The book sat on the dining table for a week before I sat down to read it. To be honest I was scared.
Not so much of what the book itself would show – I’ve read a lot about war and talked to a lot of people who have been in them – but because right now I’m a war parent – my son is at war. Today, right now, as I write this about a book about war, he is living it. And one of the ways I have dealt with the fear of it is through rationalizations. It’s just a camping trip, with guns. It’s no more dangerous than me riding my motorcycle, statistically. I box the fear up – the fear that he’ll be killed or wounded, the fear that as I sit here comfortably on my sofa listening to music and writing on my laptop, he might be bleeding somewhere 12,000 miles away and that there is nothing, nothing I can do for him…the fear that he’ll come back with his heart broken. Those fears have been put away, wrapped in my trust of his skills and smarts and luck and character, and I have gone on with my days.
But in truth, there’s a better way to deal with fear and that is simply to take the box off the shelf, open it, and look inside.
So I picked the book up and read it in an afternoon.
And, to be honest, that’s what ‘War’ did for me – it opened the box; more than any of the other books that have come from this war. It didn’t show me how soldiers think of themselves – as ‘Kaboom’ did. It didn’t show me how analysts or strategists think about war. It showed me what I think war would look like if I was standing there.
I’m glad that I read it before seeing the NBC footage.
There are flaws with the book, to be sure. But this is a book about one’s fellows at war; a book in which the writer doesn’t hold himself apart from the solders in his words, but instead lays in the dust with them.
I’ve written – a lot – about the role of journalists in covering our nation, and how wrong it is for them to pretend they can put their citizenship aside and stand among, but not with, our solders as they fight.
Journalists in the past did exactly that – Ernie Pyle and Joseph Galloway.
It’s not too much to ask of our modern journalists, and in my view Junger delivered that. His loudest critic to date dislikes the book and calls Junger a ‘War tourist.’ Well, of course he is; the question is whether that’s pejorative or not. In my mind, it isn’t – by definition any outsider who writes about war (or anything else) is a tourist. And their views are valuable – valuable not in opposition but in conjunction with the views of those inside. No participant can give an honest account of anything; many try and try honorably. But the description of war by a soldier to someone like me – to a nonsoldier – must be incomplete and inaccurate; I can never know war. I will never know what my son knows, I will only know him.
And, in truth, the more I know about war, the better I will know him. And the better all of us will know our sons and daughters and husbands and wives when they finally come home, wrapped in the cloak of a knowledge we will never share.
So thank you, Sebastian Junger, for bringing me closer to my son. Thank you for taking us fellow tourists and bringing us closer to all our soldiers.