August 4, 2010


War (New York, 2010) is a specifically non-religious book, but with great relevance to assessments of the effects and experience of war in Afghanistan for American troops. Junger ‘embedded’ himself with the ultimate front line troops in a far flung outpost of Afghanistan to experience daily life in combat. This book is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who cannot ‘blank’ or ‘beep’ in their minds over the fairly frequent expletives. What makes it interesting, and important, is that it describes life as it appears to really be for those who are on the front line of fighting in Afghanistan from the perspective of an eyewitness, and a sympathetic ‘embedded’ eyewitness at that. Junger is, it seems, non-religious himself, or at least attempts to explain the phenomenon of war and the comradeship that it produces from a strictly atheistic evolutionist point of view. He wants to know why it is that young men will die for each other, or risk probable death. His answer is that the experience of a small group of soldiers on the front line imitates the evolutionary predisposition of the tribe, where individuals are genetically advantaged to sacrifice for each other for the sake of the continued blood line of the tribal group. Of course, soldiers are not themselves genetically related to each other, but they begin to act like it, he thinks. They are not just friends and comrades; they are brothers. And that is why they will die for each other. He is pretty sure it has nothing, or very little, to do with the high-minded principles or politics that may (or may not) be behind this or any other war. People sacrifice for each other in combat out of the evolutionary version of what Christians might call love.

Why they volunteer

The other question Junger seems to be trying to answer through his fascinating, bloody, and quite disturbing, account is why it is that young men volunteer for such combat. Why do they go back? Why do they seek it out? As disturbing as any of the harrowing battle scenes, or barracks behaviour and language (and they are disturbing), is his answer to this question: young men go back because, he thinks, they enjoy it. This is the secret that people do not want told. They do not enjoy killing, as such; he is not saying soldiers are sadists — very far from it. He is saying that the on the edge sheer thrill of the not knowing when the next shot is coming or where from, how you will survive the next fire fight, and all the rest, means that soldiers in this situation begin actually to long for the next fire fight out of sheer boredom or frustration. And when they finish their term on the front line they sometimes volunteer right back up. My guess is that Junger is right to some degree about both these observations, though I would bring a totally different worldview and interpretative grid to the data. The importance of this book for the American (and British as well, let it be said) church is that the effects of war on society are not short lived. People who are used to the code of ‘blood in and blood out’ (where each new arrival to the team will be ceremonially beaten up) are a different mission field, and more complex to re-civilise. In a rather naff and cheesy interpretation of this phenomenon from the different Vietnam war see the movie First Blood.
Josh Moody, Wheaton, Illinois
War by Sebastian Junger is published in America by Twelve, ISBN 978-0446556248.]]>


Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.


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