Sebastian Junger, Serious Man

Just finished taping an episode of Uncommon Knowledge with Sebastian Junger on his new book, War. Based on five extended trips to the American outposts in the Korengal Valley, the location that saw more combat than any other in the Afghan theater, War is beautifully written and full of acute, vivid portraiture–incomparably the best extended reporting on actual combat in Afghanistan that I’ve encountered.

Before we sat down, though, I’d developed the suspicion that Junger might simply want to discuss the experience of war, limiting himself to description and narrative while avoiding the larger questions. In the book itself, after all, he takes pains to demonstrate how irrelevant all the big think seems to the young men doing the fighting.

“The moral basis of the war,” Junger writes in one place, “doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero.” “It was a weird irony of the war,” he writes elsewhere, “that once you were here—or your son was—the politics of the whole thing became completely irrelevant.”

But when I asked Junger his views of the war, he answered every question directly, honestly, and intelligently.

Was Fouad Ajami right to argue, as he did on Uncommon Knowledge a couple of weeks ago, that “the Afghan campaign is lost?” “He’s completely mistaken,” Junger replied.

Did it unnerve him that just last month Gen. McChrystal chose to pull out of the Korengal Valley? “War is complicated,” Junger said. “We lost thousands in the Normandy invasion, but we still won the Second World War.”

If the United States and its Allies could defeat Hitler, Junger argued, then we could defeat then 10,000 or 15,000 troops the Taliban can place the field. “It’s not a military problem,” Junger said. “It’s a question of political will.”

A superb writer, Sebastian Junger is also a serious man.

P.S. Above, I’m quoting Junger from memory. When in a week or so our Uncommon Knowledge interview appears online, I’ll be sure to post a link to the transcript.

  1. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    Readers interested in a magazine length preview of Sebastian Junger’s Afghanistan reportage should Google “Into the Valley of Death” and Vanity Fair. It’s an exceptionally gripping article — and rather somber reading knowing that long after it was written, US forces opted for strategic withdrawal from the Korengal Valley. Its tremendous what the men and women over there endure, and impossible to read about their exploits without being deeply impressed.

  2. F. L. Booth

    I hope he talks about what the objectives are for Afghanistan. As a nation that has never had a strong central government, and isn’t too interested in one now, I can’t figure out what we are trying to do. Al Qaeda is not welcome back, and never were “involved,” in Afghanistan, except for Osama helping finance Mullah Omar, in exchange for being allowed to stay and run his training camps. The Afghan Taliban has never had any interest in anything beyond the Afghan border, and limits their “extremism” to within the country.

    I seriously have no idea what Obama wants to accomplish with “his surge,” except perhaps not being blamed for losing Afghanistan, which someone surely will be.

  3. Luke Nicholson

    Dennis Prager interviewed him last week, it was fantastic. I came away with a great deal of respect for him. The level of danger he subjected himself to is something that I’m not sure I could bring myself to do.

    Its too bad my country (Canada) is leaving Afghanistan next summer. I sent my local MP a long e-mail about why we should stay, not sure it’ll make a difference, but I was told it was forwarded to the Foreign Affairs Minister.

  4. Robert Bennett

    I was really troubled by Part 2 of Uncommon Knowledge with Fouad Ajami. With respect to Mr. Ajami, he said he hadn’t written much criticism, and said specifically he only had “Dark Thoughts” about the war. I think Mr. Ajami’s facts were right, but his conclusion was wrong. Karzai is a bandit, and the geography in Afghanistan is much more difficult. I’m really interested in what Mr. Junger has to say.

    I’d also love to know what Victor Davis Hanson thinks about Fouad Ajami’s take on Afghanistan, if you could refer him to this conversation.

  5. Peter Robinson
    C

    You know, Robert, you’re right about that. Next time I run into Victor–either here, on the site, or in a podcast–I’ll hit him with Fouad’s view of Afghanistan. They’re friends. And Victor thinks very highly of Fouad’s analyses. I can’t even begin to imagine quite how Victor would respond. Which, of course, is what makes it so interesting.

    Thanks for that astute suggestion.

  6. Duane Oyen

    The Obama answer is simple- he has a self-imposed situation of pure political necessity, and he has to create a cut and run strategy disguised as trying to “win”. Why? He predicated all of his national security credibility during the campaign on Afghanistan being “the good war” that was neglected because of Iraq.

    But I think we are now in a catch-22 on the GWoT, and it is because of American national character and preternatural isolationist instincts, complicated by the worst thing Colin Powell ever did in his life, that is, promulgate the “Powell Doctrine”. Hmm. Should we have avoided WWII because there was a strong chance that we couldn’t simply get in fast, apply overwhelming force to the clear objective of assassinating Hitler, and get out in a year or two?

    Some things that the adults in this world really need to do, because they need to be done, simply take time. Destroying governmental Marxism took 70 years and many wars, plus a lot of “meals on wheels”, gut-level determination, and propaganda efforts. Now we are told that the nation sharing a border with the nuclear Islamist state, Pakistan, should be allowed to go wild? I fear the consequences.

  7. Junker

    Interesting analysis, and the idea that it all boils down to matter of will is spot on, in my opinion.

    I think he hit on an interesting point about soldiers interest in the politics of war. I spent 10 months in Afghanistan with the Canadian Forces, and that would be my analysis as well. The soldiers I served with often get so embroiled in the day to day job, they don’t look past it. I tried to follow the bigger picture, and the political and moral angles while I was there, but I must say that I was in the minority among my comrades.

    Re: Luke. It is a shame that Canada announced a specific date for withdrawl, and a travesty that the government has done such a poor, or even non-existent job of explained to Canadians why we are there, and what we are trying to accomplish.

  8. Brandon Zaffini

    If I can quote Peter: “‘It’s not a military problem,’ Junger said. ‘It’s a question of political will.’”

    As an American soldier and a veteran from the Iraq conflict (OIF), I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an almost identical statement from fellow service members. Often it is uttered with a reference to the Vietnam War — as if any lesson learned from this engagement must universally apply to any future conflict. When I ask how long the political will must back the war and for clarification on what exactly constitutes a victory, the once-clear water suddenly becomes murky.

  9. Ned Desmond

    I’m nearly finished with “War,” which is a really fine effort by an outstanding and terrifically courageous reporter. I recently re-read Dispatches by Michael Herr, which is a similar sort of work from another brave journalist, though the era and the state of the US military could not be more different. Where Dispatches portrays a poorly organized US military and soldiers deeply into drugs, one can easily read into Junger’s account the prevalence of a stunningly smart, highly innovative and well led military on the ground. Not that these are boy scouts or that they win every engagement. As Junger makes clear, that’s not the case. War is hell, and frontline soldiers everywhere and for all time are “rough men.” But I doubt that the US soldier in Afghanistan is better led, better trained and better supported than just about any soldier ever.

  10. Junker

    I prefer the term ‘societal will’…which encompasses not only a societies tolerence towards our own losses in lives and treasure, but also the will to inflict loss upon the enemy. In the west, in general, we are lacking in both these areas of will.

    If I might avoid talking strategy, aims, and victory for the moment, I will say that as confused and asymmetical and boundaryless as the current conflicts may seem, they are not new, and the challenge is minor in historical terms.

  11. Karen

    “It’s a question of political will.” I’m looking forward to checking this out. I’d be interested to know what he means in that quote. If the objective was to take down the Taliban,The US Armed Forces has the means to eradicate it in short order. If we really wanted to end the endless war, we’d have to decide how many Afghan civilians we’re willing to kill. But the US wouldn’t organize an attack like the fire-bombing in Japan in WWII. At present, the majority of Americans wouldn’t stand for it.

    So, the alternative is to continue on the current track while IED’s take a few soldiers’ lives every day. The survivors are rewarded by increasingly more insane politically motivated concepts like “courageous restraint.” Of course they don’t concern themselves with the politics of it all. They, like their families, are in survivable mode. And why should they? To those elected in DC, they are expendable. What’s the magic number? 10,000 dead troops? 20,000? When do we throw up our hands and say, “Ok, either bomb the heck out of them or get out entirely.” Are we buying more time for nation building or just filling in the spaces at Arlington?

  12. Brandon Zaffini

    Junker,

    I agree that Political/Societal will is important to a more successful war effort. This fact does not validate all wars or explain the tough questions about the prudent national course in any conflict. In other words, a lack of will may be a blessing, not a curse.

  13. Karen

    I should amend my previous statement of IED’s taking soldiers’ live every day. That’s an exaggeration, I realize.

  14. Junker

    “I agree that Political/Societal will is important to a more successful war effort. This fact does not validate all wars or explain the tough questions about the prudent national course in any conflict. In other words, a lack of will may be a blessing, not a curse.”

    Point well taken. Although I am of the opinion that if you take so dramatic a course of action as go to war, you’d best muster every last drop of will, might, and fury that you have and unleash it….oddly enough, this is often the humane thing to do because it tends to shorten wars immensely.

  15. Charles Allen

    In addition to his new book ‘War’, Junger has also made a documentary about his time in the Korengal. The movie is titled ‘Restrepo‘, and would appear to be a great visual complement to the book. It was filmed on-location by Junger and co-hort Tim Hetherington, and will be released next month.

    A trailer for the movie can be viewed here. Or for the Quicktime-challeneged, another trailer can be found on YouTube.

  16. Brady Kiel

    This is exactly the topic I was hoping would pop up in this forum. Robert Bennett’s request for VDH’s opinion is something I’m very interested in too. I hear valid arguments from solid conservatives like Mark Belling and John Derbyshire that question just what’s the deal with AFG. I’d like to know if possessing a few bases from which to deliver anti-Taliban raids while eschewing the nation-building endeavor is possible.