Untimely Observations

Honor in WAR

Under Discussion: WAR, by Sebastian Junger

In WAR, Sebastian Junger notes that while pure objectivity is hard enough to maintain while covering a city council meeting -- let alone in the middle of a war -- he committed himself to writing “honestly” about the American soldiers he lived (and very nearly died) with as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Junger gives a raw, real, gripping and insightful account of life and death in “The Valley,” but in WAR he never comes across as pretentious, preachy or even particularly political. Instead, Junger aims to get across what it feels like to be a man at war in a place where firefights often happen several times a day.

It is common to see soldiers portrayed as “victims” of war. Even as politicians and the media mechanically display a reverence for combat veterans and speak vaguely about “heroism” and “personal sacrifice,” it is often clear that many are uncomfortable with the idea that there are men who willingly kill for a living. Junger’s take on it is that they kill to keep on living, to stop someone from killing them. But back home many people speak of war as if it is something terrible that happened to soldiers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Junger refreshingly admits that “war is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them.” Like Sergeant First Class William James in The Hurt Locker (2008), a lot of men apparently end up missing combat when they are sent home.

War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die --though that does happen -- it's where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.

Junger occasionally frames his powerful revelations about human -- and especially male -- nature as something we are going to have to be honest with ourselves about if we are ever to “solve the problem” of war. However, if the tendency to make war, to get caught up in the excitement and the drama of war, and to vigorously protect defend your tribe to the death is such a powerful force in men, is it truly something we can "solve"? No matter what we may say, when I look at the kind of entertainment and activities men find themselves naturally drawn to, I have to wonder if men would really know what to do with themselves in a world where that kind of masculine conflict has become mere “history.” I suspect they’d read a lot of history books.

At the remote outposts, Junger says the soldiers don’t talk much about politics or the broader implications of the war. Soldiering is a job, and they do it at a human scale. The big picture is a distraction far above a soldier’s pay grade, anyway.  Nationalism gives way to a sort of brotherly tribalism. Talk of God and religion are also vague and many of the soldiers seem to quietly agree, unofficially, that if God or Allah or Zeus exists, he doesn’t live in the Valley. Junger observes that most of the real acts of courage are not based on ideology; instead, he sees them as acts of love, based on a sense of interdependence within platoons or companies. Men risk their lives to save each other, usually out of a desperate fear of failing a friend in need.

This brings us to the ongoing discussion of honor. Junger writes that honor and bravery in the most traditional sense probably went out with the invention of the machine gun, because one heavily armed man can kill many from a safe distance. This puts the real beginning of Western honor’s decline around World War I, which echoes James Bowman’s assessment.

…much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor; it’s not. It’s about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men.

A convoy that Junger was travelling with to one of the outposts was hit by a roadside bomber, and he makes the point that burying a bomb in the road isn’t particularly honorable either.

At the same time though, Junger reverently describes the soldiers he knows as being “honorable.”  It is difficult to tell exactly what he meant, but in light of his other comments and my own thinking and reading about honor, I’ll take a stab at it.

Junger explains in the quote above that the combat itself is not about honor. And we don’t offer the soldiers who risk their lives the sort of public esteem or glory that they might have received at another time in history. We don’t spend much time “singing their songs,” because Westerners have officially nurtured a civilized horror of war. The most basic form of honor, reflexive honor, is definitely evident in Junger’s stories from the Korengal -- especially when members of the group are killed in action and the group retaliates. Bravery and strength are evident in all of the men, and it seems to me that the sort of honor which best matches their deeds is public honor, but in the most insular sense. The outside world doesn’t understand the soldiers, outsiders can't know what they've been through, but they understand each other. Their honor is public within the context of their small honor group -- the tribe. They don’t want to be shamed by the group and fear failing their brothers-at-arms. Their honor is a reputation for courage, strength and masculine virtue as it is defined culturally by the other men who they respect and depend on at these rugged outposts in the graveyard of empires.


Read more about WAR and see the trailer for Restrepo, Junger’s documentary about his experience in the Korengal.

h/t Richard Spencer for his original post about the book.