Sunday, August 8, 2010

The ultimate wound

As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.
War by Sebastian Junger (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2010) 287 pages

The construction of the mask of masculinity is thought provoking. My theory is that we all wear masks regarding our gender which are built from our personal histories, cultural and social environment and genetics. My interest in this book wasn't so much about the Americans' involvement in the war in Afghanistan where this book is set but how men behave in war and how they use the war to define their masculinity (which I believe the author was also trying to determine).

I urge you to pick up the book. I won't get into too many of the specific instances that Junger cites because I can't recount them as well as he can and my interest in the lives of these men lies elsewhere - not in the specifics of war but why men behave how they behave in these circumstances.

Personally, I don't believe that men have more personal courage than women in these situations - I do believe that men have a larger reservoir of personal shame at being perceived as cowardly or unmanly. When I am about to do something risky or dangerous I always ask myself - what would happen to my kid if I mess this up - if I was killed or incapacitated? Or even...would these actions shame her? I think that is the leash that reins in women not fear.

Men's visions appear both larger and more magnificent but also more foolish - as in I will climb that mountain to save my comrade (even though it is likely I will end up dead on the hillside because I have failed as many others have failed). Perhaps that is why they are predominantly, but not exclusively, the inventors, the explorers, the thrill seekers and the ones that end up killed.

"Manly valor" needn't be dirty words. The thing is we need individuals of this type, both male and female - to dare going into a burning building to save someone, to protect someone who is weaker and more vulnerable than you are, to risk it all to achieve something great. And chances are, as society stands today, these individuals will be men.

I have admired the modest Junger trying to explain during interviews for the book that these men were not merely "adrenaline junkies" seeking highs - (although one solider does describe combat as being akin to crack) - these are boys and men who are trying to define who they are through their actions in the military and their relationships with the other men.

War begins with a thirty man platoon, the 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army, stationed in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains where Junger is serving as an embedded journalist in two cycles during June 2007 and June 2008. Life at Restrepo where he is based (and which he chronicled in a documentary made at the same time):

The men sleep as late as they can and come shuffling out of their fly-infested hooches scratching and farting. By midmorning it's over a hundred degrees and the heat has a kind of buzzing slowness to it that alone almost feels capable of overrunning Restrepo. It's a miraculous kind of antiparadise up here: heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait. It's so hot that the men wander around in flip flops and underwear, unshaved and foul.

For Junger, the soldier Brendan O'Byrne seems to epitomize the troop that he is stationed with. Just an average kid, albeit from a troubled, violent background in Pennsylvania, who casually mentions in conversation that he was once shot by his father and doesn't blame him as he (O'Byrne) was such a badass. His personal story is interwoven throughout the narrative. O'Byrne seems typical of the average soldier there: not wealthy, somewhat rootless, sometimes with a troubled history, eager to break the boredom of everyday life, fearful of returning to normalcy when his tour is over.

While reading the book, I kept picturing the character of Sergeant First Class William James in the film The Hurt Locker aimlessly examining the supermarket goods when he returns from a tour in Iraq and then almost immediately afterward we see that he has re-enlisted for another tour (done so with a big happy grin on his face).

The overwhelming sense of what the experience of war is appears to be mind numbing boredom broken with terrific firefights (as many as four or five a day for these particular men). This area saw one fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan at the time. The men are often so bored they would pray for combat or invoke weird rituals which were said to bring on combat (such as eating a certain kind of candy). At rest, they play guitar, beat on each other just for fun, read Harry Potter and surfing magazines, listen to music on their laptops.

The biggest motivator to behaving bravely in this situation appears to be not letting your fellow soldiers down through your own personal cowardice which is epitomized by the statement that one soldier named Jones makes that, "There ain't no bitch in me." This fear that one will make an error resulting in casualties is overwhelmingly important and, I think, tied to an innate sense of what is masculinity. This means mastering one's fear. There appears to be no shame in fear but it cannot, must not, affect the soldiers' ability to act in a crisis. 

O'Byrne tells Junger, "There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other. But they would also die for each other." Clearly, they must possess the "X factor" to surmount their fear - a factor so labeled by the British and American militaries during WWII which was trying to determine what made men conquer their fear.

Junger mentions the unspoken agreement among the men that the men stick together no matter what. It is the "reassurance that you will never be abandoned [which] seems to help men in ways that serve the whole unit rather than just themselves." But sometimes this might just result in a suicide pact.

I think that there is something else at the heart of this commitment to each other. I would venture to say it is also the fear of being perceived a "bitch" if one disappoints his comrades. It appears that to be a man, most distinctly means not behaving like a "woman", being cowardly, not putting the whole of the unit before your own needs.

Junger seems most disturbed as a journalist when he learns of an enemy combatant, an Afghani man who, firstly, loses a leg while struck by firepower on a hillside, then gets blown to smithereens as he scrambles for cover. This elicits cheers from the Americans in the troop and from Junger horror. He struggles to understand. Relief he can comprehend from the soldiers but cheers? A soldier explains: this means there is one less man out there trying to kill you - hence the "happiness" the kill elicits.

Periodically, the men have what Junger describes as a "pisstube moment", this from O'Byrne:
I went out to use the pisstubes one night ... and I was like 'What am I doing in Afghanistan?' I mean literally, 'What am I doing here?' I'm trying to kill people and they're trying to kill me. It's crazy..."

Whether the sacrifices made, the lives lost, psyches destroyed during this war are worthwhile I leave to finer minds than mine. I found it difficult to understand the purpose of the mission, the purpose of this war. I guess that would be my "pisstube moment" in contemplating the war in Afghanistan.

When you learn of O'Byrne's troubled fate once he is released from duty (many of his psychological wounds are self-inflicted) you wonder if Junger is not right when he states: Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.

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