Monday, October 18, 2010

War, what is it good for? by Nick Turse

A marketplace filled with books by former military men devoted to tweaking, enhancing, and improving war-fighting capabilities cries out for some counterbalance. This year's foremost civilian-authored text on the conflict in Afghanistan is, without a doubt, Sebastian Junger's War. While nothing like the antiwar texts of the 1960s and 1970s that laid bare the folly and terror of American campaigns in Southeast Asia, War still offers a rare glimpse of the horrors that authors like Celeski, Henrikson, and Kilcullen tend to skip over or discount.

Early in his book, Junger recounts a Navy SEAL's admission that the only thing that stopped him from executing three unarmed Afghans was concern about the press catching wind of the murders. A page later, he writes of an American attempt to take out a mid-level Taliban leader in Chichal, a village high above Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, that killed 17 civilians instead. The military responsible for training that elite fighter who felt unconstrained by the laws of war and the men who called in the air strike on Chichal are the very ones Kilcullen and various Pentagon minds think can carry out kind-COIN [Counter-Insurgency].

As a book, War suffers from many of the pitfalls that afflicted its movie companion, the documentary Restrepo. The overly ambitious title belies the fact that it is not about "war," but one aspect of war, combat, as experienced by US Army troops in the Korengal Valley. Moreover, there's a dismaying amount of combat-friendly hyperbole and celebratory rhetoric in and around the book, from the publisher's book-jacket prose labeling combat "the ultimate test of character" - a theme that buzzes through the entire book - to a famous chapter-leading quote by George Orwell or Winston Churchill (Junger refuses to decide which) that tells us we all "sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

Unfortunately, as the last century showed, too many "rough men" were all too willing to do the bidding of leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Suharto, Leonid Brezhnev, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, to name just a few, to the detriment of many millions who ended up dead, wounded, or psychologically scarred. All of this suggests that perhaps if we stopped celebrating "rough men," we could all sleep easier.

That said, there is much to be learned from Junger's in-print version of Americans-at-war. His blow-by-blow accounts of small-unit combat actions, for instance, drive home the tremendous firepower American troops unleash on enemies often armed with little more than rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Page after page tallies up American technology and firepower: M-4 assault rifles (some with M-203 grenade launchers), squad automatic weapons or SAWs, .50 caliber machine guns, M-240 machine guns, Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers, mortars, 155mm artillery, surveillance drones, Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 Spectre gunships, A-10 Warthogs, F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers, B-52 and B-1 bombers, all often brought to bear against boys who may be wielding nothing more than Lee Enfield bolt-action rifles - a state of the art weapon when introduced. That, however, was in the 1890s.

The profligacy of relying on such overwhelming firepower is not lost on Junger, who offers a useful insight in regard to another high-tech, high-priced piece of US weaponry, "a huge shoulder-fired rocket called a Javelin." Junger writes: "Each Javelin round costs US$80,000, and the idea that it's fired by a guy who doesn't make that in a year at a guy who doesn't make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable."

But "almost," as the old adage goes, only counts when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades. And bombs dropped by B-1s, like one unleashed at night near the village of Yaka Chine, are certainly not hand grenades. Junger chronicles the aftermath of that strike when US troops encountered "three children with blackened faces ... a woman lying stunned mute on the floor while five corpses lie on wooden pallets covered by white cloth outside the house, all casualties from the air strikes the night before." He continues: "The civilian casualties are a serious matter and will require diplomacy and compensation."

Instead, an American lieutenant colonel choppers in to lecture village elders about the evils of "miscreants" in their midst and brags about his officers' educational prowess and how it can benefit the Afghans. "They stare back unmoved," writes Junger. "The Americans fly out of Yaka Chine, and valley elders meet among themselves to decide what to do. Five people are dead in Yaka Chine, along with ten wounded, and the elders declare jihad against every American in the valley." Vignettes like this drive home the reasons why, after nearly a decade of overwhelming firepower, the US war in Afghanistan has yet to prove "winnable", despite the ministrations of Kilcullen and crew.

Later in the book we read about how Junger survives an improvised explosive device that detonates beneath his vehicle. He's saved only by a jumpy trigger-man who touches two wires to a battery a bit too early to kill Junger and the other occupants of the army Humvee he's riding in. In response, Junger writes: "This man wanted to negate everything I'd ever done in my life or might ever do. It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn't. Combat gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don't allow for anything."

Junger, at least, traveled across the world to consciously and deliberately put himself in harm's way. Imagine how the poor people of Yaka Chine must have felt when a $300 million American aircraft swooped in to drop a bomb on them in the dead of night. Junger's book helps reveal these facts far better than his movie.

Getting a read on war

Surveying this year's Afghan war literature from popular bestsellers to little noticed Army monographs is generally disheartening but illuminating. "The moral basis of the war doesn't interest soldiers much," writes Junger near the beginning of his book. "They generally leave the big picture to others."

America's fighting men at the front are not alone. Most Americans have similarly chosen to ignore the "moral basis" for the war and the big picture as well. They have been aided and abetted in this not only by a president evidently bent on escalating the conflict at every turn, but also by a coterie of authors - many of them connected to the Pentagon - content to critique only doctrine, strategy, and tactics.

Each of them is eager to push for his favorite flavor of warfare, but loath to address weightier issues. Perhaps this is one reason why Junger's front-line troops - if they are indeed sampling the best the military's prescribed reading lists have to offer - have a tendency to ignore fundamental issues and skip intellectual and moral inquiry.

If Pentagon-consultant-turned-potential-defense-contractor Kilcullen and the Joint Special Operations University's author corps aren't going to address morals and "big picture" issues, then the Sebastian Jungers of the world need to step up and cover the real, everyday face of war: the plight of civilians in the conflict zone.

They also should focus on big-picture issues like whether the United States actually has anything approaching a true strategic vision when it comes to its wars and occupations abroad, whether there truly is a global Islamist insurgency as Kilcullen maintains, whether it could ever coalesce into a worldwide threat, and whether whatever it is that exists should be attacked with the force of arms. They need to offer more help in launching serious mainstream debate about America's permanent state of war and its fallout.

The US military's reading lists are, not surprisingly, dedicated to combat and counter-insurgency. So are its favorite authors. To them, combat is war. Civilians in war zones know better. They know that war is suffering, because they live with it, not a tour at a time but constantly, day after day, week after week, year after year. Civilians outside war zones should know, too. It would be helpful if they had authors with the skill, intellect, and courage to help them to understand the truth.

(Copyright 2010 Nick Turse.)

Nick Turse is the associate editor of His latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books), which brings together leading analysts from across the political spectrum, has just been published. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. His website is


  1. The groundswell of protest against the Vietnam War was strongly influenced by books that exposed the human costs of the conflict, and questioned whether it should be fought. The current literature of the Afghan war is more concerned with muscle-minded analyses of how to fight a better counter-insurgency. While the American war in Vietnam raged, publishers churned out books whose titles still resonate. In 1967 alone, classics like Mary McCarthy's Vietnam, Howard Zinn's Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, Thich Nhat Hanh's Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, not to mention Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam: A Novel all hit the shelves.

    In fact, between 1962 and 1970, as American involvement in the conflict accelerated and peaked, some 9,430 books were written about the Vietnam War.

    Four decades ago, a stream of books was being produced for popular audiences that exposed the nature of war making and focused readers' attention on the misery caused by US military actions abroad. Today, a startling percentage of the authors who bother to focus on the current conflict are producing works dedicated to waging the seemingly endless American war in Afghanistan better.

  2. Just recently, the Pentagon put a book focused on the Afghan war, Operation Dark Heart by Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer, on the bestseller list. The "Commander's Counter-Insurgency Reading List" from the US Army's Combined Arms Center contains seven key texts, most of them classic works, including The Evolution of a Revolt by T E Lawrence (of Arabia), but its "additional readings" contain newer faves like retired army colonel and COIN uber-cheerleader John Nagl's 2002 text, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counter-Insurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Similarly, a pre-deployment reading list for Army personnel shipping out to Afghanistan breaks down selections by rank, assigning privates a series of texts, including Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid, while their colonels are told to read Nagl's book, among other works.

    "Today's military thinker must appreciate the many dimensions - political, environmental, economic, informational, and others - that comprise international security," said Air Force chief of staff General Norton Schwartz in July, marking the latest of his office's quarterly recommendations of books to read. Among the selections was former Australian infantry officer and counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen's 2009 offering, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, which also appeared on this year's US Army War College's suggested military reading list.

    But don't think this is strictly a military phenomenon. Nagl's and Kilcullen's works and others like them, focused on enhancing war-fighting capabilities, not stirring debate on the wisdom or morality of the war in question or war-making in general, are increasingly being sold to civilian audiences, too. In recent years, newspapers and magazines have done their part in publicizing selections from such military reading lists and from military or former military figures. The process, involving articles, positive book reviews, op-ed opportunities, as well as raves from pundits and commentators, can now transform even a once little-noticed Pentagon-approved tract into a must-read for the book-buying public.