RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There is a place that writer Sebastian Junger calls the Afghanistan of Afghanistan. The Korengal Valley, he writes, is, quote, "too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. For years, the Korengal seemed to swallow the American troops sent there to keep out the Taliban coming over the border from nearby Pakistan. When Junger arrived in 2007 to chronicle a year in the life of one group of soldiers, this valley was considered the most dangerous place in the war. He describes what it was like when the soldiers set out to build an outpost on high ground.
Mr. SEBASTIAN JUNGER (Author, "War"): One night, they walked up there and started digging, and they dug all night. And when dawn came, they got attacked. That went on for 24 hours straight, and they said that the most relaxing part of that whole thing was the fighting, because they got to lie down and drink some water and shoot back. It was way easier than the working was.
And from the ground, with pickaxes and shovels, they clawed this outpost out of the rock. They would be up there for a month at a time. They'd come down to the main base. They'd burn their clothes, because they were so beat up. They'd take their first shower in a month. They'd call their girlfriend, and they'd walk back up there for another month. And that was how they fought for 15 months.
MONTAGNE: In his new book "War," Sebastian Junger follows these soldiers into a world of stone houses clinging to hillsides, invisible enemies, and elders set on protecting their ancient ways in a beautiful and unforgiving terrain.
Mr. JUNGER: These people, I mean, you'd see 70-year-old guys moving uphill at a pace that no soldier could ever keep up with. And the Taliban, the fighters, would move very heavy weapons around the mountains. They always moved faster than the soldiers thought they could move.
MONTAGNE: And those mountains made it very difficult to either protect yourself against the enemy or to find the enemy.
Mr. JUNGER: The Americans were effectively forced to fight on foot, like the Taliban were fighting. They had air power, but it was 45 minutes away, and you could find yourself in a pretty big problem in 45 minutes in the Korengal.
MONTAGNE: Now, there's a section in the book where you describe these guys that you're with. And they're real fighters, but they're not spit-and-polish kind of guys, obviously, certainly not in the Korengal Valley. Why don't you read us a little bit of that?
Mr. JUNGER: They wore their trousers unbloused from their boots and tied amulets around their necks and shuffled around the outpost in flip-flops jury-rigged from the packing foam used in missile crates. Toward the end of their tour, they'd go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips.
When the weather got too hot, they chopped their shirts off below the armpit and then put on body armor so they'd sweat less but still look like they were in uniform. They carried long knives, and for a while one guy went on operations with a small samurai sword in his belt. The rocks ripped their pants to shreds, and they occasionally found themselves more or less exposed on patrol. A few had INFIDEL tattooed in huge letters across their chests. That's what the enemy calls us on their radios, one man explained, so why not? Others had tattoos of angel wings sprouting from bullets or bombs. The men were mostly in their early 20s, and many of them have known nothing but life at home with their parents and war.
MONTAGNE: The young guys, a lot of them, how did they see themselves?
Mr. JUNGER: These guys - it's a volunteer Army, of course. But even within the Army, the combat units are also essentially volunteer units. I mean, if you want to join the Army and change the oil on Humvees, you can arrange for that. These guys - to a man, they wanted to experience combat. And they got a huge helping of it in the Korengal, I have to say.
MONTAGNE: Well, there is a point that you make in writing, war is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. And that's something that I think people outside this situation probably don't want to hear.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes, it's kind of one of the things I tried to get into in this book. Just to give you an example, one of the men, he got out of the platoon, and I became good friends with him. He was at a dinner party with some friends of mine.
MONTAGNE: Now much later.
Mr. JUNGER: Just recently, actually. And a woman said to him: Is there anything about it that you miss? And he looked at her without a trace of irony and said, yes, I miss almost all of it. And what I wanted to do with my book is explain that answer. What is it about war that is so compelling to young men?
MONTAGNE: And you make it quite clear, also, in the book, though, that the exception would be those who don't recover.
Mr. JUNGER: Well, I think one of the unacknowledged things that is really complicated for these guys is that they get home out of this hellhole, and they find that actually home is less comfortable than where they'd come from. And these guys get back to civilian society, and suddenly their relations they have with those around them, those relations are not solid. They're opened to ambiguity and interpretation, and they kind of long for the dangerous security of the bond that happens at a small outpost that's under attack almost every day.
MONTAGNE: You know, there were some moments that were quite - well, they were amusing, in a way. These guys are taking fire every day, and at any moment they can die, but they have these little ways of handling that on a daily basis.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes. There was no Internet up there. For that matter, there was no running water. There was no phones - electricity, for a while. You know, all they had was their humor, and they had combat. And one of the superstitions they had was - they had these little candies called Charms would come in some of the MREs. And you can't eat the Charms, because that will bring on bad luck. That will bring on a firefight. So they burned the Charms. They threw them off the side of the ridge. Well, one guy, you know, two weeks had gone by without a firefight, and one guy secretly started gobbling Charms, trying to bring on a firefight. And he found out that superstition did not, in fact, work because he ate a whole box of Charms and still there was no firefight.
MONTAGNE: But he also never told anyone he did that?
Mr. JUNGER: He never told his friends, because he didn't want to get yelled at.
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MONTAGNE: It's a kind of magical thinking, as you call it.
Mr. JUNGER: It is magical thinking. I mean, we're humans and we're superstitious and we try to bring meaning into the world. There was a guy who found a bullet that had come out of a Taliban machine gun from a Taliban position above the outpost, and it had misfired, had not fired out of the gun. And he picked that up and he put it on a string and he wore it around his neck because he thought that might have been the bullet that killed me, and now it's good luck, and I'm going to wear this for the rest of my deployment.
MONTAGNE: American troops pulled out of Korengal Valley a few weeks ago.
Mr. JUNGER: The pullout was a very painful thing for the guys I was with. I'm in pretty regular touch with them. They feel very, very conflicted about it. That year was a both painful and kind of intoxicating for them. And that place acquired an enormous psychological - emotional significance. I wrote in an essay: Combat doesn't happen because the terrain is important. The terrain becomes important because combat happened there. And I think, ultimately, these guys reconciled themselves to the pullout by thinking, okay, that place where we were for a year, it has its own meaning that endures, no matter what happens on the ground.
MONTAGNE: Sebastian Junger's new book about a year in the life of one Army platoon fighting in a remote valley in Afghanistan is called "War." Thank you for joining us.
Mr. JUNGER: My pleasure.
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MONTAGNE: You can read an excerpt from the book "War" and see the outpost atop the Korengal Valley at npr.org.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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