake, we would go spend another couple of hours at the beach then try again.
The salient feature of my father’s life before he was drafted into the Army was that he was extremely handsome, smart, and athletic. After the Army, none of that mattered. He was just extremely drunk. If I read Junger’s book correctly, the salient feature of therest of the lives of the men of 2nd Platoon will be that they became drunks during their military service. The fact that they once were willing to risk their lives for each other will be mocked by the pathetic state to which they later reduced themselves as their self-reward for their combat service.
If I may paraphrase the lyrics from the Great Depression song “Brother can you spare a dime?”
Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodle Dun,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the gun!
Buddy, can you spare a drink?
In fact, 2nd Platoon is not the first in the history of the world to experience combat. The D-Day paratroopers and amphibious-landing guys experienced worse than 2nd Platoon. So did Pickett’s Charge, Iwo Jima and Okinawa marines and so on. They did not all feel the need to become drunks. Not to mention the fact that zillions of military guys who did not experience combat, like my father, also became drunks. Indeed, the phrase “like a drunken sailor” does not distinguish between combat vet sailors and those who never experienced a war. Getting drunk in the military is nothing but a very bad military habit, in peace and in war. It is nowhere near a necessary therapy for the trauma of getting shot at and losing buddies.
A few members of 2nd Platoon will probably get on the teetotaler wagon, maybe via a 12-step program, and stay there, but most will likely end up like my father: unable to keep a job or a family, existing in an alcoholic haze, and dying alone on Medicaid in a nursing home—sober at last, only because they are physically unable to get to a liquor store. Make a documentary out of that. At least that documentary would not encourage more teenagers to seek glory in combat. The Restrepo documentary probably will beget still more drunken vets—and more dead volunteers.
So, men of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, thank your for your admirable service under the most trying circumstances and fuck you for using that service as an excuse to treat those of us who love you like dirt and ruin your lives and ours. Now get your selfish, drunken, loser ass out of our house so mommy can find a real husband and father.
After 2nd Platoon spent 15 months fighting in the Korengal Valley, the U.S. decided to abandon it. Restrepo outpost was blwon up by U.S. Army engineers. I wrote an article about that decision previously.
Do I recommend that you read Junger’s book?
If you want to learn about the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day life in the most intense fighting in Afghanistan, yes.
If you want to read an almost scientific study of why many men love combat, yes.
If you want to learn how the enemy uses the Democrats’ opposition to enough troops to kill Americans, yes. (They plan attacks so they are finished before the U.S. planes arrive. Because they are spread so thin, it takes an hour. In Vietnam, I think it was more like ten or 15 minutes. Plus we had almost 100% artillery coverage in Vietnam. Most places in Afghanistan seem out of range of U.S. artillery. The Taliban also outnumbers the Americans for some attacks. They could not do that in Vietnam. We always outnumbered the enemy there.)
If you want to see why your combat vet husband, father, or son became a profoundly selfish, irresponsible, drunken bum, yes.
If you want to understand why we are in Afghanistan, no.
If you want to see what the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will be, no.
If you want to figure out how to win in Afghanistan, no.
I just saw the movie Restrepo with one of my West Point classmates. Junger is a lot better at writing books than he is at making documentaries. The movie has no narrator and almost no written words. It is just a hodge podge of video clips. It is the audio-video equivalent of a World War II, Korean War, or Vietnam vet’s photo album of war zone snap shots, only with no captions or vet around to explain what you are looking at.
The impression the movie gives, other than one scene involving the aftermath of the death of one of the Americans, is that war is great fun. The book was far more morose. The soldiers were all happy-go-lucky guys having a great time like some sort of frat house camping trip. Except for one guy in one scene, no alcohol.
My classmate and I were very impressed with how cool under fire the men were, other than the one guy when the firefight resulted in a death. But we are also both Vietnam vets and were not surprised. These guys average at least one firefight a day. People in all wars, including civilians, comment on how quickly humans get used to the most extreme situations. When you get shot at daily, getting shot at becomes almost as routine as driving to work or stopping at your daily breakfast spot back in the states—really. The novelty certainly wears off. Since the warring parties are typically 400 yards or more apart in Afghanistan, there are few if any casualties in these firefights.