"To honor a fallen peer and adjust to life outside the war zones, four men linked by combat journey by foot from Washington, D.C., to Pennsylvania." That is how HBO describes Sebastian Junger's new documentary, The Last Patrol, which HBO is airing Monday night.
Last month I saw the film—and listened to Junger discuss it--at a screening in New York City. Certain scenes moved me, especially those showing Junger and his buddies encountering desperately poor but still proud Americans. But Junger's mawkishly romantic views of war ruined the film for me.
Junger, who attained fame and fortune in the late 1990s with his book The Perfect Storm, is an accomplished war correspondent, who has reported from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Bosnia.
In 2007 and 2008, he was embedded in an Army outpost in Afghanistan. He reported on that experience in a 2010 book, War, and film, Restrepo, that was nominated for an Academy Award.
In The Last Patrol, Junger and three friends— a war photojournalist and two soldiers whom Junger met in Afghanistan—tramp along train tracks, sleeping outdoors and talking about war, America and manhood.
Junger quit war reporting after his friend Tim Hetherington—the "fallen peer" referred to above--was killed in 2011 while covering Libya. But at the very beginning of Last Patrol, asked if he misses combat, Junger replies, Yes.
He started traveling to war zones because he hoped war would make him a man, and his hope was fulfilled. "I became the man I wanted to be," he says. War not only tests men's fortitude in the face of death; it also binds men together with an intimacy that civilian relationships—even marriage—cannot match.
Many veterans have a hard time reintegrating into society not because war is so traumatizing, Junger says, but because it is so "exciting." In support of this thesis, he quotes George Washington saying, after first hearing bullets whistling past him in battle, that "there is something charming in the sound."
Junger espouses what I call the deep-roots theory of war, which holds that natural selection embedded the urge to wage war in the genes of males. "The politically incorrect truth," he once said, "is that war is extremely ingrained in us—in our evolution as humans—and we’re hardwired for it." He expands on this notion in War, citing deep-roots proponents such as chimp researcher Richard Wrangham.
Ironically, I saw Last Patrol at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in October. Mead, the great anthropologist, rejected the deep-roots theory--and with good reason, because the evidence for the theory is flimsy. [See Further Reading below for my critique of the deep-roots theory and related posts.]
Junger apparently thinks that, when he expresses his "politically incorrect" views, he is being courageous. But to me, he seems not courageous but callow. He's projecting his own infatuation with war onto others.
At the screening of his film, Junger said that he tries not to be "political," but of course the ideas he propagates have political consequences. The hypothesis that war is deeply rooted in our nature has been cited by war leaders—including Donald Rumsfeld and Barack Obama—to justify U.S. militarism. The claim that war is "exciting"—and makes men manly—has inspired millions of men throughout history to march off to slaughter.
Here's a suggestion: Instead of watching The Last Patrol, check out the World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front, or the Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, or the World War II memoir With the Old Breed. All of these works brutally dispel the kinds of romantic illusions about war indulged in by Junger.
"Sebastian Junger's documentary 'Restrepo' deserves an Oscar but his theory of war is wrong." https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/02/07/sebastian-jungers-documentary-film-restrepo-deserves-an-oscar-but-his-theory-of-war-is-wrong/
"New Report on Chimp Violence Fails to Support Deep-Roots Theory of War." https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/09/17/new-report-on-chimp-violence-fails-to-support-deep-roots-theory-of-war/
"New Study of Foragers Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots." https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/07/18/new-study-of-foragers-undermines-claim-that-war-has-deep-evolutionary-roots/
“New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots.” https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/07/24/new-study-of-prehistoric-skeletons-undermines-claim-that-war-has-deep-evolutionary-roots/
“Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots.” https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/08/02/survey-of-earliest-human-settlements-undermines-claim-that-war-has-deep-evolutionary-roots/
"Margaret Mead's war theory kicks butt of neo-Darwinian and Malthusian models." https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2010/11/08/margaret-meads-war-theory-kicks-butt-of-neo-darwinian-and-malthusian-models/