Men in Combat

“Combat fog obscures your fate…and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between men”

In Sebastian Junger’s War, a book about a company of soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan, we experience war conceptually, and devoid of the cynicism of most war commentary.  Junger doesn’t speak to whether war is good or bad, but what it is. The book is a case study of men in combat, and it illuminates a wonderful aspect of our humanity.

Survival in combat depends on the precise coordination of individuals in a group.  It is the group that moves, acts, responds, not the man.  Alone in a firefight every man would die.  And so, out of necessity men in combat become a network of acute mutual dependence.  It is more powerful than any bond forged in peace.  Like a parent to a child, a man knows that the group depends on him for its survival, and like a child to a parent, he depends on it for his own.

In war, every part of a man’s life becomes devoted to his participation in the network of dependence.  All his decisions of personal organization and conduct affect the web of mutual protection.  He makes sure his boots are laced, or else he is too slow to his gun.  He monitors his supply of water and nutrients, or else he risks exhaustion while on patrol, slowing the group, exposing them to attack. Every daily act has a meaning as profound as life and death.

What is striking is how immediately men adopt the identity of the team: one gets the sense that we are evolved to coordinate and move as a pack.  But men that experience combat invariably have difficulty adjusting to peaceful society.  They struggle to leave the mindset of battle.  Despite the terror, fear, and death, the men in Junger’s unit miss combat—they crave it.  They have become adrenaline junkies (like the soldier that yells “better than crack!” over the roar of gunfire), but strangely, excitement alone fails to explain the feeling of loss felt by a soldier who leaves combat:

“In 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.”

Junger observes that an act of courage in combat is indistinguishable from an act of love.

It seems we are not meant to live frivolously, leisurely, and lazily, as we do too often when our survival is not threatened.  We have the capacity to live vividly, to experience each personal decision as profoundly important to our survival and the survival of our group.  We seem to move closer to what we are meant to be, when we are forced with every step to consider the well-being of those on whom we mutually depend.

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