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.
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.)
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.