A More Intense Slice of Life

“Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up.”

“These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not the most alive — that you can get skydiving — but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful.”

Wow.

Of all the things Junger wrote about in this book on the topic of war, what struck me most were the passages like these, the ones that emphasized that not all aspects of war are hellish.

I’ve often had trouble understanding why anyone would want to go to war. In high school, I read pieces like Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which is famous because it rebukes the idea that war is glorious, which I am told was the predominant opinion at the time (the early 20th century). But I’m not sure that that is the predominant belief anymore. At least in my experience growing up in the 90s and the past decade, there has always seemed to be much more evidence that war is traumatic than that it is in any way desirable. Modern movies and journalism and books focus largely on war as unnecessary and brutal; sure, there’s a little bit of camaraderie and yes, sacrificing oneself for one’s country is noble, but mostly it is, as Junger writes, “so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like a profanity.” So personally, I thought it was really interesting to read, especially in the last few chapters of the book, not about how devastating military service is, but about how invigorating it is.

I’m not sure why there’s been such a dramatic shift in public opinion, considering that things were apparently so different less than a hundred years ago–but actually, now that I think about it, it’s probably because the nature of war itself has changed so dramatically over that time, as well. Before the World Wars, which saw the invention of automatic weapons and planes and large-scale bombs, perhaps war really could be seen as a much more desirable thing. Back then, being a soldier was even more about skill and self-discipline than it is today, because armies just didn’t have the weaponry to do massive damage from a distance the way we can today, what with airstrikes and such; you had to engage your opponent close up and if you wanted to survive, you had to be a better fighter than him. That still holds true to some extent, but as Junger points out earlier in the book, modern methods of warfare make survival much more about luck.

To deal with that lack of control, soldiers lean heavily on their fellow soldiers, and that’s where the vibrancy of war life can be seen. O’Byrne and the men learn to really rely on each other and love each other and they basically live to protect each other. They all have a strong sense of purpose, which is something that civilian lives can sometimes lack. I think that’s a valuable insight–and definitely not something I expected to find when I first opened my e-reader and started reading WAR.

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