Sebastian Junger Knows What We Know About Combat

Sebastian Junger speaks Infantry. He’s an American journalist with no military service, but that doesn’t matter. He speaks our language. The sound of a bullet, the constant fear, the instinctual drive to save a buddy laying in the open. He knows the combat experience because he chose to live it in the treacherous terrain of the Korengal Valley in Kunar, Afghanistan.

Sebastian Junger

A Soldier watches as U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets pound insurgent positions with bombs, after a 20-minute gun battle in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, Aug. 13, 2009. The Soldiers are assigned to the 4th Infantry Division’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. Photo by Sgt. Matthew Moeller.

Reporting on platoons from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in 2009, Junger didn’t stay in the TOC and observe the fight from afar. During many monthlong trips over the course of a year, he embedded with the Soldiers of B Company, 2-503 Infantry Regiment as they secured key terrain in the heart of insurgent strongholds. He slept where they slept…on the ground at a knife-edge ridgeline outpost called Restrepo. He accompanied them on every patrol, surviving a catastrophic IED blast, countless firefights, and a near-miss that he describes as so close that only the randomness of fate saved him. He lived their life in every way, but without a rifle.

Junger’s experience led to the award-winning documentary Restrepo and its sequel Korengal, both of which are exceptional pieces of filmmaking. He also wrote the book War. But what drives me to write about Sebastian Junger is his speech on the Pritzker Military Museum & Library Podcast. He speaks in the way that experienced Infantryman do, revealing the gripping fear of ground combat and the bonds that form among men as a result.

Also notable is the way he describes the excitement Soldiers find in the combat experience, and why they miss it. Consider this passage, written in the wake of the IED attack that destroyed the vehicle he was riding in:

War is a lot of things. It’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war, and the sound it makes, and the urgency of its use, and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other, and eventually with their Chaplains, their shrinks, and maybe even their spouses. But the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that many people want acknowledged.

War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it. But for a 19-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal in a firefight that everyone comes out of ok, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways 20 minutes of combat is more life than you can scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.

Combat isn’t where you might die, although 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.

Listen to the entire speech here and also check out his TED talk.

For the Leader

What’s the takeaway for leaders? First, Junger’s work is a window into combat. Restrepo and Korengal are fantastic chronicles of some of the toughest fighting American troops faced in Afghanistan. New Soldiers would benefit from understanding that experience.

Also consider this. If you are a leader in the Army today, chances are that you are responsible for someone who has or is experiencing some level of post traumatic stress. Junger discusses PTS in this podcast talk and in his films and book. Whether you’ve personally experienced intense combat or not, glimpsing the perspective of those who have gives you understanding for what they’re facing, and maybe a bit of empathy that can go a long way towards building trust.

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