I made it through the first half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan.”
But only the second time I tried to watch it. The first time, I gave up.
I’ve seen “Platoon” and a dozens of other tough-to-watch war flicks. “Deer Hunter.” “Glory.” “Full Metal Jacket.” “Das Boot.” “Blackhawk Down.”
For some reason, Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” has always stayed with me. “We are soldiers and our only duty is to win,” said Colonel Mathieu. There are parts of “The Battle of Algiers” that feel like a documentary. The street is palpable. How could this be staged?
I approached Sebastian Junger’s “War” with trepidation. I was just as overwhelmed as watching those movies in one sitting. It’s brutal. It’s rugged. It’s gripping & tough.
The experience is taut. The war becomes your experience.
“War” isn’t about the right and wrong of the fight or whether the strategies are working. More than anything, it’s about what it takes to kill another human being and how war makes the notion possible and acceptable within the agreed-upon rules of combat. If Afghanistan is an abstract concept for you, if you scan the short updates in the newspaper and don’t sense what’s happening, “War” will bring it into sharp relief.
“War” is about the battle—and style of battle—required in the challenging terrain in Afghanistan. But it’s also about how a man can endure the mental and physical punishment (okay, the sheer terror) of being at war. As a country, we are at war. Two wars. Soldiers are risking everything and they have found a way to endure each day. “War” gets under the skin of what it takes to fight and what kind of person it takes to fight. In keen-eyed fashion, Junger documents how small changes in technology have altered the fight and how men bond, how they survive—and die—together. “War” is not for the squeamish.
I’m sure Junger could have doubled the length of the narrative, but he cuts to the essence of each scene. He makes sure we see that the war is happening in real communities with real citizens and among distinct cultures. He survives a near-fatal roadside bomb and makes it painfully clear—unless we had any doubts—that the difference between living and dying is a lucky inch here, a fortuitous extra second there. The telling of this moment is like all the others in the book. That is, it’s characteristically understated. Junger lets the facts speak for themselves. (He repeatedly points out that he checks his notes against the raw footage of the same moments from a video camera, to make sure nothing is, well, overblown.)
“War” shows us the required equipment and weaponry, but Junger seems fascinated more than anything by the mental state required to fight.
Writes Junger: “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.”
Junger’s observations about the human factors—how individuals in war think, what they think about, how individuals react under attack, how individuals deal with stress and process and confront their own mortality every day—are thought-provoking. “War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die—though that does happen—it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.”
It’s entirely possible, no matter how many movies you see or books you read, that you’ll never fully comprehend what it’s like to be in a firefight for your life unless you’re there. For now, I think “War” is as close as you’re going to get.