Surviving Peace Is the Real Challenge: Junger

PHOTOS: Images From Afghanistan's Outpost Restrepo Tim A Hetherington

Few other parts of Afghanistan have rivaled the remote Korengal Valley in terms of the cost in American lives per square mile. U.S. forces finally pulled out this April, after five bloody years and more than 40 American deaths. In 2007 and 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger spent 14 months intermittently embedded with U.S. forces in the valley, patrolling with them and living among them at their main base, known simply as KOP (for Korengal Outpost), and at Outpost Restrepo nearby, named for Pfc. Juan Restrepo, an Army medic who was fatally wounded there. What the place was like and what it did to the young Americans who fought there are described vividly in this adaptation from Junger's new book, War.

Most of the fighting was at four or five hundred yards, so no one ever got to see—or had to deal with—the effects of all that firepower on the human body. There were exceptions, though. One day Prophet (as the American eavesdropping operation was known) called in saying they'd overheard enemy fighters discussing how they wouldn't shoot at the Americans unless a patrol crossed to the east side of the valley. Soon afterward, Afghan soldiers spotted armed men in the riverbed and started shooting at them. The men fled up the flanks of the Abas Ghar ridge, and Third Platoon sent a patrol out of the KOP (the main base in the valley) to give chase. They took contact as soon as they crossed the river and found themselves badly pinned down behind a rock wall. Within seconds every American position in the valley opened up. The enemy was caught in the open without much cover, and the valley essentially turned into one enormous shooting gallery. The KOP started dropping mortars on them, and Observation Post 3 engaged them with a .50 cal and a Barrett sniper rifle, and the trucks opened up from above Babiyal, and Outpost Restrepo swung its 240s around and poured gunfire across the valley for almost an hour.

It was a hot day and there hadn't been much fighting lately, so when the men jumped on the guns most of them were wearing only flip-flops and shorts. They joked and laughed and called for cigarettes between bursts. Once in a while a round would crack past us, but mostly it was just a turkey shoot at a wide-open mountainside where the enemy had nowhere to hide. Hot brass was filling up the fighting positions, and more was cascading down out of the weapons every second. At one point I watched a shell drop into Pemble's untied shoe, and he slipped it off, wiggled the shell out, and then slipped his shoe back on without ever stopping firing. The lieutenant was shirtless on the ammo hooch, calling coordinates into the KOP, and some of the Afghans were firing from the hip even though they didn't stand a chance of hitting anything that way, and Jackson was up on the guard position unloading one of the machine guns. Restrepo alone had to be putting out a thousand rounds a minute, and the Abas Ghar was sparkling with bullet-strikes even though it was broad daylight. Finally Hog showed up—Hog was the radio call-sign for the A-10s—and dropped a couple of bombs on the mountain for good measure.

At some point a call came in over the radio that the Scouts were watching a guy crawl around on the mountainside without a leg. They watched until he stopped moving, and then they called in that he'd died. Everyone at Restrepo cheered. That night I couldn't sleep, and I crept out of my bunk and went and sat on the roof of the ammo hooch. It was a nice place to watch the heat lightning out along the Pech river or to lie back on the sandbags and look up at the stars. I couldn't stop thinking about that cheer; in some ways it was more troubling than all the killing that was going on. Stripped of all politics, the fact of the matter was that the man had died alone on a mountainside trying to find his leg. He must have been crazed with thirst and bewildered by the sheer amount of gunfire stitching back and forth across the ground looking for him. At one point or another every man in the platoon had been pinned down long enough to think they were going to die—bullets hitting around them, bodies braced for impact—and that's with just one or two guns. Imagine a whole company's worth of firepower directed at you. I got the necessity for that kind of overkill, but I didn't get the joy. It seemed like I either had to radically re-understand the men on this hilltop, or I had to acknowledge the power of a place like this to change them.

"You're thinking that this guy could have murdered my friend," Steiner explained to me later. "The cheering comes from knowing that that's someone we'll never have to fight again. Fighting another human being is not as hard as you think when they're trying to kill you. People think we were cheering because we just shot someone, but we were cheering because we just stopped someone from killing us. That person will no longer shoot at us anymore. That's where the fiesta comes in."

Combat was a game that the United States had asked Second Platoon to become very good at, and once they had, the United States had put them on a hilltop without women, hot food, running water, communication with the outside world or any kind of entertainment for more than a year. Not that the men were complaining, but that sort of thing has consequences. Society can give its young men almost any job, and they'll figure how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That means only that society should be careful about what it asks for. In a very crude sense the job of young men is to undertake the work that their fathers are too old for, and the current generation of American fathers has decided that a certain six-mile-long valley in Kunar province needs to be brought under military control. Nearly 50 American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I'm not saying that's a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war (for some reason, the closer you are to combat the less inclined you are to question it), but someone must. That evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders.

There are other costs to war as well—vaguer ones that don't lend themselves to conventional math. One American soldier has died for every hundred yards of forward progress in the valley, but what about the survivors? Is that territory worth the psychological cost of learning to cheer someone's death? It's an impossible question to answer but one that should keep getting asked. Ultimately, the problem is that they're normal young men with normal emotional needs that have to be met within the very narrow options available on that hilltop. Young men need mentors, and mentors are usually a generation or so older. That isn't possible at Restrepo, so a 22-year-old team leader effectively becomes a father figure for a 19-year-old private. Up at Restrepo a 27-year-old is considered an old man, an effeminate Afghan soldier is seen as a woman, and new privates are called "cherries" and thought of as children. Men form friendships that are not at all sexual but contain much of the devotion and intensity of a romance. Almost every relationship that occurs in open society exists in some compressed form at Restrepo, and almost every human need from back home gets fulfilled in some truncated, jury-rigged way. The men are good at constructing what they need from what they have. They are experts at making do.

As for a sense of purpose, combat is it—the only game in town. Almost none of the things that make life feel worth living back home are present at Restrepo, so the entire range of a young man's self-worth has to be found within the ragged choreography of a firefight. The men talk about it and dream about it and rehearse for it and analyze it afterward but never plumb its depths enough to lose interest. It's the ultimate test, and some of the men worry they'll never again be satisfied with a "normal life"—whatever that is—after the amount of combat they've been in. They worry that they may have been ruined for anything else.

War is a lot of things, and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It's just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a 19-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of OK, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways 20 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.

"I like the firefights," O'Byrne admitted to me once. We'd been talking about going home and whether he was going to get bored. "I know," he added, probably realizing how that sounded. "Saddest thing in the world."

Junger is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and codirector of the documentary film Restrepo. The above is adapted from his forthcoming book War, to be published May 11 by Twelve.

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