Soul of a Soldier, Soul of a Human Being

Sebastian Junger’s “War” delves into humanity, masculinity and relationships, and the nature of how we find fulfillment in relationships. (Modified from its original format, written in 2010.)

I wrote to a friend:

At this moment, I am captivated by hearing something on the radio the author of this book speaking about it; he’s addressed one of the most fascinating things about human psyche
Specifically, why soldiers are drawn to it. He said something like why, something so evil and creating so much pain. Why is it appealing? why do people want to go back to it, etc. What, psychologically, does it for them. It’s more than adrenaline rush. He spoke about the clarity of the situation, and how relationships weren’t about anything superficial — about dedication, being needed, about things mattering.

Being retrospective at this moment, I can see clearly how this article, and the previous article about the persistence of political misperceptions, has come together in my mind to point out something, a rather strong illustration of something about the human condition — something which deserves its own time, reflection, and space. So I will do my best to focus on this work, for now.

That said, the following passage, which Junger read to close his presentation, was of such interest to me that I wrote it down. I don’t know what the text says yet, so the names and some of the words may be wrong. But still, it is something worth reading and presents a powerful context for his book:

We’re at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire US military, and he’s crawling out of his skin because there hasn’t been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world? Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men like (Mack), (Rice), and (O’Berne) come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power. These men come home and quickly find themselves getting berated by a rear base major who has never seen combat, or arguing with their girlfriend about some domestic issue they don’t even understand.
When men say that they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at — you’d have to be deranged. It’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war — you can be anything back home: shy, ugly, rich, poor, unpopular — and it won’t matter because it’s of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to fake. That’s why the men say such impossibly vulgar things about their sisters and mothers; it’s one more way to prove nothing can break the bond between them, it’s one more way to prove they’re not alone out there.
War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation. But combat is a different matter. Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification about the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life. Combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly. These hillsides of loose shale and (holly) trees are not where the men feel most alive — that you can get skydiving — but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again — but they can’t.
So here sits Sargent (Brendan O’Berne), one month before the end of deployment, seriously contemplating signing back up. “I prayed only once in Afghanistan”, (O’Berne) wrote me, after it was all over. “It was when (Gestrapo) got shot, I prayed to God to let him live”. But God, Allah, Jehova, Zeus — or whatever a person may call God, wasn’t in that valley. Combat is the devil’s game — God wanted no part. That’s why our prayers weren’t answered — the only one listening was Satan.”

There are so many powerful points in that one passage. One particularly resonates with me and my own interests and outlook on life: “any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men.” It is easy to look at war as a very top-down mechanism, the elites of a group want their group to fight another group. But what is the gratification of a foot soldier?

In undergraduate classes I’ve delved into nationalism and its power over people — why is the idea of a nation, and people being like you and different from others, so politically salient? There weren’t always “nations”, or, rather, states; my own country of birth is not 300 years old. But Junger’s work, in my opinion, captures something even more direct, even more intimate, even more personal, even more directly aimed at the very psyche of human nature: this desire to feel utilized. I think that is such an appropriate and powerfully accurate word, especially for young men (like myself).

It is a key factor to the situation, one that must be respected. It is at the utmost individual level of analysis.

A review of Junger’s book, from

They were collectively known as “The Rock.” For one year, in 2007–2008, Sebastian Junger accompanied 30 men-a single platoon-from the storied 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army as they fought their way through a remote valley in eastern Afghanistan.Over the course of five trips, Junger was in more firefights than he could count, as men he knew were killed or wounded and he himself was almost killed. His relationship with these soldiers grew so close that they considered him part of the platoon, and he enjoyed an access and a candidness that few, if any, journalists ever attain.
War is a narrative about combat: the fear of dying, the trauma of killing and the love between platoon-mates who would rather perish than let each other down. Gripping, honest and intense, War explores the neurological, psychological and social elements of combat, as well as the incredible bonds that form between these small groups of men. This is not a book about Afghanistan or the “War on Terror”; it is a book about all men, in all wars. Junger set out to answer what he thought of as the “hand-grenade question”: why would a man throw himself on a hand grenade to save other men he has known for probably only a few months? The answer is elusive but profound, going to the heart of what it means not just to be a soldier, but to be human.
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