By Jerry Levine
Today’s Machining World Archives January/February 2011 Volume 7 Issue 1
For 15 months, reporter Sebastian Junger followed a platoon based in a remote mountain outpost in eastern Afghanistan. His objective was to convey war as soldiers really live it. WAR illuminates the lives of men and women who fight for us, how they feel, how they live and learn, and how they survive and die all too randomly.
Junger asked to be assigned to the point platoon based in the toughest position in Afghanistan. This was the second platoon at Camp Restrepo in the Korengal Valley. Junger commented that even though he had been imbedded with fighting groups previously, he was totally unprepared for the level of violence he was about to experience.
Firefights were an almost daily occurrence. Enemy fighters might be 300 or 400 yards away shooting bullets that cover the distance in about half of a second. The first warning might be the light from the tracers, the next is the distinctive snapping sound as the bullet breaks the sound barrier just inches from one’s head. Finally, a second later, the soldier hears the initial gunshot. Hopefully, by then he has long since dove for cover.
There is no time for fear. In combat, a soldier’s fear actually recedes and a rapid response action takes over. Pulse, blood pressure and adrenaline levels go through the roof. But at the same time the soldier’s training takes over and concentration and control reach a peak. Unfortunately, the adrenaline rush can become addictive, which can lead to psychiatric problems later. Junger points out that by the time the tour was over, half the platoon was on psychiatric meds.
Junger covered an ill-fated mission to recover weapons caches hidden in one village. As the soldiers moved in, there was considerable fighting and five young civilians were killed. The senior U.S. commander, Col. Ostlund (who Junger thought was excellent) met with village elders to discuss the deaths. Ostland condemned the enemy who had paid young Afghan kids five dollars to go out and shoot at the U.S. soldiers. The soldiers ended up killing the young kids. After the Americans left, the elders met to consider Ostlund’s plea. They decided to reject it and declared a jihad against every American in the valley. One final upshot of this attack was that even civilian deaths committed by the Taliban (which far outstripped those by the Americans) were then blamed on the Americans.
Later that night a column of U.S. soldiers was ambushed along a mountain trail. The enemy’s objective was to cut off the first few lead men (officers) from the rest of the column and capture them, probably for propaganda purposes. The point man, Sgt. Josh Brennan, was hit eight times from a distance of 20 to 30 feet, while the rest of the column was taking heavy fire. Specialist Sal Giunta, a fire team leader, quickly assessed the situation, “Everything kind of slowed down, and I did everything I thought I could do,” he said. He saw enemy fighters dragging Brennan down the hillside. He emptied his M4, killing one and scaring off the others. He recovered Brennan and while wounded in two places, carried his friend back to the remains of the column which was still desperately fighting for its life. For his bravery Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor last November— about six months after this book was published.
On a deeper level, Junger asks, Why? What makes otherwise normal men fight and kill? Junger concludes that it’s frequently love that makes men fight and gives them uncommon courage. Courage is a love that won’t let a comrade down. In Sal Giunta’s case he raced through heavy enemy fire to kill an enemy soldier who was carrying away a wounded buddy and brought him back to safety.
At the Medal of Honor ceremony Giunta said, “It was nothing, anyone would have done it.” What he meant was anyone in the unit would have done it. It’s the desire to never let their buddies down that sustains these soldiers under such tremendous pressure and makes them fight. That is the ultimate of love. There is no greater love.
(Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington also directed the documentary film Restrepo based on this same experience. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010.)