Book Excerpt: War

On Tuesday, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta will be presented with the nation's highest military honor, the medal of honor. Giunta is being honored for his bravery during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007. Journalist Sebastian Junger wrote about Giunta's actions in his new book, "War," excerpted below.

A dozen Taliban fighters with rockets and belt-fed machine guns are shooting from behind cover at a distance of fifteen or twenty feet; First Platoon is essentially inside a shooting gallery. Within seconds, every man in the lead squad takes a bullet. Brennan goes down immediately, wounded in eight places. Eckrode takes rounds through his thigh and calf and falls back to lay down suppressive fire with his SAW. Gallardo takes a round in his helmet and falls down but gets back up. Doc Mendoza, farther down the line, takes a round through the femur and immediately starts bleeding out.

After months of fighting an enemy that stayed hundreds of yards away, the shock of facing them at a distance of twenty feet cannot be overstated. Giunta gets hit in his front plate and in his assault pack and he barely notices except that the rounds came from a strange direction. Sheets of tracers are coming from his left, but the rounds that hit him seemed to come from dead ahead. He’s down in a small washout along the trail where the lip of packed earth should have protected him, but it didn’t. “That’s when I kind of noticed something was wrong,” Giunta said. “The rounds came right down the draw and there are three people — all friends — in the same vicinity. It happened so fast, you don’t think too hard about it, but it’s something to keep in mind.”

Much later, a military investigation will determine that the enemy was trying to throw up a “wall of lead” between the first few men and the rest of the unit so that they could be overrun and captured. Gallardo understands this instinctively and tries to push through the gunfire to link up with his alpha team, Brennan and Eckrode. Twenty or thirty RPGs come sailing into their position and explode among the trees. When Gallardo goes down with a bullet to the helmet, Giunta runs over to him to drag him behind cover, but Gallardo gets back on his feet immediately. They’re quickly joined by Giunta’s SAW gunner, PFC Casey, and the three men start pushing forward by throwing hand grenades and sprinting between the blasts. Even enemy who are not hit are so disoriented by the concussion that they have trouble functioning for a second or two. The group quickly makes it to Eckrode, who’s wounded and desperately trying to fix an ammo jam in his SAW, and Gallardo and Casey stay with him while Giunta continues on his own. He throws his last grenade and then sprints the remaining ground to where Brennan should be. The Gatigal spur is awash in moonlight, and in the silvery shadows of the holly forests he sees two enemy fighters dragging Josh Brennan down the hillside. He empties his M4 magazine at them and starts running toward his friend.

The Army has a certain interest in understanding what was going through Giunta’s mind during all of this, because whatever was going through his mind helped save the entire unit from getting killed. A year or so later, several squads of American soldiers conducted an identical L-shaped ambush at night on the Abas Ghar and wiped out a column of Taliban fighters — nearly twenty men. The reason First Platoon did not get wiped out had nothing to do with the Apaches flying overhead or the 155s at Blessing; it was because the men reacted not as individuals but as a unit. Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it’s much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win.

That choreography — you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up — is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.

Most firefights go by so fast that acts of bravery or cowardice are more or less spontaneous. Soldiers might live the rest of their lives regretting a decision that they don’t even remember making; they might receive a medal for doing something that was over before they even knew they were doing it. When Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy was asked why he took on an entire company of German infantry by himself, he replied famously, “They were killing my friends.” Wars are won or lost because of the aggregate effect of thousands of decisions like that during firefights that often last only minutes or seconds. Giunta estimates that not more than ten or fifteen seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those ten or fifteen seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who react that way would undoubtedly die to the last man.

Giunta, on the other hand, used those fifteen seconds to assign rates and sectors of fire to his team, run to Gallardo’s assistance, assess the direction of a round that hit him in the chest, and then throw three hand grenades while assaulting an enemy position. Every man in the platoon — even the ones who were wounded — acted as purposefully and efficiently as Giunta did. For obvious reasons, the Army has tried very hard to understand why some men respond effectively in combat and others just freeze. “I did what I did because that’s what I was trained to do,” Giunta told me. “There was a task that had to be done, and the part that I was gonna do was to link alpha and bravo teams. I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy — I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together. I didn’t run through fire to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done.”

From the book WAR (c) 2010 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

This program aired on November 14, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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