October 14, 2010

Combat brings consequences

This is the second quote I've posted from Sebastian Junger's amazing new book, War.  The first quote is found here.

The sentiment here is in ways similar to the prior quote, but says some important things about what we impose on the brave soldiers we send into tough situations to fight for us.  Writes Junger:

The book's back cover.
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, communications with the outside world, or any kind of entertainment for over 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 only means 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 fifty 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? … 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 [an outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan abutting Pakistan], so a twenty-two-year-old team leader effectively becomes a father figure for a nineteen-year-old private. Up at Restrepo a twenty-seven-year-old is considered an old man, an effeminate Afghan soldier is seen as a woman, and new privates are called “cherries” and virtually 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.

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