The Luncheon Society/Sebastian Junger, best selling author of “War” and “The Perfect Storm”/SF-One Market Restaurant/May 24, 2010

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One of the great things about The Luncheon Society ™ is we can take a seminal issue and look at it from a variety of angles and perspectives in a conversational tone. 

This is what The Luncheon Society is all about.  It’s especially the case with the current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Former Secretaries of State George Schulz and Warren Christopher gave their own individual thoughts on the statecraft behind the decisions to invade.  William Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Clinton, worried that the movement of assets from Afghanistan to Iraq would harm the mission against the Taliban in the long-term. Paul Rieckhoff, Craig Mullaney, and Phil Carter wrote at length to give us their viewpoint of the soldier in the field.  Journalists like Ahmed Rashid, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Alter, and The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer chimed in on the political lay of the land as well as the use of torture. Ambassador Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame joined The Luncheon Society on several occasions to discuss being unmasked as a CIA operative as political payback. Janis Karpinski spoke of abu Ghraib and Dan Ellsberg compared the secrets of the battlefield that so often papered over in times of war. More will join us in the future.

Sebastian Junger’s War. With that in mind, we especially pleased to sit with journalist and writer Sebastian Junger, who while not writing for Men’s Journal, The National Geographic or Vanity Fair, pens books and articles about people with dangerous jobs. Most are familiar with his work about the fishermen aboard the Andrea Gail, as well as the Coast Guard’s efforts to save them, which were detailed in his book (which later became the movie) The Perfect Storm . In fact, his description of what takes place when a person drowns is one of the more harrowing reads found in non-fiction.

In his new book titled, “War,” Junger follows a small group of soldiers for a better part of a year into one of the most distant outposts in Afghanistan. Junger steers clear from the political and burrows down into their daily lives.  It’s backbreaking and dangerous stuff; Junger spends a great deal of time discussing the stresses and intense pressures that come with combat.

In 2007 and 2008, Junger asked to be embedded along some of the most dangerous real estate in Afghanistan. In short order found himself airlifted into Korengal Valley in the Kunar Province. It is about six miles in length, roughly the distance between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge.  Coalition forces found themselves in daily firefights with the Taliban as well as some other troublesome intruders and there were roughly 150 American soldiers patrolling this area.

Sebastian Junger is an adventurous sort, the kind of guy who wanted to better understand war reporting so during the 1990’s, so he took his sleeping bag, a rucksack and headed off to Bosnia without much of a plan in mind. He returned a stellar writer who has a penchant for pushing the envelope and sticking his head into harm’s way. Junger is no stranger to Afghanistan either and spent a great deal of time as a war correspondent during the 1990’s. Most of his Afghan adventure with Tim Hetherington has been captured on film, which will be part of a movie that comes out this fall, titled Restrepo  including the survival of an IED attack, where they had to flee their burning Humvee surrounded by a hail of automatic weapons fire.

There are two rules about war: Rule 1 is that good people die.  Rule #2 is you cannot change Rule #1. Many, especially Americans, are quick to point fingers to suggest that these deaths were the result of somebody’s wrongdoing, but only places where missions are carried through with surgical clarity are in Tom Clancy’s novels. However casualty levels can be improved by readiness and familiarity with the adversary.

The Initial Road to Ruin. Afghanistan has been a basket case since 1979, when the Soviets invaded and brutalized the populace. The Mujahidin emerged successful a decade later, thanks to covert help from the United States and the West, who fought on the last proxy battle of The Cold War until the Soviets withdrew in 1989.  However, after the Soviets left, the Americans ignored the storm cloud of anarchy which formed on the horizon.  By 1996 the Taliban emerged victorious in the Afghan Civil War and we all know what took place. The Taliban brutalized the population and were no better than the Soviets.  Women were forced to subhuman status and they drove the already-battered country into greater political and economic chaos.  The Taliban controlled roughly 75% of the country while the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, controlled the northern tip. Political alliances would shift and change on a regular basis and both sides had their regional sponsors.  The civil war would shift back and forth between the major cities and within short order, Afghanistan fit the classic definition of a failed state. 

Worse, because Afghanistan lacked an extradition treaty, they became a natural home for the Osama bin Laden and the main headquarters of al-Qaida. During the 1990’s when Junger visited the Tora Bora area, villagers would point to the hills and say Arabs lived up there and if anybody wandered up the hill, they would be killed.  On September 9, 2001, a suicide bomber disguised as a television reporter killed Massoud as a pretext for the events that would unfold in the United States on September 11th.

Soon the United States, working with the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban out of Kabul and into the countryside.  In December 2001, bin Laden and his ilk were able to escape through the hills of Tora Bora into Pakistan where they reside today in some of the most lawless regions of the globe.

Pakistan’s double deal.  More troubling than any issue of corruption from the Karzai government has been the troubling behavior from Pakistan. Their intelligence service, the ISI, served as an early patron of the Taliban and al-Qaida, and even though top level relationships have broken off, mid to street level relationships still remain.  American soldiers in the Korengal Valley could see munitions coming down off of the Pakistani mountains would not be allowed without some tacit support somewhere in the Pakistani food chain.

The critical difference is training. American and coalition forces have worked hard to steer clear of civilian deaths that would undermine their mission or create horror stories that reverberate back home, as the My Lai Massacre did in Vietnam. Coalition forces outmatch their Taliban foe at most every turn and the Americans have better element of intelligence gathering, either through listening posts or overhead drones that allow them to anticipate the moves of their adversary. However, the bullets still come their way.

Coalition fighters regard a fair fight when the force levels are 10:1 against them. They know that their lightly manned outposts could be overrun at any time and that airpower is still 45 minutes away at Bagram Air Base; they rely upon themselves and their colleagues to do the job.  Their biggest fear was screwing up in front of their peers and this in turn led to incredible amounts of bravery on their parts. It should be pointed out that the average age of those in the Korengal Valley is roughly 20-22, which would have made these soldiers elementary school students at the time of 9.11.

Take some time to listen to Sebastian Junger’s conversation on The Daily Show to get a good idea of what solider life is like out there.  They joined the army because they wanted to be a professional soldier.  They joined this group because they wanted to experience combat. They worry that they will make a mistake that will cost a person’s life, even if they hate the guy. The interview captures the physical and emotional endurance of daily combat. The conversation about “Blood In, Blood Out” concept is simply fascinating.

Here is the parable of readiness. First it is important to understand that the Army only places its best units in the most dangerous locales. There were two groups, one called Battle Company and the other was Chosen Company and they both patrolled areas within the dangerous Korengal Valley.  Both groups were highly skilled, had good leadership, and motivated soldiers, but both groups had very different casualty rates. A note here.  A casualty means injury and not always death.

Battle Company set up shop under withering fire and within short order, they were able to stabilize the situation.  They had some higher casualty figures at the outset of the campaign, but they brought the numbers down, even though firefights continued on a daily basis. Meanwhile two platoons from Chosen Company went out on patrol and within minutes were cut to pieces with casualty rates of nearly 90%.  How could two equally trained groups have completely different casualty rates?

Why? The difference could be found in their interaction with the enemy.  Battle Company dealt with incoming fire daily, from the moment they moved into the Korengal Valley.  Within a short period of time, they understood the nuances of the battlefield in a way that others who merely observed sorely lacked.  They were on their toes the entire time and could anticipate where things were heading.

Chosen Company, on the other hand, was situated further away from the fighting and lacked the added benefit of dealing with live fire on a daily basis.  As a result, when Chosen Company found themselves in a difficult spot, they could not react as instinctively as Battle Company. Even though both groups looked the same on paper, Battle Company had an institutional knowledge of the dangers and the opportunities on the battlefield. That made all of the difference and saved lives.

Are things better now?  There is a knee jerk response on the part of many to lump the American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan into the same stew, which takes simplistic approach to understanding the regional conflicts.  Even with the challenges in the area and a rededication by the Taliban to cause more harm, the consensus position among all groups is yes.

Roughly 90% of the local population wants the Americans to remain, irrespective of the realities of the Karzai regime.  At first they were perplexed how a fighting force of 15,000 could stabilize the area, considering that there are 40,000 uniformed police in New York City.

The current economics of the country remains ruinous and the only instant cash crop is the poppy, which becomes the active ingredient in both Opium and Heroin. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a thriving wine industry, but building out a vineyard takes five years until grapes can be harvest.  Poppies can be planted now and will harvest within season.  The bad news is that most of these farmers are essentially indentured sharecroppers for the larger drug dealers. They are just as addicted to growing the plants as the people are to abusing the product on the streets of Europe and the Americas.

Some Americans like Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter and daughter of a Kennedy Administration official, created cooperative called Arghand, which gives local villagers a chance to build better lives. “Its purpose,” its website says, “is to contribute to the economic development of southern Afghanistan by producing high quality, all natural skin care products from the legendary fruits of the Kandahar region – thus also competing with the opium industry by expanding the market for licit crops.” However as of 2010, Chayes has temporarily left the region for safety reasons.

The retribution of the Taliban gives the local population pause.  Junger recounts a story where an local elder and his 14 years old grandson were brutally killed just outside of the coalition’s firebase because their worked with the Americans. Soldiers could hear their screams as their throats were slit.

Where do we go from here?  The consensus belief is that If the Americans leave, the Taliban will retake Afghanistan in brutal fashion.  The lawlessness will return, along with a non-extradition policy, and this will make Afghanistan the natural base for the next generation of al-Qaeda.  The questions many coalition forces on the ground will ask is where is Saudi Arabia and Jordan in all of this?  Perhaps an Arab face on the ground might serve to sap the strength of the Taliban and their allies. Jordanian troops have distinguished themselves in UN peacekeeping efforts throughout the world and they would do the same here.

In the end, these are hellish deployments for those on the ground.  The soldiers are young and engaged.  They wear the same clothes for months and burn them when they visit Kandahar to pick up another set.  They know that they have public support. It is an intense environment and the reenlistment rate is high.  Why?  Sebastian Junger notes that fighting for their brothers gives these young men a sense of meaning.  However, when these people return home, they find it hard to turn off their highly attuned antennae and problems emerge.  Those who enter with emotional issues lurking below the surface often return home with full-blown PTSD and have acute issues with retuning to civilian life. The question we need to ask is this:  When they return home, will we have the programs to thank them for a job well-done? That is something to ponder for this Memorial Day, as we celebrate over a barbeque

The Luncheon Society is a laid back place to kick around some big ideas in the private room of a great restaurant.  In a world where talking points are spun to irrelevance, we are a place that promotes spirited conversation.  Luncheon Society gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest with other interesting folks, and leave the room learning something you didn’t know when you entered.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the lunches happen when they happen.  Come to the ones that work with your schedule and pique your interest.  It’s that simple. Luncheons take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

2 responses to “The Luncheon Society/Sebastian Junger, best selling author of “War” and “The Perfect Storm”/SF-One Market Restaurant/May 24, 2010

  1. Pingback: The Luncheon Society/First Half 2010 recap/What’s coming up in the Second Half « The Luncheon Society

  2. Pingback: The Luncheon Society/True Prep author Lisa Birnbach/September 22, 2010/San Francisco-Fior D’Italia | The Luncheon Society

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