EXCERPT: Sebastian Junger's 'War'

One of the most puzzling things about fear is that it is only loosely related to the level of danger. During World War II, several airborne units that experienced some of the fiercest fighting of the war also reported some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates in the U.S. military. Combat units typically suffer one psychiatric casualty for every physical one, and during Israel's Yom Kippur War of 1973, frontline casualty rates were roughly consistent with that ratio. But Israeli logistics units, which were subject to far less danger, suffered three psychiatric cases for every physical one. And even frontline troops showed enormous variation in their rate of psychological breakdown. Because many Israeli offi cers literally led from the front, they were four times more likely to be killed or wounded than their men were -- and yet they suffered one-fi fth the rate of psychological collapse. The primary factor determining breakdown in combat does not appear to be the objective level of danger so much as the feeling -- even the illusion -- of control. Highly trained men in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances are less likely to break down than untrained men in little danger.

The division between those who feel in control of their fate and those who don't can occur even within the same close-knit group. During World War II, British and American bomber crews experienced casualty rates as high as 70 percent over the course of their tour; they effectively flew missions until they were killed. On those planes, pilots reported experiencing less fear than their turret gunners, who were crucial to operations but had no direct control over the aircraft. Fighter pilots, who suffered casualty rates almost as high as bomber crews, nevertheless reported extremely low levels of fear. They were both highly trained and entirely in control of their own fate, and that allowed them to ignore the statistical reality that they had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving their tour.

Among men who are dependent on one another for their safety -- all combat soldiers, essentially -- there is often an unspoken agreement to stick together no matter what. The reassurance that you will never be abandoned seems to help men act in ways that serve the whole unit rather than just themselves. Sometimes, however, it effectively amounts to a suicide pact. During the air war of 1944, a four-man combat crew on a B-17 bomber took a vow to never abandon one another no matter how desperate the situation. (A fifth team member, the top turret gunner, was not part of the pact.)

The aircraft was hit by fl ak during a mission and went into a terminal dive, and the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. The top turret gunner obeyed the order, but the ball turret gunner discovered that a piece of flak had jammed his turret and he could not get out. The other three men in his pact could have bailed out with parachutes, but they stayed with him until the plane hit the ground and exploded.

They all died.

One of the Taliban fi ghters falls to the ground, dead, and the other releases Brennan and escapes downhill through the trees. Giunta jams a new magazine into his gun and yells for a medic. Brennan is lying badly wounded in the open and Giunta grabs him by the vest and drags him behind a little bit of cover.

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