EXCERPT: Sebastian Junger's 'War'

Much later, a military investigation will determine that the enemy was trying to throw up a "wall of lead" between the fi rst 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 fl ying 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 fi ght. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win.

That choreography -- you lay down fi re 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."

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