Excerpt: 'War' By Sebastian Junger

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."

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