War and Community–Sebastian Junger’s “War”

Just got done reading Sebastian Junger’s new book, War.  The title is a little

Sebastian Junger--"War"

grandiose since I don’t think Junger delivers the truth of War, but I do think it is a very good book and certainly the best thing, in a relatively limited sample, that I’ve read about the American experience in Afghanistan.

Junger avoids political pronouncements in preference for a close examination of the individual experience of the soldier at war, and even more particularly on the soldier in the combat zone.   Indeed, I think to some degree that the book might more appropriately have been titled “Combat,” since it is really focused not on the large scale strategy, tactics or mechanics of carrying out a war, but on the men at the point of the spear who live under fire or the threat of it.

I’m interested in a lot of things about this book, but most particularly on Junger’s concentration on the supremacy of the combat unit, the squad or platoon through whom the basic bloody work of military strategy is made real.  Junger emphasizes the fact that survival and success in combat depends on every individual soldier deciding repeatedly, if unconsciously, that the lives of other members of the team are more important than his own.  Indeed, in what was to my mind Junger’s most startling claim,  courage in battle must be understood first and foremost as a form of love:

Combat fog obscures your fate–obscures when and where you might die–and from the 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.  the army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.  The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.  What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.  In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.  According to their questionnaries, the primary motivation in combat (other than “ending the task”–which meant they all could go home was “solidarity with the group.”  that far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator” (239-230).

Junger connects this even to the solidarity of the group in the pursuit of killing.  Killing in war is not primarily about the hatred or dehumanization of the enemy, idealism about causes, patriotism for country.  It is more primordially about saving the lives of those you love.

Junger’s depictions and ruminations here are convincing to me, quite apart from my own convictions about personal or state violence, and they do give me pause over a particular conundrum.  American life is so thoroughly characterized by individualism and self-promotion.   And yet life in combat–which is in some ways also seen as quintessentially American–is by Junger’s accounting absolutely about self-effacement in some profound and existential way.  I was reminded of the controversy over The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker Poster

where veterans of bomb squads were deeply troubled by the individualistic and cowboy renegade image that was projected by the protagonist.  Reading Junger, I understand that complaint more clearly now.  The individualistic hero who strikes out on his or her own at apparently great risk to himself and others is a Hollywood figure, but one who, if univeralized, would very quickly mean the absolute destruction of a fighting the unit, the opposite of the kind of sacrificial heroism that Junger believes is a characteristic not of exceptional persons in combat, but the fundamental nature of what makes combat possible at all.

Reading Readers: Notes on Alberto Manguel–I

I’ve been reading Alberto Manguel‘s A Reader on Reading.  Some random thoughts:

A Reader On Reading Alberto manguel

x—“Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed:  as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library;  my words and my world—except for a few constant landmarks—are never one and the same.  Heraclitus’s bon mot about time applies equally well to my reading:  “you never dip into the same book twice.””

–In my own experience, a central experience, if not THE central experience through which my tastes, prejudices and memories have changed has been the experience of reading itself.  That is, books, are not infinitely malleable pieces of dough to be made in to what the reader wants them to be at a whim—what seems to be Roland Barthes notion in The Death of the Author. On the other hand, neither do books show the same and constant aspect regardless of time and circumstance.   Rather books are agents of change, shaping me in to something different than what I was before.  I do not say, as might seem logical, that books shape us into the readers they need.  This might follow from something like Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader or the Holland’s theory of the Ideal reader.  I don’t think books have that kind of agency or that authors have that kind of knowingness.  But some books are like mountains that must be scaled, others like fires that must be endured, others streams to be forded.  A book’s agency is found in the kind of action it demands of me, and it’s nature changes for me to the degree that I am changed by the action it affords.  I may by turns and by age turn from the mountain as too daunting, gasp and crawl halfway up its face before giving up in or scale it with the ease of an Olympian.  In every case I am experience the mountain as it is, as it shows its face to me.  It is not that the Olympian truly knows the mountain for what it is, because the climber who scales its height without a second breath cannot see what is there to seen by the man crawling in exhaustion, his breath in the dirt.

x—“I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines.  And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

–I wonder, if it is beyond the author’s intentions and the reader’s hopes,  how is it that books make us wiser?  We cannot say, I think, that the words on the page have a power unto themselves apart from their human utterance and reception.  Manguel ridicules this notion as a form of magical thinking elsewhere in the book.  But what is it then, in the experience of books that makes us wiser?  I agree with the sentiment, but can’t define the agency of such making.  Indeed, it often seems to me that when writers—fiction writers at least—set out to impart wisdom they more often  impart tedium and irritation.  Fiction writers should not be oracles; those who try would be better off becoming essayists or preachers.  Nor am I particular taken by readers who approach books as if they contain wisdom, as if Melville or Faulkner or Morrison were a secondary scripture.  If there is wisdom, it does seem to me that the wisdom might come as an accidental gift of the act of reading itself, not in what is read or who is reading or who is being read.  But at this point I may merely be trying to be oracular.