Sebastian Junger’s “WAR“. I started to hear all the hype about this book. Saw an article in the Army times, news clippings on the internet, and posts on other blogs. This is the guy who wrote “The Perfect Storm” and now he has this new book and a documentary called “RESTREPO” coming out as well. These last two are about Soldiers from the 173rd ABN in the Korengal Valley (Afghanistan) that he embedded with on numerous occasions between 2007 and 2008. So, after hearing the hype I grabbed it off the PX shelf the first day it came out.
So far I am about 150 pages into the book. I will tell you that it is a graphic, emotional, and most importantly an unbiased depiction so far. I read a chapter last night that I felt compelled to share on here.
(If I get fragged for copyrights, screw em. I bought my copy and could technically say I am pumping the book for more sales.)
“The Army has a certain interest in understanding what was going through Giunta’s mind during all of this, because whatever was going through his mind helped save the entire unit from getting killed. A year or so later, several squads of American Soldiers conducted an identical L-shaped ambush at night on the Abas Ghar and wiped out a column of Taliban fighters- nearly twenty men. The reason First Platoon did not get wiped out had nothing to do with Apaches flying overhead or the 155s at Blessing; it was because the men reacted not as individuals but as a unit. Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it’s much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually win.
That choreography-you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up- is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.
Most firefights go by fast that acts of bravery or cowardice are more or less spontaneous. Soldiers might live the rest of their lives regretting a decision that the don’t even remember making; they might receive a medal for doing something that was over before they even knew they were doing it. When Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy was asked why he took on an entire company of German infantry by himself, he replied famously, “They were killing my friends.” Wars are won or lost because of the aggregate effects of thousands of decisions like that during firefights that often last only minutes or seconds. Giunta estimates that not more than ten or fifteen seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those ten or fifteen seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who react that way would undoubtedly die to the last man.
Giunta, on the other hand, used those fifteen seconds to assign rates and sectors of fire to his team, run to Gallardo’s assistance, assess the direction of a round that hit him in the chest, and then throw three hand grenades while assaulting an enemy position. Every man in the platoon-even the ones who were wounded-acted as purposefully and efficiently as Giunta did. For obvious reasons, the Army has tried very hard to understand why some men respond effectively in combat and others just freeze. “I did what I did because that’s what I was trained to do,” Giunta told me. “There was a task that had to be done, and the part that I was gonna do was to link alpha and bravo teams. I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy- I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and shoot together. I didn’t run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done.”
During World War II, the British and American militaries conducted a series of studies to identify what makes men capable of overcoming their fears. A psychiatrist named Herbert Spiegel, who accompanied American troops on the Tunisia campaign, called it the “X-factor”: “Whenever this factor was conscious or unconscious is debatable,” he wrote for a military journal in 1944, “but this is not so important. The important things was that it is influenced greatly by devotion to their group or unit, by regard for their leader and by conviction for their cause. In the average Soldier, which most of them were, this factor…enabled men to control their fear and combat their fatigue to a degree that they themselves did not believe possible.”
The U.S. military found that, to a great degree, fearfulness was something they couldn’t do much about. A fearful man is likely to remain that way no matter what king of training he undergoes. During one experiment, completely untrained airborne candidates were told to jump off a thirty-four-foot tower. They jumped in a harness that allowed them to fall about twelve feet and then ride a 400-foot cable to the ground. As easy as it sounds, more than half of a group of qualified paratroopers said that jumping off the tower was more frightening than jumping out of a real airplane. The military tested roughly thirteen hundred candidates on the tower and then tracked their success through airborne school. They found that the men who were “slow” to jump off the tower were more than twice as likely to fail out of the program as “fast” jumpers, and those who refused to jump at all were almost guaranteed to fail.
One of the most puzzling things about fear is that it is only loosely related to the level of danger. During World War II, several airborne units that experienced some of the fiercest fighting of the war also reported some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates in the U.S. military. Combat units typically suffer one psychiatric casualty for every physical one, and during Israel’s Yom Kippur War of 1973, frontline casualty rates were roughly consistent with that ratio. But Israeli logistical units, which were subject to far less danger, suffered three psychiatric cases for every physical one. And even frontline troops showed enormous variations in their rate of psychological breakdown. Because many Israeli officers literally led from the front, they were four times more likely to be killed or wounded than their men were-and yet they suffered one-fifth the rate of psychological collapse. The primary factor determining breakdown in combat does not appear to be the objective level of danger so much as the feeling- even the illusion- of control. Highly trained men in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances are less likely to break down than untrained men in little danger.
The division between those who feel in control of their fate and those who don’t can occur even within the dame close-knit group. During World War II, British and American bomber crews experienced casualty rates as high as 70 percent over the course of their tour; they effectively flew missions until they were killed. On these planes, pilots reported experiencing less fear than their turret gunner, who were crucial to operations but had no direct control over the aircraft. Fighter pilots, who suffered casualty rates almost as high as bomber crews, nevertheless reported extremely low levels of fear. They were both highly trained and entirely in control of their own fate, and that allowed them to ignore the statistical reality that they had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving their tour.
Among men who are dependent on one another for their safety- all combat Soldiers, essentially- there is often an unspoken agreement to stick together no matter what. The reassurance that you will never be abandoned seems to help men act in ways that serve the whole unit rather than just themselves. Sometimes, however, it effectively amounts to a suicide pact. During the air war of 1944, a four-man combat crew on a B-17 bomber took a vow to never abandon one another no matter how desperate the situation. (A fifth team member, the top turret gunner, was not part of the pact.) The aircraft was hit by flak during a mission and went into a terminal dive, and the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. The top turret gunner obeyed the order, but the ball turret gunner discovered that a piece of flak had jammed his turret and he could not get out. The other three men in his pact could have bailed out with parachutes, but they stayed with him until the plane hit the ground and exploded. They all died.”
What I get out of this extremely informative and well written chapter….good training+ good leadership+ good buddies= better results.