The latest flexing of journalistic muscle from Vanity Fair contributor Junger (A Death in Belmont, 2006, etc.).
The author dives into the most perilous form of immersion journalism, attempting to create an unflinching account of frontline combat. The prototype of this approach is Michael Herr’s peerless Dispatches (1977), a thoroughly unsentimental, grunt-level view of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest years. Yet if Junger’s dispatches from the fighting in Afghanistan solidify anything, it’s that war American-style hasn’t evolved much in the decades since Herr’s book. It seems that neither advanced tactics nor postmillennial weapons technology have negated the all-too-human imperfections of face-to-face ground combat. From June 2007 to June 2008, Junger was embedded—“entirely dependent on the U.S. military for food, shelter, security, and transportation”—with the 173rd Airborne, a seasoned outfit assigned to secure the notoriously untamable Korengal Valley in Afghanistan—murderous terrain that the Soviets had found impassable 30 years before. The author singled out Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne as his primary focal point for the book. O’Byrne’s no-nonsense attitude and bleak upbringing—he was shot by his own father in civilian life—seemed most representative of the squad as a whole. As in The Perfect Storm (1997), Junger blends popular science, psychology and history with a breathlessly paced narrative. What’s absent here is not only a significant political angle but also any big-picture questioning of what exactly these soldiers are fighting and dying for. Junger portrays the infantryman’s life as one dominated solely by the most primitive group loyalty. It’s this love for one’s brothers-in-arms, the author concludes, that allows the soldiers to stir up the courage and selflessness necessary to function at optimum levels under fire.
An often harrowing, though mostly conventional, account of the physical and psychological toll of modern warfare on the average soldier.