War: A love story - Macleans.ca

War: A love story


I finished Sebastian Junger’s War last night, the companion book to the documentary Restrepo that he made with Tim Hetherington.  The book is divided into three large sections – Fear, Killing, and Love – and while it is slow to get going, the second half of the book, and the final third especially, is outstanding.

There is some attempt at replicating the structure of The Perfect Storm, with the war-zone reporting cut with digressions into topics such as military tactics and weaponry, the politics of the war in Afghanistan, and the psychology of courage. Only the last is executed in a fully satisfying way, but that doesn’t harm the narrative much. After spending the better part of fifteen months embedded in the Korengal, the material Junger has is crackerjack.

If you’ve seen Restrepo, most of the plot points of War will be familiar, though the book gives so much more background and context that it is, in retrospect, an almost essential companion to the film. Like most books that give the grunts-eye-view of combat, War is really a book about masculinity, and the distinctly male ways of bonding, in-group/out-group dynamics, and the relationship between male sexuality and violence. These are the same themes that haunt the film, only amplified, and I don’t have much more to add than what I wrote in my review of Restrepo.

Most of what Junger has to say on these themes is not new, but he writes it very, very well, and when it is used to frame the goings-on at the KOP and OP Restrepo, it adds a really nice tension to the story. (The bit about soldiers creeping around, afraid of being gang-raped by a pair of over-the-top platoon mates, is pretty wild).

The one element that is new, and I think, exactly right, is Junger’s discussion of courage. Aristotle  defined courage as the mean between cowardice and recklessness, but this has always been totally unhelpful. Courage has always defied rational analysis, largely because its most extreme manifestations – e.g. a soldier throwing himself on a grenade – seem completely irrational. Junger finds the crack in the nut, I think, when he argues that courage is something largely indistinguishable from love. And therein lies the great conundrum of war: it isn’t that men enjoy war, so much that they will never love any one as much as they do the men with whom they go into combat.

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War: A love story

  1. A male story? How dated. We have women in the line now don't you know? An d women in the line have been killed in actiomn, don't you know?

    • Interesting you mention that. I went to Junger speak when he was on a book tour through Toronto. He addressed the male vs female aspects of war at some length, and tied it to a wide variety of factors, including coming of age, a right of passage, identity and human bonding, and the ways those differ between women and men. He also addresses the chemical reactions of people in warfare, and said, "women… don't get the same rush; they have a lower dopamine response." He also cited the example of why boys play video games more than girls.

      At the time I was really put off by it, and asked a question to that affect, but now that I've seen the movie and read the book I understand where he's coming from a bit more (in part because he'd clearly done a lot of research into these psychological/biological factors and explains them more thoroughly in the excellent third section of the book).

      • I don't know. These ladies coming out of RMC and the universities into the regular forces have spent serious time in preparation, not to mention corps training or flight training. The Forces are a big org and while females in uniforms are not new, trained officers and NCOs in battle is something that's been going on at least since 1990 (someone correct me). Prior to that going back to just after WWII there were plenty of women in, at least the RCAF. But they weren't front line jobs. I don't know how many of the lady fighter pilots were in action in the Gulf but as far as I am concerned just flying a front line ighter demands lots of guts and adrebnalimne. I can' t believe much of what he says about all those secondary hormonal factors. The big thing is being afaraid but having the courage and guts to carry on and do your job. . I personally don't put much in the sort of thing he is talking about.
        Another motivation is just getting away from home, sometimes from serioous things, sometimes just to get living, sometimes looking for big Daddy. I would be interested to know if this author served in action or something equivalent (flying in the north all weathers will do) ie what is the basis of his research. Personally, I wouldn't pay much attention to other than clinical psychologists. The ones who are interested in metrics and statistical inferences are often questionable. I once reviewed a doctoral dissertation by a psychologist who concluded after plowing a field of data that smart kids get good marks. I was just finished howling at that when the next candidate had a theory that non-smart kids often failed. Those theses are somewhere in theU of A library, I suppose, gems of wisdom waiting to be unearthed. But what was really funny is that both these guys got their PhD for such crap -well worked, of course.

        • Amazing."I haven't read the book, but I'm not going to believe it anyway."

  2. That was the Thebans and the Spartans you are thinking of.

    Not that the Romans didn't have a few homosexual marriages during the imperial period. Though the Romans considered it ritually impure and effeminate to be the one receiving instead of pitching. A proven charge that you performed fellatio on another man made you ineligible to speak in the senate for example.

    • Romans as well. The percentage of gays in the population hasn't changed throughout history.

      • Please site. I know of no instances of "soldier marriages" of the sort you are talking about in either republican or imperial Rome.

        Also, of course the percentage of gays has changed in the population. There are many, many reasons to be homosexual.

  3. Well, that goes a little far, Emily. My experience as an observer for 25 years is they were not that comfortable where the real men were. They were rooted out pretty fast in those days not for moral reasons so much as they were terribly dysfunctional. . Now, I doubt it -that it's very common, that is. The nature of the beast is that it doesn't like that sort of crap smudging up the works and individual for individual, they don't have the same attitude as the West End Lesbian Leaugue (WELL). But I might say there was a problem with the ladies once. And there were guys that were afraid – but being afraid doesn't mean that the guy (or gal) doesn't stay on the job. You really have a thing, don't you?

    • Some of those 'real men' were gay, dude.

      And no, gays aren't dysfunctional either. You were probably picking on someone with a mental problem.

      I don't have a 'thing'….I'm a realist.