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What is it about Sebastian Junger that makes me wonder?
No one can doubt the courage Junger has demonstrated in much of what he has produced, including exploring the dangers of forest fires and the murderous diamond trade in Sierra Leone in "Fire." In his latest book, "War," he follows an Army platoon based in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
Junger, author of the bestselling "The Perfect Storm," dodges bullets and indirect fire from mortars. He braves the tortuous physical terrain that often requires ropes to get from one unit to the next. The Humvee he is riding in is hit with an improvised explosive device and the resulting description of "a kind of flatlined functionality that barely raises my heart rate" is both captivating and fascinating reading.
Junger effectively portrays the grunt-level soldier as having little interest in the moral basis of war, telling us "soldiers worry about those things as much as farmhands worry about the global economy."
He's no newcomer to Afghanistan and its interwoven tribal, ethnic and clannish complexities. He describes the Korengal Valley as a "sort of Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off." His reporting on Afghanistan in 2000, profiling the assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, became the subject of the National Geographic documentary "Into the Forbidden Zone."
So, all that being said, what is my problem?
Perhaps its the whole "me-ness" of the Junger brand that is reflected in "War." Those chiseled good looks. The derring-do. The near misses. When he spoke at St. Catherine University in St. Paul after publication of "Fire" a few years ago, the front seats were packed with female "readers" who almost had the Indiana Jones classroom doe-eyed look with "Love" and "You" written on each eyelid. There's even a bit of a presumptuousness in the title.
The premise of Junger's effort is to convey to us what soldiers experience and what war actually feels like. In many respects, he has accomplished that. But give me another book, David Finkel's "The Good Soldiers," for a seminal portrayal of the effects of war on soldiers. It is a more penetrated -- and less author-infused -- account.
As he did in his breakthrough, "The Perfect Storm," in which there were whole chapters on the meteorological details of weather patterns, Junger sometimes seems caught in a Google-search mentality to explain things or fill pages, such as extended explanations on the neuro- biology of fear. There's also the tendency to get a little muddy over who is who, which is not unusual in accounts of military units. But those are small concerns. Folks who enjoy Sebastian Junger, whether they write on their eyelids or not, will likely be rewarded by the summertime reading of "War" and seeing the accompanying documentary "Restrepo," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"War is a lot of things," Junger writes, "and it's useless to say that exciting isn't one of them."
Mark Brunswick covers military affairs for the Star Tribune, with assignments that have included Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia.