Monday, May 17, 2010

Dodging the Bullets with Sebastian Junger

In the early pages of War, Sebastian Junger clinically details the chances of dodging a bullet during a firefight. As he did in The Perfect Storm when describing what it's like to drown (The heart labors under critically low levels of oxygen and starts to beat erratically--"like a bag full of worms," as one doctor says), Junger dissects the vital organs of combat, lacing combat boots on the reader for a visceral you-are-there reading experience.  Granted, I haven't finished the book, but at the midway point, I'm not afraid to go out on a limb and say this is the standard by which combat narratives should be judged.

Back to the bullets.  Junger's book follows a unit of soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade through a hard-fought year of war in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.  Junger himself is there alongside them for most of that time, so he knows exactly how the sound of a bullet can be transcribed ("the terrible snap and buzz") and what it's like to treat a wounded soldier who's bleeding out ("when he cuts the sleeve off Vandenberge's uniform another two or three cups of blood spill out").  Just as gripping as the accounts of Battle Company's firefights are the interludes where Junger pauses the narrative to take a wider view.  Now, the bullets:
The enemy fighters were three or four hundred yards away, and the bullets they were shooting covered that distance in about half a second--roughly two thousand miles an hour.  Sound doesn't travel nearly that fast, though, so the gunshots themselves arrived a full second after they were fired.  Because light is virtually instantaneous, illuminated rounds--tracers--can be easily perceived as they drill toward you across the valley.  A 240 gunner named Underwood told me that during the ambush he saw tracers coming at him from Hill 1705 but they were moving too fast to dodge.  By the time he was setting his body into motion they were hitting the cedar log he was hiding behind.  The brain requires around two-tenths of a second just to understand simple visual stimuli, and another two-tenths of a second to command muscles to react.  That's almost exactly the amount of time it takes a high-velocity round to go from 1705 to Aliabad.

Reaction times have been studied extensively in controlled settings and have shown that men have faster reaction times than women and athletes have faster reaction times than nonathletes.  Tests with soccer players have shown that the "point of no return" for a penalty kick--when the kicker can no longer change his mind about where to send the ball--is around a quarter of a second.  In other words, if the goalkeeper waits until the kicker's foot is less than a quarter second from the ball and then dives in one direction, the kicker doesn't have enough time to adjust his kick.  Given that quarter-second cutoff, the distance at which you might literally be able to "dodge a bullet" is around 800 yards.  You'd need a quarter second to register the tracer coming toward you--at this point the bullet has traveled 200 yards--a quarter second to instruct your muscles to react--the bullet has now traveled 400 yards--and half a second to actually move out of the way.  The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap.  That's the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head.

We all flippantly toss around the phrase "dodging a bullet."  Your cousin who ate the egg salad left too long in the sun at the family reunion: "Marybeth didn't have to go to the hospital or nothin'--just a bad case of stomach cramps.  She sure dodged that bullet!"  Or a certain unnamed Homecoming Queen I stalked in high school: fearful I was going to ask her to the junior prom, she really dodged a bullet when football captain Scott Turnbull sealed the deal before I could work up the nerve to stammer out the words "What are you doing Saturday night?"

I never dodged any bullets during my ten months in Iraq.  As a certified, Grade-A Fobbit, I was safely entrenched behind the concertina wire, the manned checkpoints, the Hesco barriers, and the air-conditioned buffer zone of the headquarters building.  I never patrolled a street, never had the misfortune to be on the wrong end of a sniper's bullet, never heard the snap-buzz cracking over my head (the flickering fluorescent lights don't count).

Oh, we talked about dodging bullets all the time, there in the task-force headquarters.  "Wow, did you see the commanding general this morning?  Somebody must've pissed in his Corn Flakes!  Glad it wasn't me.  Dodged that bullet this time, huh?" or "Hajji was a little off on his aim this morning and the mortar landed in an empty field just outside Camp Liberty.  Score another one for the Bullet-Dodger's Club!"

But I'm sobered reading Junger's book.  There were--and are--soldiers weaving and ducking enemy rounds out there on the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.  While I sat in my air-cooled cubicle, surfing the Internet and trying to decide if, after I got off shift, I should take a shower first and then watch a movie, or watch the movie first and then take a shower, somebody somewhere was turning into a bullet sponge.

Books like Junger's make me think--not for the first time--about the dichotomy of my Army career.  I was a warrior in name and uniform, but one far, far removed from the buzz of bullets.  I hope to capture some of this disconnect in Fobbit, but it won't change the fact that I was a sergeant who watched the war from his computer screen.

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A couple of other notes about Junger while we're on the subject:

1.  Galley Cat talks to him about writing and marketing the book:  "I think there was skepticism in the publishing industry about another war book."  (Uh-oh.)

2.  At Powell's Books's blog, Junger writes about the post-war war with PTSD and re-assimilation into society.  I also liked this:  One of the soldiers in the platoon said to me, "You've explained us to ourselves."  That was about the best review I could imagine getting.

3.  Graeme Wood has a nicely-balanced review over at The Barnes and Noble Review:  The book is less about fighting with the brain than about fighting with the muscles and glands, and taxing them beyond what they can normally sustain. The soldiers with whom Junger embeds do not care about politics.

4.  After reading even halfway through the book, this video is about the most disheartening thing I've seen on YouTube in a long time:

Anyway, I urge you all to buy War (insert bad G. W. Bush joke here).  Read it and weep.

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