Monday, August 23, 2010

War and Courage in the Korengal

I believe Sebastian Junger has written what should be a classic account of men in battle in his recently published book, War. It should rank with the other classics which include Anatomy of Couragee by Lord Moran, Firing Line by Richard Holmes, Morale: A Study of Men and Courage by John Baynes,and Men Against Fire by S.L.A. Marshall, among others. Like the best of these accounts, Junger immersed himself in the experience of combat, in this case by voluntarily joining an outpost of American troops under constant threat of attack by insurgents in a remote Afghan valley. During this time, he thoughtfully observed the behaviour of the soldiers around him, throughout the many periods of boredom interspersed with deadly actions. He became as close as possible to being one of them, feeling fear while under fire, sadness when some were killed, thus enabling him to speak with authority about the psychology of battle of the common soldier in the 21st century. This makes his account essential reading for understanding to-day's wars, as the reaction of twenty-year old men in 2010 is not the same as the young soldier of 1942 or 1914.

Junger was mostly impressed by the dynamic of the group that created courage in battle, as he saw it before his eyes in the Korengal: "Combat fog obscures your fate - obscures when and where you might die - and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on.... Loyalty to the group drove man back into combat - and occasionally to their deaths - but the group also provided the only psychological refuge from the horror of what was going on."(p. 239-40) This is a strong reiteration of the reality of the importance of group solidarity which had been recognized for some time; it is only the way it is reflected in young combat soldiers that differs in 2010, but this difference is worth understanding.

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