Review of “War” by Sebastian Junger

Some readers may remember the 1969 song “War” by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield that became something of an anthem during Vietnam War protests. (Whitfield first produced the song with The Temptations as the original vocalists. After Motown began receiving repeated requests to release “War” as a single, Whitfield re-recorded the song with Edwin Starr as the vocalist, with the label deciding to withhold the Temptations’ version from single release so as not to alienate their more conservative fans.)

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y’all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me”

According to Sebastian Junger, who spent time embedded with the Second Platoon of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the sentiment expressed by the lyrics quoted above don’t exactly describe the reality. Junger found that in fact war is good for at least two things: one is a constant adrenalin high, and the other is an unmatchable sense of bonding/brotherhood among fellow soldiers in combat.


Junger doesn’t talk about the overall military goals of the war in Afghanistan, and does not even devote much time to the goal of the Korangal occupation. He made five trips back and forth to the Korengal between June 2007 and June 2008. The 173rd was fighting to prevent the Taliban from controlling a small plot of land near the Pakistan border by killing insurgents and by convincing the civilians in the area that the Americans were their friends. Neither aspect of the mission was very successful. But Junger wants you to know what it was like for the men on a personal, individual level.

He sets the scene:

“It’s a miraculous kind of antiparadise up here: heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait.”

The terrain was unrelenting, and combined with carrying all their equipment in temperatures that occasionally approached 130 degrees, just getting from one place to the next could be a life or death challenge. Sound unappealing? On the contrary. As Junger points out in an interview in “The Boston Phoenix,” the soldiers find a lot to love about their situation:

“The sense of solidarity, of purpose, of self-definition. These guys are 19. Think back to when you were 19, what it’s like to walk the street as a 19-year-old. It kinda sucks. You’re the bottom of the food chain. Take that guy, and you put him on a hilltop, and you give him an identity, and a role, and an incredibly strong sense of inclusion in a group.”

Firefight in 2008 in Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province/ Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington/Outpost Films

Firefight in 2008 in Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province/ Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington/Outpost Films

Throughout his trips to Afghanistan, Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, lived in the same conditions as many of the men. But they could leave any time they wanted. And yet, it wasn’t as if the men of the Second Platoon wanted to leave. As Junger told NPR,

“I think one of the unacknowledged things that is really complicated for these guys is that they get home out of this hell hole and they find that, actually, home is less comfortable than where they’d come from. …. they kind of long for the dangerous security of the bond that happens in a small outpost that’s under attack almost every day.”

Apparently, after War went to press, the military closed the Korengal Outpost. As Dexter Filkins noted in his review of War for “The New York Times,” “After five years of fighting and dying, American commanders decided the valley wasn’t worth the fight.”

Junger had his own take of that development:

“I wrote in an essay [that] combat doesn’t happen because the terrain is important. The terrain becomes important because combat happened there. And I think ultimately these guys reconciled themselves to the pullout by thinking, ‘OK, that place where we were for a year … it has its own meaning that endures no matter what happens on the ground.’ “

Sebastian Junger

Evaluation: To me, this book was reminiscent of the movie “Hurt Locker,” which began with a quote from Chris Hedges’ book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. As Hedges notes about war,

“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. … It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.”

Junger also refers to “the ecstatic high of violence.” And of course Junger is right to stress the appeal of brotherhood as well. And as for the military goals? They have always served political goals, which shift with the times. To the reader/listener of this book, the sentence “what is it good for: absolutely nothing” seems especially apt. What repeatedly came through to me was the question: these deaths are for what, exactly?

Junger’s book doesn’t make any original points, but Junger is a compelling writer, and the unique geography of Afghanistan adds an interesting perspective to the usual fare about war.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Twelve, 2010


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19 Responses to Review of “War” by Sebastian Junger

  1. Julie P. says:

    Great review. I have this one to read (and it counts towards the EW Summer Book Challenge.) I think I’d enjoy (if that’s the right word) this book, but it hasn’t really seemed like a summer book to me!

  2. bermudaonion says:

    Wow! I enjoyed The Hurt Locker, so I think I’ll like this one too. One of my son’s friends is in Afghanistan and up until recently, I think he enjoyed it – he felt like he was playing soldier or something. The last time I heard from him someone in his unit was injured badly and I think reality has sunk in.

  3. Margot says:

    I know that wars will always exist, human nature being what it is. I have respect for the people who do the actual fighting and I understand war when it is done in defense of our country. Most wars seem to occur because of political reasons and that I don’t respect. My suggestion is that the politicians who want to fight be put together on a island and let them fight it out. I agree with Starr’s lyrics – war is good for nothing.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I am interested in this book, although after reading your review I’m a little less interested. I get the brotherhood thing, that’s why many boys join, but the uselessness of it all will probably make me angry or sad, both of which I am trying to avoid right now! My pregnant hormones have enough trouble staying focused that I do not need another thing to obsess over right now!

  5. kiss a cloud says:

    Interesting. I would definitely like to read this.. thanks Jill.

  6. Alyce says:

    You wrote a very thorough review of this book! I had the audiobook and thought that it was difficult to listen to, only because I found the subject matter got me down if I listened to it too long. War is obviously not an upbeat topic, so this only makes sense.

  7. JoV says:

    There are two things that draw my attention in this post: First I found myself grunting ..

    “War, huh, yeah
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing

    … and the bass banging on the background!!! 😉

    Another is Sebastian Junger. I watched “The Perfect Storm” movie 3 times in 2000 and it still moves me to tears and haunt me till this date. Mellencamp’s song is a fixture in my MP3, and surely I should read one of Junger’s books. I think he writes stuff which matters to humanity.

    • JoV,

      That’s the bad thing about quoting music in a post. You and/or anyone who reads it then goes around all day tormented by the music in your head!

      • JoV says:

        LOL… Besides the song “War”, I had mellencamp’s “Yours forever” song on my head all day. I still can’t shake off the image of Mark Wahlberg waving his hands in his last moment of life before he drown in the big dark ocean….

        boo hoo hoo…. 😦

  8. Sandy says:

    I found Junger’s A Death in Belmont a good read as well. He pulls together facts well, and makes it very palatable. I found, as I was reading your review, my ire raised when I thought of the men that fought for that piece of ground with all of their hearts, only to have someone decide after all the time that it wasn’t worth it. Grrr.

  9. This sounds like a fascinating book, though books on war are always somewhat painful for me to read. What the author said about adrenaline and brotherhood/bonding sounds dead on to me. Law enforcement work is much the same.

    • I hadn’t thought about law enforcement work but I think you make a good point. I love in reading suspense novels when the detective gets all happy about the adrenaline over a new murder, and then all guilty for feeling that way!

  10. Jenny says:

    I am so on the fence about this. Part of me knows I cannot make war not exist by refusing to read about it, and the other part of me remembers how I often feel nauseated when I read books about war. So I never know whether to listen to my socially-aware conscience, or my cranky stomach. :p

    • Jenny,

      I totally know what you’re saying. I feel the same about any horrible historical thing, like racism or slavery or the Holocaust. What happens with me is that I read a few books, then have to take like a YEAR break to recover, then read a few more!

  11. ds says:

    You wrote an excellent review, but I have to admit I read it with a split consciousness, wondering what the two Gulf War veterans (both well over 19) of our extended family would think of this book. I suspect the adrenalin rush was mostly Sebastian Junger’s. As you point out, he got to leave after two months; the troops(high school and college-age boys made men after the first long march or hours-long salvo) he was with were required to remain for at least a year.
    Our guys definitely felt that home was a far better place to be…

  12. Staci says:

    I want to read this one mainly because of my son enlisting and shipping out soon for boot camp.

  13. Jenners says:

    It sounds like an interesting and eye-opening read. I’m a fan of Junger after I read his “The Perfect Storm.” Great review .. as always.

  14. sagustocox says:

    Sounds like an interesting book about how soldiers are impacted by war and the camaraderie they find in their units.

  15. With all the war-related books I read, I guess I should add this to my to-read list. I think it’s interesting that soldiers find something good amid all the fighting, etc. Usually you read mostly about all the horrible things they encounter.

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