Wednesday, August 24, 2016

War by Sebastian Junger (Book Notes)

I recently finished the book War by Sebastian Junger. I became interested in his writing after hearing an interview with him on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Pretty interesting guy. The book is a collection of his experiences working as a war reporter in Afghanistan. 

I read this book a while back but delayed posting about it because at first reflection it didn’t seem to warrant much comment. But after working back through my notes and reviewing some of the quotes and insights, I realized there's some significant depth here. 

As a book, for pure entertainment value, it wasn't the strongest. There's lots of seemingly random conversation, brutal violence, and a prodigious amount of the f-word (it is a book about war). I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. But along the literary journey there are some powerful quotes, anecdotes, and social observations. There are reflections on the importance of relationships and how community strength is so important to our health and growth as individuals. There are also some powerful quotes on courage, love, and the connection between the two. Junger apparently gets flack for his gender stereotypes. You’ll see some of his observations that have been criticized below. Read and decide for yourself if the criticism is fair or not.

On fear and cowardice
"By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice... is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair." - Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage

On how you still need courage to tell your muscles what to do.
"There are different kinds of strength, and containing fear may be the most profound, the one without which Armies couldn't function and wars couldn't be fought (God forbid). There are big tough guys in the army who are cowards, and small feral looking dudes like Monroe who will methodically take apart a SAW (machine gun) while rounds are slapping the rocks all around them. The more literal forms of strength like carrying 160 lbs up a mountain depend more obviously on the size of your muscles. But muscles only do what you tell them, so it still keeps coming back to the human spirit. Wars are fought with very heavy machinery”  

On Why Nothing is Easy in Life
"'Everything in war is simple but the simplest thing is difficult,' The military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz wrote in the 1820s. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction. That friction is the entire goal of the enemy in the valley. In some ways it works even better than killing." (He's referring to the friction of wearing down the army, drip by drip, and it's amazing effectiveness to clog up the american war machine.)

On the Dangerous Effictiveness of Young Men
"Society can give it's young men almost any job, and they'll figure out how to do it. They'll suffer for it, and die for it, and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That only means that society should be careful what it asks for. In a very crude sense the job of young men is to undertake the world their fathers are too old for."     

"And the current generation of american fathers had decided that a certain six-mile-long valley in the Konar provence needs to be brought under military control. Nearly 50 American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I'm not saying that's a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war. For some reason the closer you are to combat, the less inclined you are to question it. but someone must. That evaluation... may be the one thing the country absolutely owes the soldiers that defend it's borders."

On Love
"The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body. The inability to participate in other's lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death."
-J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors

On Young men being 5x more likely to die than young women
"Some of those behavioral determinants, like a willingness to take risks, seem to figure disproportionately in the characters of young men. They are killed in accidents and homicides at a rate of 106 per 100,000 per year, roughly five times the rate of young women. Statistically, it's six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan. You'd have to go to a remote fire base like the KOP or Camp Blessing to find a level of risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male back home."

"Combat isn't simply a matter of risk though, it's also a matter of mastery. The basic neurological mechanism that induces animals to do things is called the dopamine rewards system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that mimics the affect of cocaine in the brain. And it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine rewards system exists in both sexes but is stronger in men. And as a result, men are more likely to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war. When the men of 2nd platoon were moping around the outpost, hoping for a firefight, it was because, among other things, they weren't getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and dopamine. They played video games instead. Women can master those skills without having pleasure centers in their brains - primarily the mesocorticolimbic center - light up as if they've just done a line of coke."  

On Courage as love
"Combat fog obscures your fate, obscures when and where you might die, and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on. The army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is un-negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the army sociologists.... slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.

According to their questionnaires, the primary motivation in combat, other than ending the task, which meant they could all go home, was solidarity with the group. That far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. The Army research branch cites cases of wounded man going AWOL after their hospitalization, in order to get back to their unit faster than the military could get them there. A civilian might consider this an act of courage, but soldiers knew better. To them it was just an act of brotherhood and their probably wasn't much to say about it except, 'welcome back.' Loyalty to the group drove men back into combat and occasionally to their deaths, but the group also provided the only psychological refuge from the horror of what was going on. It was conceivably more reassuring to be under fire with men you trusted than to languish at some rear base with soldiers who had no real understanding of war. It's as if there were an intoxicating affect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face. A study conducted in the mid-1950s found that jumping out of a plane generated extreme anxiety in loosely bonded groups of paratroopers. But tightly bonded men mainly worried about living up to the standards of the group. Men were also found to be able to withstand more pain, in this case electric shocks, when they were part of a close group, than when they were alone."

On Group size and community strength (FASCINATING)
"In the early 1990s, an English anthropologist named Robin Dunbar theorized that the maximum size for any group of primates was determined by brain size, specifically the size of the neocortex. The larger the neocortex, he reasoned, the more individuals with whom you could maintain personal relationships. Dunbar then compared primate brains to human brains, and used the differential to predict the ideal size for a group of humans. The number he came up with was 147.8 people. Rounded up to 150, it became known as the Dunbar number and it happened to pop up everywhere. A survey of ethnographic data found that pre-contact hunter gatherers around the world lived in shifting communities that ranged from 90 to 221 people, with an average of 148. Neolithic villages in Mesopotamia were thought to have had around 150 people. The Roman army of the classical period used a formation of 130 men, called a maniple, or a double century, in combat. Hutterite communities in South Dakota split after reaching 150 people because, in their opinion, anything larger cannot be controlled by peer pressure alone. Dunbar also found that the size of human hunter-gatherer communities was not spread evenly along a spectrum, but tended to clump around certain numbers. The first group size that kept coming up in ethnographic data was 30-50 people. Essentially a platoon. Unlike hunter-gatherer communities, platoons are obviously single sex, but the group identification might function the same way. Those communities were highly mobile and kept in close contact with three or four other communities for social and defensive purposes. The larger these groups were, the better they could defend themselves. Up until the point that they got so big they started to fracture and divide. Many such groups formed a tribe, and tribes either fought each other or formed confederacies against other tribes. The basic dichotomy of "us vs. them" happened at the tribal level and was reinforced by differences in language and culture. The parallels with military structure are almost exact. Battle company had around 150 men, and every man knew every other man by face and by name. The molten core of the group bond was the platoon however. A platoon - with a headquarters element, a radio operator, a medic, and forward observer for calling in air strikes - is the smallest self-contained unit in the regular army. Inserted into enemy territory and resupplied by air, a platoon could function more or less indefinitely. When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to brigade level, 3,000 to 4,000 men, any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical."

On Self Sacrifice
"Self sacrifice in defense of one's community is virtually universal among humans, extolled in myths and legends all over the world, and undoubtedly ancient. No community can protect itself unless a certain portion of its youth decide they are willing to risk their lives in its defense. That impulse can be horribly manipulated by leaders and politicians of course, but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Cheyenne dog soldiers wore long sashes that they staked to the ground in battle so that they couldn't leave the spot unless released by someone else. American militia men at the Alamo were outnumbered ten to one and yet fought to the last man rather than surrender to Mexican forces trying to reclaim the territory of Texas. And soldiers in WWI ran head long into heavy machine gun fire, not because many of them cared about the larger politics of the war, but because that's what the man to the left and to the right of them was doing. The cause doesn't have to righteous, and the battle doesn't have to be winnable, but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends, rather than to flee on their own and survive. While Stouffer (a sociologist) was trying to figure this out among american troops, the psychological warfare division was trying to do the same thing with the Germans. One of the most astounding things about the last phase of the war wasn't that the German Army collapsed by the end, that was a matter of simple math, but that it lasted as long as it did. Many German units that were completely cut off from the rest of their army continued resisting the prospect of certain defeat."

On the Power of the Group
"After the war, a pair of former American Intelligence Officers named Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz set about interviewing thousands of German prisoners to find out what had motivated them in the face of such odds. Their paper, "Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II," became a classic inquiry into why men fight.
     Considering the extreme nationalism of the Nazi era, one might expect the territorial ambition and a sense of racial superiority motivated most of the men on the German line. In fact, those concepts only helped the men who were already part of a cohesive unit. For everyone else, such grand principles provided no motivation at all. A soldier needs to have his basic physical needs met and needs to feel valued and loved by others. If those things are provided by the group, a soldier requires virtually no rationale other than the defense of that group to continue fighting. Allied propaganda about the moral wrongfulness of the Nazi government had very little effect on these men because they weren't really fighting for that government anyway. As the German lines collapsed and the German Army, the Wehrmacht, began to break up, the concerns of fighting began to give way to those of pure physical survival. At that point, Allied propaganda campaigns that guaranteed food, shelter, and safety to German deserters began to take a toll. But even then, Shils and Janowitz found, the men who deserted tended to be disgruntled loners who had never really fit into their unit. They were men who typically had trouble giving or receiving affection and had a history of difficult relations with friends and family back home. A significant number had criminal records. The majority of everyone else either fought and died as a unit or surrendered as a unit. Almost no one acted on their own to avoid the fate that was coming to the whole group. When I asked Hijar (one of the American soldiers the author was following) what it would mean to get overrun he said, 'By a brave man's definition it would mean to fight until you died.' That is essentially what the entire German Army tried to do as the Western Front collapsed in the spring of 1945."

(This last portion came from an interview with the author that only appears in the audio book)

Interviewer: "Talk about the connection between courage and love"
Junger: "What I saw out in the Korengal was many acts of bravery all committed in the service of the group or the service of another man. What I realized is that as I became more and more affiliated with this platoon the more I felt like I was more a part of the group. My own fear started to sort of dissolve a bit and I realized that what civilians call courage, in other words, someone risking their life for someone else, the soldiers just consider their sort of minimum duty as soldiers to each other. And that the acts of courage that I saw performed in front of me were actually acts of commitment, ultimately, acts of love towards other men in the unit. And it really came down to the fact that the guys in that unit would rather risk their lives and probably rather get killed than fail their brothers and put others at risk or even get them killed. The shame of causing the death of someone else far eclipsed the fear of death and it really determined everyone's actions in combat."

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