By Sebastian Junger
Hardcover, 304 pages
List price: $26.99
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: The following excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
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
NEW YORK CITY
Six Months Later
O'Byrne is standing at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 36th Street with a to-go cup in each hand and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. It's six in the morning and very cold. He's put on twenty pounds since I last saw him and could be a laborer waiting for the gate to open at the construction site across the street. Now that he's out of the Army I'm supposed to call him Brendan, but I'm finding that almost impossible to do. We shake hands and he gives me one of the coffees and we go to get my car. The gash across his forehead is mostly healed, though I can still see where the stitches were. One of his front teeth is chipped and looks like a fang. He had a rough time when he got back to Italy; in some ways he was in more danger there than in combat.
O'Byrne had been with Battle Company in the Korengal Valley, a small but extraordinarily violent slit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He was just one soldier out of thirty but seemed to have a knack for putting words to the things that no one else really wanted to talk about. I came to think of O'Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon, a way to understand a group of men who I don't think entirely understood themselves. One valley to the north, two platoons from Chosen Company accumulated a casualty rate of around 80 percent during their deployment. Battle Company wasn't hit that hard, but they were hit hard enough. This morning I'm going to interview Justin Kalenits, one of the wounded from Chosen, and O'Byrne has asked if he could join me. It's a cold, sunny day with little traffic and a north wind that rocks the car along the open stretches and on the bridges. We barrel southward through the industrial dross of New Jersey and Pennsylvania talking about the deployment and the platoon and how strange it is -- in some ways for both of us -- to find ourselves in the United States for good. I spent the year visiting O'Byrne's platoon in the Korengal, but now that's over and neither of us will ever see it again. We're both dreaming about it at night, though, weird, illogical combat sequences that don't always end badly but are soaked in dread.
Kalenits was shot in the pelvis during what has come to be known as the Bella Ambush. Bella was one of the firebases operated by Chosen Company in the Waygal Valley. In early November, fourteen Chosen soldiers, twelve Afghan soldiers, a Marine, and an Afghan interpreter walked to the nearby village of Aranas, met with elders, and then started to walk back. It was a setup. The enemy had built sandbagged positions in a 360-degree circle around a portion of the trail where there was no cover and the only escape was to jump off a cliff. By some miracle, Chosen held them off. Six Americans and eight Afghans were killed and everyone else was wounded. An American patrol hasn't taken 100 percent casualties in a fire-fight since Vietnam.
We turn into Walter Reed Army Medical Center and park in front of Abrams Hall, where Kalenits lives. We find him in his room smoking and watching television in the dark. His blinds are down and cigarette smoke swirls in the slats of light that come through. I ask Kalenits when was the first moment he realized he was in an ambush, and he says it was when the helmet was shot off his head. Almost immediately he was hit three times in the chest, twice in the back, and then watched his best friend take a round through the forehead that emptied out the back of his head. Kalenits says that when he saw that he just "went into awe."
There were so many muzzle flashes around them that the hills looked like they were strung with Christmas lights. The rounds that hit Kalenits were stopped by ballistic plates in his vest, but one finally hit him in the left buttock. It shattered his pelvis and tore up his intestines and exited through his thigh. Kalenits was sure it had severed an artery, and he gave himself three minutes to live. He spotted an enemy machine-gun team moving into position on a nearby hill and shot at them. He saw the men fall. He went through all of his ammunition except for one magazine that he saved for when the enemy came through on foot to finish everyone off.
Kalenits started to fade out from lack of blood and he handed his weapon to another man and sat down. He watched a friend named Albert get shot in the knee, and start sliding down the cliff. Kalenits's team leader grabbed him and tried to pull him back, but they were taking so much fire that it was going to get them both killed. Albert yelled to his team leader to let go and he did, and Albert slid partway down the cliff, losing his weapon and helmet on the way. He finally came to a stop and then got shot three more times where he lay.
Rocket-propelled grenades were exploding all around them and throwing up so much dust that the weapons were jamming. Men were spitting into the breeches of their guns, trying to clear them. For the next hour Kalenits faded in and out of consciousness and the firefight continued as one endless, deafening blur. It finally got dark and the MEDEVAC bird arrived and started hoisting up the wounded and the dead. There was a dead man in a tree below the trail and dead men at the bottom of the cliff. One body fell out of the Skedco harness as it was being hoisted into the helicopter, and a quick-reaction force that had flown in from Battle Company had to search for him most of the night.
The last thing Kalenits remembered was getting stuck with needles by doctors at the base in Asadabad; the next thing he knew, he was in Germany. His mother had come home to a message telling her to get in contact with the military immediately, and when she did she was told that she'd better fly to Germany as fast as possible if she wanted to see her son alive. He was still alive when she arrived, and he eventually recovered enough to return to the United States.
O'Byrne has been quiet most of the interview. "Did anyone bring up the issue of walking at night?" he finally says. "On the way out, did anyone bring that up?"
I know why he's asking: Second Platoon left a hilltop position during the daytime once and got badly ambushed outside a town called Aliabad. A rifleman named Steiner took a round in the helmet, though he survived.
"No -- the lieutenant said, 'We're leaving now,'?" Kalenits answers. "What are you going to say to him?"
"Fuck off?" O'Byrne offers.
Kalenits smiles, but it's not a thought anyone wants to pursue.
KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN
O'Byrne and the men of Battle Company arrived in the last week in May when the rivers were running full and the upper peaks still held their snow. Chinooks escorted by Apache helicopters rounded a massive dark mountain called the Abas Ghar and pounded into the valley and put down amid clouds of dust at the tiny landing zone. The men grabbed their gear, filed off the birds, and got mortared almost immediately. The enemy knew a new unit was coming into the valley and it was their way of saying hello; fourteen months later they'd say goodbye that way as well. The men took cover in the mechanics' bay and then shouldered their gear and climbed the hill up to their tents at the top of the base. The climb was only a hundred yards but it smoked almost everyone. Around them, the mountains flew up in every direction. The men knew that before the year was out they would probably have to walk on everything they could see.
The base was called the Korengal Outpost -- the KOP -- and was considered one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan. It was a cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire. There was a plywood headquarters building and a few brick-and-mortars for the men to sleep in and small sandbag bunkers for mortar attacks. The men ate one hot meal a day under a green Army tent and showered once a week in water that had been pumped out of a local creek. Here and there PVC pipe was stuck into the ground at an angle for the men to urinate into. Since there were no women there was no need for privacy. Past the medical tent and the water tank were four open brick stalls that faced the spectacular mountains to the north. Those were known as the burn-shitters, and beneath each one was a metal drum that Afghan workers pulled out once a day so they could burn the contents with diesel fuel. Upslope from there was an Afghan National Army bunker and then a trail that climbed up to Outpost 1, a thousand feet above the KOP. The climb was so steep that the previous unit had installed fixed ropes on the bad parts. The Americans could make the climb in forty-five minutes, combat-light, and the Afghans could make it in half that.
Several days after they arrived, O'Byrne's platoon went on patrol with men from the 10th Mountain Division, whom they were replacing in the valley. Tenth Mountain had begun their rotation back to the United States several months earlier, but Army commanders had changed their minds and decided to extend their tour. Men who had arrived home after a year of combat were put on planes and flown back into the war. Morale plunged, and Battle Company arrived to stories of their predecessors jumping off rocks to break their legs or simply refusing to leave the wire. The stories weren't entirely true, but the Korengal Valley was starting to acquire a reputation as a place that could alter your mind in terrible and irreversible ways.
However messed up 10th Mountain might have been, they'd been climbing around the valley for over a year and were definitely in shape. On the first joint patrol they led Second Platoon down toward the Korengal River and then back up to a granite formation called Table Rock. Tenth Mountain was intentionally trying to break them off -- make the new men collapse from exhaustion -- and halfway up Table Rock it started to work. A 240 gunner named Vandenberge started falling out and O'Byrne, who was on the same gun team, traded weapons with him and hung the 240 across his shoulders. The 240 is a belt-fed machine gun that weighs almost thirty pounds; you might as well be carrying a jackhammer up a mountain. O'Byrne and the rest of the men had another fifty pounds of gear and ammunition on their backs and twenty pounds of body armor. Almost no one in the platoon was carrying less than eighty pounds.
The men struggled upward in full view of the Taliban positions across the valley and finally began taking fire halfway up the spur. O'Byrne had never been under fire before, and the first thing he did was stand up to look around. Someone yelled to take cover. There was only one rock to hide behind, and Vandenberge was using it, so O'Byrne got behind him. 'Fuck, I can't believe they just shot at me!' he yelled.
Vandenberge was a huge blond man who spoke slowly and was very, very smart. 'Well,' he said, 'I don't know if they were shooting at you ... '
'Okay,' O'Byrne said, 'shooting at us ... '
Inexperienced soldiers are known as "cherries," and standing up in a firefight is about as cherry as it gets. So is this: the first night at the KOP, O'Byrne heard a strange yammering in the forest and assumed the base was about to get attacked. He grabbed his gun and waited. Nothing happened. Later he found out it was just monkeys that came down to the wire to shriek at the Americans. It was as if every living thing in the valley, even the wildlife, wanted them gone.
O'Byrne grew up in rural Pennsylvania on a property that had a stream running through it and hundreds of acres of woods out back where he and his friends could play war. Once they dug a bunker, another time they rigged a zip line up between trees. Most of those friends wound up joining the Army. When O'Byrne turned fourteen he and his father started fighting a lot, and O'Byrne immediately got into trouble at school. His grades plummeted and he began drinking and smoking pot and getting arrested. His father was a plumber who always kept the family well provided for, but there was tremendous turmoil at home -- a lot of drinking, a lot of physical combat -- and one night things got out of hand and O'Byrne's father shot him twice with a .22 rifle. From his hospital bed, O'Byrne told the police that his father had shot him in self-defense; that way he went to reform school for assault rather than his father going to prison for attempted murder. O'Byrne was sixteen.
A shop teacher named George started counseling him, and O'Byrne spent hours at George's wood shop carving things out of wood and talking. George got him turned around. O'Byrne started playing soccer. He got interested in Buddhism. He started getting good grades. After eight months he moved in with his grandparents and went back to high school. "I changed my whole entire life," O'Byrne told me. "I apologized to all the teachers I ever dissed. I apologized to kids I used to beat up. I apologized to everyone and I made a fucking vow that I was never going to be like that again. People didn't even recognize me when I got home."
One afternoon, O'Byrne saw a National Guard recruiter at his high school and signed up. The unit was about to deploy to Iraq and O'Byrne realized he would be spending a year with a bunch of middle-aged men, so he managed to transfer into the regular Army. The Army wanted to make him a 67 Hotel -- a tank mechanic -- but he protested and wound up being classified as 11 Charlie. That's mortars. He didn't want to be a mortarman, though -- he wanted to be 11 Bravo. He wanted to be an infantryman. His drill sergeant finally relented after O'Byrne got into a barracks fight with someone the sergeant didn't like and broke the man's jaw. The sergeant was Latino and spoke English with such a strong accent that often his men had no idea what he was saying. One afternoon when they were filling out information packets, the sergeant started giving instructions that no one could understand.
"He'd be like, 'Take your motherfucker packet and put it in your motherfucker packet,'?" O'Byrne said. "And we're all like, 'What the fuck is he talking about? What's a "motherfucker packet"? And then he starts pointing to things he's talking about: 'Take your motherfucker packet' -- which is a packet -- 'and put it in your motherfucker packet!' -- and he points to his pocket. Oh, okay! You put your packet in your pocket!"
O'Byrne wanted to go to Special Forces, and that meant passing a series of lower-level schools and selection courses. Airborne School was a joke; he passed SOPC 1 (Special Operations Preparation Course) with flying colors; got himself selected for Special Forces; tore through SOPC 2; and then was told he couldn't advance any further without combat experience. 'You can't replace combat with training,' a black E7 at Fort Bragg told him. 'You can't do it. You can't replace that fucking experience. Get deployed, and if you want to come back, come back after that.'
O'Byrne thought that made sense and joined the 173rd Airborne, based in Vicenza, Italy. He'd never been out of the country before. He wound up in Second Platoon, Battle Company, which was already thought of as one of the top units in the brigade. Battle Company had fought well in Iraq and had seen a lot of combat in Afghanistan on its previous deployment. There were four platoons in the company, and of them all, Second Platoon was considered the best-trained and in some ways the worst-disciplined. The platoon had a reputation for producing terrible garrison soldiers -- men who drink and fight and get arrested for disorderly conduct and mayhem -- but who are extraordinarily good at war. Soldiers make a distinction between the petty tyrannies of garrison life and the very real ordeals of combat, and poor garrison soldiers like to think it's impossible to be good at both.
"I used to score three hundreds on my PT tests shit-canned ... just drunk as fuck," O'Byrne told me. "That's how you got sober for the rest of the day. I never got in trouble, but Bobby beat up a few MPs, threatened them with a fire extinguisher, pissed on their boots. But what do you expect from the infantry, you know? I know that all the guys that were bad in garrison were perfect fucking soldiers in combat. They're troublemakers and they like to fight. That's a bad garrison trait but a good combat trait -- right? I know I'm a shitty garrison soldier, but what the fuck does it matter? Okay, I got to shine my fucking boots. Why do I care about shining my goddamn boots?"
The weekend before they deployed to Afghanistan, O'Byrne and three other soldiers took the train to Rome for a last blowout. They drank so much that they completely cleaned out the cafe car. Traveling with O'Byrne were two other privates, Steve Kim and Misha Pemble-Belkin, and a combat medic named Juan Restrepo. Restrepo was born in Colombia but lived in Florida and had two daughters with a woman back home. He spoke with a slight lisp and brushed his teeth compulsively and played classical and flamenco guitar at the barbecues the men threw on base. Once in garrison he showed up at morning PT drunk from the night before, but he was still able to run the two-mile course in twelve and a half minutes and do a hundred sit-ups. If there was a guaranteed way to impress Second Platoon, that was it.
On the train Restrepo pulled out a little one-chip camera and started shooting video of the trip. The men were so drunk they could barely speak. Kim was propped against the window. Pemble tried to say something about putting a saddle on a miniature zebra and riding it around. O'Byrne said his job in Rome was to just keep Restrepo out of trouble. "Not possible, bro," Restrepo said. "You can't tame the beast."
On the far side of the window the gorgeous Italian countryside slid past. "We're lovin' life and getting ready to go to war," Restrepo said, his arm around O'Byrne's neck. His face was so close to the camera there was almost a fish-eye effect. "We're goin' to war. We're ready. We're goin' to war ... we're goin' to war."
The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn't dare go in there at all. When 10th Mountain rolled into the valley in 2006, they may well have been the first military force ever to reach its southern end. They were only down there a day, but that push gave 10th Mountain some breathing room to finish building the KOP at the site of an old lumberyard three miles in. The lumberyard was not operational because the Afghan government had imposed a ban on timber exports, in large part because the timber sales were helping fund the insurgency. Out-of-work timber cutters traded their chainsaws for weapons and shot at the Americans from inside bunkers made out of the huge cedar logs they could no longer sell.
They were helped by Arab and Pakistani fighters from across the border in Bajaur Province and local militias run by a veteran of the Soviet jihad named Gulbuddin Hekma-tyar. Video made by insurgents during one attack shows tiny figures -- American soldiers -- sprinting for cover and trying to shoot back from behind ragged sandbag walls. The KOP is surrounded by high ground, and to mount an attack local fighters only had to scramble up the back sides of the ridges and pour machine-gun fire down into the compound. This is called "plunging fire," and it is hard to suppress or take cover from. The only way to fix the problem was to take over the high ground with small outposts, but those positions then also became vulnerable to attack. The battle plan for the valley became a game of tactical leapfrog that put the Americans into the village of Babiyal by the spring of 2007.
Babiyal was about half a mile south of the KOP and had ties to the insurgents, though it was not overtly hostile. American soldiers with 10th Mountain rented a residential compound from a local schoolteacher and fortified it with enormous cedar logs that locals had cut on the upper slopes of the valley. The position was named Phoenix, after the city in Arizona, and had its counterpart in Firebase Vegas across the valley. Unfortunately, all you had to do to figure out the tactical problems at Phoenix was to tilt your head upward at Table Rock. Insurgents could pound Phoenix from there and then just run down the back side of the ridge when the Americans started hitting back. One American was killed by an 88 mm recoil-less round that shrieked through the narrow opening of his bunker and detonated; another was killed while running to one of the machine-gun positions during an attack. A soldier at the KOP was shot while standing at one of the piss tubes. An American contract worker was shot and wounded while taking a nap on his cot. Another soldier stumbled and drowned while wading across the Korengal River in his body armor.
At a brief ceremony at the KOP on June 5, Captain Jim McKnight of 10th Mountain took down his unit's guidon, climbed into the back of a Chinook, and flew out of the valley forever. Battle Company's guidon was immediately raised in its place. In attendance was a dark, handsome man of Samoan ancestry named Isaia Vimoto; he was the command sergeant major of the 173rd and the highest enlisted man in the brigade. Vimoto's nineteen-year-old son, Timothy, was a private first class in Second Platoon, and after the ceremony Vimoto asked Battle Company's First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell where his son was. Caldwell walked Vimoto over to the wire and pointed down-valley.
'He's down there at Phoenix,' he told him.
Vimoto had requested that his son serve in Battle Company because he and Caldwell were best friends. 'You tell him I said hello,' he told Caldwell before he left the KOP. 'Tell him I came out here.'
There had been some contact earlier in the day, and Second Platoon spotted what they thought was an enemy position on top of Hill 1705. A twenty-five-man element, including two Afghan soldiers and an interpreter, left the wire at Phoenix in early evening and started walking south. They walked in plain view on the road and left during daylight hours, which were two things they'd never do again -- at least not at the same time. They passed the villages of Aliabad and Loy Kalay and then crossed a bridge over a western tributary of the Korengal. They started up through the steep holly forests of 1705, crested the top, and then started down the other side.
The enemy was waiting for them. They opened fire from three hundred yards away with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. A private named Tad Donoho dropped prone and was low-crawling to cover when he saw a line of bullets stitching toward him in the dirt. He rolled to one side and wound up near PFC Vimoto. Both men began returning fire, bullets kicking up dirt all around them, and at one point Donoho saw Vimoto open his mouth as if he were about to yell something. No sound came out, though; instead, his head jerked back and then tipped forward. He didn't move again.
Donoho started shouting for the platoon medic, but there was so much gunfire that no one could hear him. It didn't matter anyway; the bullet had gone through Vimoto's head and killed him instantly. One moment he was in the first firefight of his life, the next moment he was dead. Donoho shot through all twelve magazines he carried and then pulled more out of his dead friend's ammo rack. There was so much gunfire that the only way the men could move without getting hit was to low-crawl. They were on a steep ridge at night getting raked by machine-gun fire, and everyone knew the MEDEVAC helicopters would never dare attempt a landing in those conditions; they were going to have to get Vimoto and another man named Pecsek down to the road to get picked up. Pecsek had been shot through the shoulder but seemed able to walk. A staff sergeant named Kevin Rice hoisted Vimoto onto his back, and the men started down the steep, rocky slopes of 1705 in the darkness and the rain.
Captain Dan Kearney, the commander of Battle Company, drove down to Aliabad in a Humvee to help evacuate the casualties and remembers turning a corner in the road and hitting a wall of Taliban fire-power. "I was blown away by the insurgents' ability to continue fighting despite everything America had to throw at them," Kearney told me later. "From that point on I knew it was -- number one -- a different enemy than I fought in Iraq and that -- number two -- the terrain offered some kind of advantage that I'd never seen or read or heard about in my entire life."
When Battle Company first arrived in the Korengal, O'Byrne was a gunner in Second Platoon's Weapons Squad. A squad is generally eight men plus a squad leader, and those eight men are divided into two fire teams designated "alpha" and "bravo." In a Weapons Squad, each team would be responsible for an M240 heavy machine gun. O'Byrne spent two months in Weapons Squad and then switched to First Squad under Staff Sergeant Josh McDonough. The men called him "Sar'n Mac," and under his tutelage First Squad became one of the hardest-hitting in the company, possibly the entire battalion. When his men didn't perform well, Mac would tilt his head forward and bore through them with an unblinking stare that could go on for minutes; while he was doing that he was also yelling. "Mac was just a fucking mule," O'Byrne said. "He was just so goddamn strong. His legs were the size of my head. His guys were his only concern. If one of us team leaders wasn't doing our job he got furious -- because he cared. He just had a very rough way of showing it."
First Squad was line infantry, which meant they fought on foot and carried everything they needed on their backs. Theoretically, they could walk for days without resupply. O'Byrne was in charge of First Squad's alpha team, which included a former high school wrestler from Wisconsin named Steiner, an eighteen-year-old from Georgia named Vaughn, and a wiry, furtive oddball named Monroe. Each man carried three or four hand grenades. Two out of the four carried standard M4 assault rifles and a chest rack of thirty-round magazines. Another man carried an M4 that also fired big fat rounds called 203s. The 203 rounds explode on impact and are used to lob onto enemy fighters who are behind cover and otherwise couldn't be hit. The fourth man carried something called a Squad Automatic Weapon -- usually referred to as a SAW. The SAW has an extremely high rate of fire and basically vomits rounds if you so much as touch the trigger. If you "go cyclic" -- fire without stopping -- you will go through 900 rounds in a minute. (You'll also melt the barrel.) O'Byrne's fire team probably had enough training and ammo to hold off an enemy force three or four times their size.
Every platoon also has a headquarters element composed of a medic, a forward observer, a radio operator, a platoon sergeant, and a lieutenant who had graduated from officer candidate school. Second Platoon went through two lieutenants during the first half of their deployment and then wound up with Steve Gillespie, a tall, lean marathon runner who reminded his men of a movie character named Napoleon Dynamite. They called him Napoleon behind his back and occasionally to his face but did it with affection and respect: Gillespie was such a dedicated commander that his radioman had to keep pulling him down behind cover during firefights.
Lieutenants have a lot of theoretical knowledge but not much experience, so they are paired with a platoon sergeant who has probably been in the Army for years. Second Platoon's sergeant was a career soldier named Mark Patterson who, at age thirty, had twelve years on the youngest man in the unit. The men called him Pops. Patterson was both the platoon enforcer and the platoon representative, and his role allowed him to keep an eye not only on the grunts but on the lieutenants as well. His face got bright red when he was angry or when he was working very hard, and he could outwalk just about everyone in the platoon. I never saw him look even nervous during a fight, much less scared. He commanded his men like he was directing traffic.
The men of Second Platoon were from mainland America and from wherever the American experiment has touched the rest of the world: the Philippines and Guam and Mexico and Puerto Rico and South Korea. A gunner in Weapons Squad named Jones claims he made thousands of dollars selling drugs before joining the Army to avoid getting killed on the streets of Reno. O'Byrne's soldier Vaughn was eleven years old when 9/11 happened and decided right then and there to join the U.S. Army. As soon as he could, he did. Danforth was forty-two years old and had joined the year before because he was bored; the others called him Old Man and asked a lot of joking questions about Vietnam. A private named Lizama claimed his mother was a member of the Guamese Congress. There was a private named Moreno from Beeville, Texas, who worked in the state penitentiary and had been a promising boxer before joining up. There was a sergeant whose father was currently serving in Iraq and had nearly been killed by a roadside bomb.
The Army has a lot of regulations about how soldiers are required to dress, but the farther you get from the generals the less those rules are followed, and Second Platoon was about as far from the generals as you could get. As the deployment wore on and they got pushed farther into enemy territory it was sometimes hard to tell you were even looking at American soldiers. 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 twenties, and many of them have known nothing but life at home with their parents and war.
The men who were killed or wounded were replaced with cherries, and if the older men got bored enough they sometimes made the cherries fight each other. They'd been trained in hand-to-hand combat, so they all knew how to choke someone out; if you do it right, with the forearm against the carotid artery, the person loses consciousness in seconds. (They die in a couple of minutes if you don't release the pressure.) Choking guys out was considered fine sport, so soldiers tended to keep their backs to something so no one could sneak up from behind. Jumping someone was risky because everyone was bound by affiliations that broke down by platoon, by squad, and finally by team. If a man in your squad got jumped by more than one guy you were honor-bound to help out, which meant that within seconds you could have ten or fifteen guys in a pile on the ground.
O'Byrne's 203 gunner, Steiner, once got stabbed trying to help deliver a group beating to Sergeant Mac, his squad leader, who had backed into a corner with a combat knife. In Second Platoon you got beat on your birthday, you got beat before you left the platoon -- on leave, say -- and you got beat when you came back. The only way to leave Second Platoon without a beating was to get shot. No other platoons did this; the men called it "blood in, blood out," after a movie one of them had seen, and officers were not exempted. I watched Gillespie get held down and beaten, and Pops got pounded so hard his legs were bruised for days. The violence took many forms and could break out at almost any time. After one particularly quiet week -- no firefights, in other words -- the tension got so unbearable that First Squad finally went after Weapons Squad with rocks. A rock fight ensued that got so heavy, I took cover behind some trees.
Men wound up bleeding and heated after these contests but never angry; the fights were a product of boredom, not conflict, so they always stayed just this side of real violence. Officers were left out of the full-on rumbles, and there were even a couple of enlisted guys who had just the right mix of cool and remove to stay clear of the violence. Sergeant Buno was one of those: he ran Third Squad and had Aztec-looking tattoos on his arms and a tattooed scorpion crawling up out the front of his pants. Buno almost never spoke but had a handsome, impassive face that you could read anything you wanted into. The men suspected he was Filipino but he never admitted to anything; he just wandered around listening to his iPod and saying strange, enigmatic things. The men nicknamed him Queequeg. He moved with the careful precision of a dancer or a martial artist, and that was true whether he was in a firefight or brushing his teeth. Once someone asked him where he'd been the previous night.
"Down in Babiyal," he answered, "killing werewolves."
From War by Sebastian Junger. Copyright 2010 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.