Afghanistan: Fighting a war without context

From Alissa Rubin’s story in the NYT this morning, ”U.S. Closes Outpost in The Valley of Death”:

The near daily battles [in the Korengal Valley]were won, but almost always at the cost of wounded or dead. There were never enough soldiers to crush the insurgency, and after four years of trying, it became clear that there was not much worth winning in this sparsely populated valley.

Closing the Korangal Outpost, a powerful symbol of some of the Afghan war’s most ferocious fights, and a potential harbinger of America’s retreat, is a tacit admission that putting the base there in the first place was a costly mistake.

Military history is littered with instances of dumb and costly decisions that, in retrospect, have almost no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the war. The most famous examples are from Vietnam(fighting and dying for Hamburger Hill, or Hill 365, or whatever hill, became a symbol of the war’s pointlessness.) WWI has its fair share: Winston Churchill’s probing for a ‘soft underbelly’ in Turkey, or other slaughterhouses of the Western Front, where much of the killing had little or no value when all was said and done. The Korengal Valley looks like it’s going to fall into that category. 42 Americans, as well as scores of Afghans, were killed in the fighting there, according to the NYT, and now it’s being abandoned.

“It hurts,” said Spc. Robert Soto of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, who spent 12 months in the Korangal Valley from 2008 to 2009. “It hurts on a level that — three units from the Army, we all did what we did up there. And we all lost men. We all sacrificed. I was 18 years old when I got there. I really would not have expected to go through what we went through at that age.”

This particular news dovetails with the release of Sebastian Junger’s new book, ‘War,’ which is scheduled to be out next month. It’s about a platoon of soldiers Junger embedded with from 2007-2008. That platoon fought in the Korangal Valley. I just opened a review copy a couple of days ago and I haven’t finished reading it, so I’m going to refrain from writing too much. There are parts that are pretty compelling and very interesting so far–stuff I haven’t seen any other war reportage really get at, for sure.

But it’s also made me think about the idea of examing the experience of war devoid from the larger political context of the actual fighting, which is what Junger says he’s trying to do. (He says this in an interview in the latest Men’s Journal, which isn’t yet available online.) It’s looking at war from the narrow Band of Brothers, Blackhawk Down perspective–what matters more than politics or anything else is the dude next to you, the dude shooting at you, and the powerful emotional bonds(the excitement and the fear and the fun and the horror, alongside the shared psychological and physical trauma) that shape your experience.

[daylifegallery id=”1271274482149″]

Certainly, there’s truth to this, and it’s an interesting thing to attempt from a literary perspective. At the same time, I don’t know if it’s entirely possible to pull off. I think viewing war through this lens misses something crucial: the politics and the larger context surrounding the experience of war are actually a critical component to the experience of war itself, specifically in how the combatants, as well as the victims, remember it and understand it and sometimes even experience it at the time.

As Spc. Soto tells Rubin:

During the period Specialist Soto served there half of his platoon was wounded or killed, according to the unit’s commanding officer. “It confuses me, why it took so long for them to realize that we weren’t making progress up there,” he said.

My point: From what I’ve read so far, Junger’s book is focused exclusively on a fight that was essentially meaningless in any big picture way. Korangal looks like it was a waste of American lives, of Afghan lives etc. Its meaning is that it’s meaningless, if that doesn’t sound too annoying. The reason for fighting then seems to me like it would be an important factor in evaluating one’s experience of war. (I’ve spent time with wounded Iraq veterans lately, and for some of them, seeing Iraq relatively more stable provides them with comfort, and helps them put some their demons to rest.)

Or maybe I’m missing something–perhaps in a meaningless fight the most truthful meaning exists within the soldiers themselves, or others(like innocent civilians and the like)who had the war change their lives. (And, like I said, I haven’t finished the book, so maybe these issues get addressed, maybe they don’t.)

Anyway.

Along the same lines, I highly recommend checking out Junger’s review of the new Vietnam novel Matterhorn, while waiting for ‘War’ to hit the bookstores.

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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4 Responses to Afghanistan: Fighting a war without context

  1. Michael Peck says:

    Books that examine war from the tactical, grunt’s eye view tend to be either war porn or maudlin. Not to say that there aren’t good books like Blackhawk Down, but after a while, most of them sound the same, because the experiences are broadly similar. The perspective of a Marine pinned down by Taliban snipers isn’t that different from a Marine pinned down by Japanese snipers on Okinawa. It’s the political context that’s different for each conflict.

  2. Mr. Hastings,

    1) I believe that it was the famous french movie director François Truffaut who once noted something the the effect “If you film it, you glamorize it” (I was unable to find the actual quote so maybe it was someone else). The point being made was that even if a film director is trying make a movie where something is being presented as evil and repellent, it will be make glamorous. Anti-war movies that show warfare, glamorize warfare. William Broyles, Jr., a Vietnam War veteran, noted journalist, and screen writer noted that the only way to truly make an anti-war movie is to have it take place away from the battle field (he noted this in an interview about how despite his own efforts, his own son ended up joining the Marine Corp).

    So much more so for movies that present a “neutral” image war. Black Hawk Down, Band of Brothers, and most recently Hurt Locker all take this tactical POV, a very “nuts and bolts” / “Forget the war, remember the warrior” approach. The great Wild Bill Wellman, a WW I veteran, made a number of such films. However, despite the nominal “non-partisan” stance, these movies are very much pro-war. Specifically by removing the political context, the war becomes less repugnant. Let the audience identify with the soldier, and the war is humanized. We identify with the soldiers and feel that they “deserve” to win, as if it were a football game and if the players really win if they try their best, even if they lose. This was motif the Bush Administration used a lot “Give the boys a little more time, give them a chance to win it”.

    2) War is not too different from any other human endeavor, it is really a matter of trial and error. In many cases it is simply impossible to know if a strategy or tactic is going to work until you give it try. Will running a draw play against a nickel defense in football game work? Give it a shot and see what happens. The only way to determine if stationing a platoon of soldiers in the Korangal Valley is a good idea, is to do it and find out. War is not a math problem you can solve ahead of time, it has to be tested in real time on the ground, see what works and what doesn’t and then you adapt.

    This is where war is very different from other human endeavors, people have to die in order to learn what does or does not work.

  3. Steve Weinberg says:

    Discussing a specific battle in Afghanistan without placing the battle in the larger war context makes no more sense than discussing a specific wrongful conviction (the subject of my blog) without understanding the context of wrongful convictions within the specific prosecutorial jurisdiction (the phenomenon varies hugely depending on which of the 2300-plus jurisdictions is involved) and within the nationwide, flawed criminal justice system.

    Regarding the current U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, I cannot understand any battle report well without trying to decipher why President Obama is retaining fighting troops in those embattled geographical jurisdictions.

    The larger purpose of convicting suspected criminals (even if the conviction is flawed) is obvious. The larger purpose of continuing a military presence in Afghanistan or Iraq is not at all obvious to me.

  4. scottchaffee says:

    All wars are abominations but the modern war is even more so. There were no generals stationed at the Korangal outpost. No senator’s or president’s offspring manned the perimeter. This isn’t a campaign led by the president or vice president. The bigs are tucked safely away while they send the poor and middle classes into areas that may or may not hold. Very few cameras if any. All the news steamed, sanitized and spun. The whole thing makes me sick to my stomach.

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