EXCERPT: Sebastian Junger's 'War'

Wars are won or lost because of the aggregate effect of thousands of decisions like that during fi refi ghts 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 fi fteen seconds to assign rates and sectors of fi re 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 fi re to do anything heroic or brave. I did what I believe anyone would have done."

During World War II, the British and American militaries conducted a series of studies to identify what makes men capable of overcoming their fears. A psychiatrist named Herbert Spiegel, who accompanied American troops on the Tunisia campaign, called it the "X-factor": "Whether this factor was conscious or unconscious is debatable," he wrote for a military journal in 1944, "but this is not so important. The important thing was that it is infl uenced greatly by devotion to their group or unit, by regard for their leader and by conviction for their cause. In the average soldier, which most of them were, this factor ... enabled men to control their fear and combat their fatigue to a degree that they themselves did not believe possible."

The U.S. military found that, to a great degree, fearfulness was something they couldn't do much about. A fearful man is likely to remain that way no matter what kind of training he undergoes. During one experiment, completely untrained airborne candidates were told to jump off a thirty four-foot tower. They jumped in a harness that allowed them to fall about twelve feet and then ride a 400-foot cable to the ground. As easy as it sounds, more than half of a group of qualifi ed paratroopers said that jumping off the tower was more frightening than jumping out of a real airplane.

The military tested roughly thirteen hundred candidates on the tower and then tracked their success through airborne school. They found that the men who were "slow" to jump off the tower were more than twice as likely to fail out of the program as "fast" jumpers, and those who refused to jump at all were almost guaranteed to fail.

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