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The Afghan war -- as it really is

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger made five trips to embed with U.S. combat unit
  • He says soldiers were drawn to war by the excitement it gives their lives
  • Soldiers are haunted by the memory of those who are killed, he says
  • Junger: Civilians don't understand the emotional territory combat soldiers inhabit

Sebastian Junger talks about his new book on the war in Afghanistan with Anderson Cooper on tonight's "AC 360" 10 p.m. ET

New York (CNN) -- American soldiers fighting on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan are drawn to battle by the excitement and meaning it brings to their lives, says writer Sebastian Junger.

Part of what keeps them there are the strong ties of brotherhood they develop.

Junger is author of a new book, "War: As Soldiers Really Live It," and co-director of an accompanying film, "Restrepo," which was honored at Sundance. He's made five trips to the rough terrain of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan to embed with troops of Battle Company.

During his time there, he writes, the company's 150 men endured nearly a fifth of the combat fought by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. "Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley."

The book mixes descriptions of the soldiers' day-to-day lives in sparse surroundings with bursts of combat stories that end in bloodshed and death.

Much-liked medic Juan Restrepo, on a patrol near a village, is hit twice in the face by enemy fire and tries to tell his stricken fellow soldiers how to save his life, only to die within hours. The surviving soldiers name an American outpost after him.

Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, 25, is shot to death on a hill when militants overrun American troops. Spc. Miguel Cortez and two other soldiers find Rougle's body as they retake the hill, and Cortez struggles for months to get over the loss.

Junger describes the Korengal Valley as "sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan, too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off." Last month, NATO forces began pulling out of the valley as part of a strategic shift in the war.

Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm," spoke to CNN about the book recently. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: Your book depicts the lives of soldiers who have volunteered for service. They have to live in constant fear, and certainly they're living in conditions which are difficult. What explains their choice to do what they do?

Sebastian Junger: Well I think war is seen as a rite of passage and a test by certain kinds of young men. I think there was a connection in their minds about defending the country after 9/11. I think civilian society, civilian life isn't that compelling for some of them. It certainly risks not being very exciting, and I think young men have a tremendous need for excitement. And a combat unit in Afghanistan is pretty [much] guaranteed excitement. I think the hardships and the difficulties, for a 20 year old guy, I don't think they're that big a deal ...

CNN: You covered the war for control of the Korengal Valley, and now the U.S. is abandoning its position there. The soldiers defend the land to the death that the U.S. is now giving up. How do they feel about it?

Junger: I can't speak for all the soldiers. The ones that I've talked to about it, I think they feel conflicted. On the one hand ... we're nine years into the war, so the idea that overall U.S. strategy wouldn't change in that time and require shifting of priorities and troops just isn't realistic. Rationally, they understand that.

On an emotional level, it is hard to watch America give up a valley that they fought over so hard. That reflects something more profound about war than it does the commanders. Every single war those decisions are made and positions are abandoned and new ones are taken. That's just what war is, and soldiers probably understand that better than the civilians do.

CNN: You wrote that the politics of the war just don't enter into their consciousness to any great degree.

Junger: No they really don't think about politics. Some of them joined because of 9/11. Some of them joined because their dad was in Vietnam, some of them joined because they were bored or drinking too much or whatever it was. Politics, once they got out there, were absolutely not part of their thinking at all. Some of them were Republicans, some of them were Democrats and some of them were 20 years old and were not political at all. None of it mattered.

What mattered was the situation they were in the middle of, how they were doing, how their brothers were doing. They did call the other men in the platoon brothers ... that made for a more effective fighting unit than one that was embroiled in the political right and wrong of the war.

CNN: You wrote about the psychological and physical effects of being subject to gunfire, rounds that go at 2,000 miles an hour, and death is always around the corner. When soldiers return from Afghanistan, what are they contending with when they come back to civilian life.

Junger: The guys I was with, they didn't return to civilian life. With one exception, they stayed in the Army and half of them are back fighting again ...

What is the effect?... I didn't have their experience, but I had some percentage of their experience. I was jumpy for a while, I still am a little jumpy. I had some bad dreams for a while, I was a little snappy and impatient. It wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't the end of the world either. It was kind of emotional.

The most traumatic thing wasn't getting shot at, it was the loss of their friends.
--Sebastian Junger
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I didn't lose anyone out there that I was close to. The thing that seemed most traumatic to the guys that I knew, and this is just my impression, I am not a shrink. The most traumatic thing wasn't getting shot at, it was the loss of their friends, it was a guy seeing his best friend take a bullet in the forehead or a bullet in the throat and bleed out and there was nothing they could do and you're covered in the guy's blood when he dies.

That was devastating to them. It's analogous, for a civilian, imagine your girlfriend stepping off a curb and getting hit by a taxi and killed and what that would do to a young man.

That's what those guys go through in combat. So when they come home traumatized, a large part of what they're traumatized by isn't the memory of the risk to themselves, it's the memory of their best friend who got killed right in front of them, and they live the rest of their lives thinking: 'There must have been something I could have done. It's my fault.' That's a really, really painful thing, and they all have to deal with it.

CNN: Was that true in the case of the medic Restrepo?

Junger: Yeah, he died in front of them, he bled out, and everyone wondered if they couldn't have prevented it somehow.

Rougle died on that hill and Cortez tortured himself with the idea that if only he had run faster, he could have gotten up there in time to save his friend. And every night, he was running up the hillside again in his dreams. Cortez almost died out there, too. But that wasn't the thing he was dreaming about. He was dreaming about Rougle.

CNN: One point you make is that the people of Afghanistan seem to gravitate to the American side when the Americans have control of the terrain and can start providing development projects. And when that's not a possibility, they're more likely to support the Taliban. Does that suggest anything about the conduct of the war and how it should be handled?

Junger: Well the Afghans are a very pragmatic people and for the most part they're not ideologues, they're going to sort of go with the side where the consequences are the best for them. Most Afghans are probably happy to side with the Americans, if they can convince themselves the Americans are going to win this thing and bring some kind of economic development and security to their country. ...

I think the military, what what they do very wisely, and they're already doing it, they're dividing up in their minds the people they're fighting who are ideologues. You're not going to make a truce with an ideologue -- they have to be driven out or killed.

Then the other slice of the pie, and I think it's a pretty big one, guys who are getting paid to fight, guys who are fighting because, like the Americans, it seems like an exciting thing to do ... There are teenage boys over there, too, who want to have an exciting day. ... The military realizes that those people can be peeled off with incentives.

CNN: Do you believe the overall American effort can be successful?

Junger: Of course it can be. Look, the Allies drove the German army out of Europe. The Allies pulled off D-Day. If the Western world wants to sideline or kill 10,000 Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan, they can do it. It's a political choice and economic choice. It's not something that can or can't be done. ... I just don't know where the world's priorities or America's priorities are at. It's entirely dependent on that.

CNN: What do you hope that people will take away from the book above all?

Junger: I think civilians don't understand war very well. There's no reason they should, and their understanding of war comes from Hollywood, which is hopelessly heroic/tragic, and then it comes from news reports, which are confusing and I think inspire a kind of hopelessness. But when soldiers come back from combat, they're coming back to a civilian world that doesn't understand the emotional territory that they, the soldiers, were in for a year.

My hope is that when people read my book, they'll understand that emotional territory better.

So when a soldier is in some kind of distress back home, I think it would be very helpful for his wife to realize that not only was he traumatized by his service, but is also being traumatized by being taken away from it, by being taken out of a world of incredible intensity and very obvious meaning into a civilian world that is less intense and where the meaning of life is more diffuse and less obvious.

The more that civilians -- wives, fathers, mothers, children -- understand the really complex emotional territory of combat, the better our society will be able to re-incorporate these young men and give them a useful and productive role back home.