Steve Sckenda's Reviews > War

War by Sebastian Junger
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May 27, 13

bookshelves: war, current-events, courage, psychological, afghanistan
Recommended to Steve by: Charlie Rose
Read in June, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Sebastian Junger, the writer of "The Perfect Storm," lived with an American platoon based on a remote hilltop in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan for 15 months. Most Korengalis, ensconced in their beautiful and inaccessible mountainous terrain, have never left their village and have no understanding of the modern world; thus, Korengal was the perfect place for the Taliban to base an insurgency.

In order to thwart the Taliban and draw them into open battle, ISAF generals inserted elements of the American173rd Airborne Brigade into this fierce terrain that can only be reached, re-supplied, and reinforced by air. It’s was like placing a plum in front of the enemy and daring him to steal it if he thought himself brave enough. The Korengal Outpost (“KOP”) was one of the most dangerous, uncomfortable, primitive, and lonely posts in all of Afghanistan.

Surrounded by high ground and subjected to plunging fire by the enemy, each hill in the Korengal grid was manned by a squad of approximately 15 soldiers, each of whom was giving a full year of his youth to this endeavor. The Taliban lusted to overrun one of these positions and wipe out its defenders. Once an attack began, the Taliban had only 30 minutes to kill all the defenders before AC-10's and Apache gunships arrived, like the cavalry, to vaporize the attackers. (During bad weather or heavy cloud cover, air support might not be immediately available.)

Tactically, it was not impossible for a Taliban commander with 100 men (if he was willing to lose half of them) to overrun one these positions before the air support arrived. And try they did. Again, and again, and again. The intensity of the fighting at KOP surpassed anything the American soldier has experienced since the Vietnam War (with perhaps the exception of a couple of weeks for the Marines during the battle of Fallujah.) By the way, the soldiers in this book happened to be Americans in the Korengal, but I use the term ISAF so that American readers will not forget that there are many Afghans, Canadians, Aussies, Brits, and others who are risking their lives as well.

Junger clearly likes these guys, who are not much older than teenagers. After sharing in their danger and deprivations, he admits that he cannot be objective, but promises to be honest. Junger shares with us the relationships built and insights he gained while living in harm’s way among these testosterone-fueled young men.

I was especially interested in Junger’s observations about motivation, tactics, endurance, fear, and the psychology of an effective combat soldier, so I will attempt a brief and inadequate summary below and will conclude with a short few paragraphs meant to persuade you to read books like this even if you hate war stories.

1. Motivation
When people are trying to kill you and your friends, politics and the moral basis for the war are irrelevant. Politics at KOP become as abstract a notion as abstruse theological inquiries about angels on pins. Front-line soldiers recognize stupidity when its right in front of them, but generally they leave the big picture to others. Throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than flee to save their own life (even though nobody back home would be the wiser if they did flee).

The soldiers at KOP refer to this principle of solidarity as “Big-Boy-Rules,” which is a shorthand way to describe the need for the individual to make his needs, comfort, safety, and life secondary to that of the group. The platoon is the faith. Effusive displays of patriotism and religion tend to be exhibited at large ISAF bases like Kandahar and Bagram rather than at frontline outposts like KOP.

2. Tactics
Military tactics since the dawn of man, in a nutshell, have been to seize the high ground and rain destruction on the enemy below. Thus, ISAF and the Taliban jockeyed for elevated positions in the hills around the KOP.

Of course, ISAF possessed massive technical advantages, but it was a closer call than most people realize, because history has repeatedly shown that small networks of amateurs can confound or defeat a professional army. For every technological advantage possessed by ISAF, the Taliban found a countermeasure. For instance, one or two guys hiding in the rocks with a couple of rifles can gum up an infantry company (200 men) for an entire day. The Taliban have exercised great ingenuity in using the terrain and asymmetrical warfare to find ways to exploit weaknesses in the West’s technology-heavy strategy.

3. Endurance
Because possession of the high ground is the key to dominance, an enormous amount of soldiering consists in lugging heavy stuff uphill-- not just your personal gear and body armor, but mortars, machine guns, and lots of ammunition. Bodies do not function efficiently at high altitude and nothing in the Korengal is level, thus, physical conditioning is paramount to the success of the mission.

But endurance is as much mental as it is physical. Exhaustion at first is merely a state of mind. Physical collapse is a long, slow, grueling process. From the start of the first signs of pain, a person is still light-years from true incapacitation. Most civilians rest from their labor after only the first sign of discomfort, but, if you don’t panic at the first agonies, there’s much, much more of yourself to give. These soldiers have learned to disregard their screaming neurons and keep pushing.

4. Fear
Combat “jams so much adrenaline into your system” that fear is rarely an issue when fighting for survival in an unexpected death struggle. Usually it is the anticipation of fear before a big operation that can be crippling to the extent that the soldier is drawing upon a depleted psychic reservoir by the time that actual contact with the enemy is made.

Upon contact, the soldier must allow his vital signs to get fully ramped up without ruining his concentration and control. Success at leisurely plinking tin cans at 30 meters on grandpa’s farm is no indicator that you can effectively return fire, while out of breath, against people trying their hardest to kill you. If fear is allowed to crowd out training, defeat and death are soon upon you. Complex motor skills diminish at 145 heart beats per minute; at 170 beats, tunnel vision; at 180 beats, “you enter a netherworld where rational thought decays and bowel and bladder control are lost. At this point, one can only freeze, flee, or submit.” When the critical mass of the platoon reach this point, the platoon goes down.

There are different types of strength, but the strength to contain fear may be the most profound. You can’t tell in advance who has this strength. The gods of combat look upon the heart, not upon the appearance. There are big guys who curl up in a fetal position while small, “feral-looking dudes” can calmly clear a jam in the SAW while rounds slap the rocks around them.

Because control of fear means control of the battlefield, the U.S. military has extensively researched the psychology of fear. Its studies suggest that a person’s fear is only loosely related to the real level of danger. “The primary factor determining break down in combat does not appear to be the objective level of danger so much as the feeling of control that an individual has over his situation.” Highly trained men in extraordinarily dangerous situations feel more control and thus are less likely to break down than untrained men in little danger, who falsely imagine that they have no control.

5. Psychology of Combat Soldiers
"Soldiers who are screw-ups in garrison life, with its petty tyrannies, often make the most effective combat soldiers. When combat is over and they return to the peace time army, they often fail to advance or get drummed out due to brawling, surliness, and various bureaucratic infractions.

Why I Recommend This Book
I felt it my duty to read and review this book. It’s not about my politics (which I have not stated and should not be inferred.) But as a point of small, internal honor and private solidarity with young men and women in danger (Brits, Canadians, Afghans, Aussies, and Americans), many of whom are young enough to be my children, I feel I owe a duty to them to know their story and to acknowledge their courage.

Stories of anonymous people, at risk of life and limb trying to defend an anonymous patch of earth -- about whom and about which nobody gives a damn-- have a totemic resonance for me.

Even if we have not literally been in military combat, nearly all of us will one day face a medical or moral crisis, wherein we will feel besieged and have to draw upon deep reservoirs of courage and endurance that we knew not that we had. If you have never thought of preparing for that inevitable day, perhaps this book might serve as a short primer on how to stand your ground and how to not collapse in the face of an existential threat.
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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'Aussie Rick' Nice in-depth review Steve, well done.


message 2: by Steve (last edited Apr 13, 2013 11:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve Sckenda 'Aussie Rick' wrote: "Nice in-depth review Steve, well done."

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Rick. Truly grateful.


'Aussie Rick' Hi Steve, I'm ex-army but no vet sorry to say, I don't wish to give the wrong impression. I left the army many years before Iraq and Afghanistan started.


Steve Sckenda 'Aussie Rick' wrote: "Hi Steve, I'm ex-army but no vet sorry to say, I don't wish to give the wrong impression. I left the army many years before Iraq and Afghanistan started."

Sorry for making you feel awkward. In American parlance, a "vet" is anybody who served in the military: active; reserve; National Guard. It does not necessarily imply "combat vet" or the award of the CIB- Combat Infantry Badge. Thus, as ex-Army, you would be considered a vet in my book, but I certainly understand your sensitivity to the cardinal rule of never wanting to imply more than is accurate in this regard. Best Regards.


Mike Outstanding review for a great book.


Steve Sckenda Mike wrote: "Outstanding review for a great book."

Thank you, Mike.


message 7: by Nilesh (new)

Nilesh Kashyap Great review Steve! Very well thought and nicely executed points. Reading your review makes me wish that for once I could write like you.


Steve Sckenda My God, Nilesh, Thank you. Your kind words make me a happy man, today. In a few minutes I'm posting a new review of Pat Barker's book "Regeneration" that shares some themes.


Bonnie E. Steve,
I liked Junger's writing in A Perfect Storm and hadn't realized he had published another book. I'll be sure to look for it and read it now that I've read your review. Sounds like it's well worth the time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and I mean all of them, including why you recommend this book).


Steve Sckenda Richard wrote: "Oooh, that's like signing up with emotional loan sharks...not a wise course...better to suffer!"

Just like the Russian novelists. Instead of reviewing, I better get to work on Crime and Punishment, so I can earn my ticket "home".


Steve Sckenda Bonnie E. wrote: "Steve,
I liked Junger's writing in A Perfect Storm and hadn't realized he had published another book. I'll be sure to look for it and read it now that I've read your review. Sounds like it's well..."


Thanks Bonnie E. Yes, Perfect Storm was phenomenal, and I think a better book. I remember in PS, Junger brought me as close to the sensation of drowning as I ever want to get. I think he also did one on fire-jumpers, but I have not read it.


Bonnie E. You might also like The Good Soldiers and Black Hawk Down. Both are incredibly well written.


message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Another OMG review. I thought a star better about this one. What I was most impressed by was Junger's look at how our history as a species relates to how the soldiers cope.


message 14: by Steve (last edited May 30, 2012 06:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Steve Sckenda Will wrote: "Another OMG review. I thought a star better about this one. What I was most impressed by was Junger's look at how our history as a species relates to how the soldiers cope."

THanks, Will. I always agonize over ratings. I try to save 5 stars for life chaning or mind changing. 4 Stars go to significant literary virtuosity that for whatever reason does not change me. 3 Stars in my mind is still very good. Most works regarding current events would have a hard time breaking 3 stars due to our current lack or perspective and the ever changing world. Arguably, what sets this book apart, is the psychological treatment of soldiers in combat, which allows it to transcend current events and may put it in 4 star territory.


Steve Sckenda Bonnie E. wrote: "You might also like The Good Soldiers and Black Hawk Down. Both are incredibly well written."

Thank you Bonnie E. I have heard much about BHD but never read it, although I did read "Killing Pablo" by the same author, who indeed writes very well.


message 16: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes BHD is outstanding, as was Killing Pablo.


Steve Sckenda Will wrote: "BHD is outstanding, as was Killing Pablo."

Yes, I loved Killing Pablo and I will no doubt love BHD, the movie of which I have seen, but I suppose the book has a lot more detail.


message 18: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Yes, particularly concerning back-stabbing by our so-called allies


message 19: by Lori (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lori So why give it only three stars? it's a great book.


message 20: by Luis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Luis excellent review. When I couldn't find any vets review, yours was one of the reviews that sold me on reading it. From a vet's prespective, I felt this was a great read.


Steve Sckenda Luis wrote: "excellent review. When I couldn't find any vets review, yours was one of the reviews that sold me on reading it. From a vet's prespective, I felt this was a great read."

Thank you, Luis. Thanks for your service.


Steve Sckenda Genevieve Sharon wrote: "Good Comments. . ."

Thank you for reading them, GS. :)


message 23: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Excellent is too mild a word for your review,Steve.Best I've read about what combat is like......


Steve Sckenda Henry wrote: "Excellent is too mild a word for your review,Steve.Best I've read about what combat is like......"

Henry, you are a faithful and encouraging GR friend. I think you and profit greatly from reading your reviews and comments. THank you.


message 25: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila That's what friends do...Steve.


message 26: by Dolors (new)

Dolors "I will attempt a brief and inadequate summary below and will conclude with a short few paragraphs meant to persuade you to read books like this even if you hate war stories."
And so you have persuaded me Steve, even though I am very critical of the political and strategical reasons behind wars, I admire men, who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country and for what they believe is right. Anonymous men who are sent to do the dirty work and who are seldom given a second thought when they fight for survival under psychological stress and manage to extract positive feelings of comradeship, honor and solidarity even in the most extreme and miserable of conditions. These men's voices need to be heard and acknowledged, for they are also victims of war and ultimately human beings who have fought inner and outer battles for abstract ideals such as justice and freedom, and that at least, should grant them the respect they deserve. Insightful and thought provoking review, Steve.


Steve Sckenda Dolors wrote: ""I will attempt a brief and inadequate summary below and will conclude with a short few paragraphs meant to persuade you to read books like this even if you hate war stories."
And so you have persu..."


Dolors, thank you for your comment. It's hard to argue with the humanity of your comment. Like you, I have more sympathy for the young people in harm's way than I do for the people who demand so much of them. As you pointed out in your great review of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," it is necessary to hear all voices. I think it's hard to hear the voices of the young people on the front lines because they are not usually consulted by those who send them into danger.


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