Sebastian Junger’s new book asks why returning soldiers feel so alone
by MATTHEW GAULT
Sebastian Junger had just graduated college when, in the fall of 1986, he set out to hitchhike across America. He was in his mid-20s and hadn’t seen much of the world beyond the Boston suburb where he was born.
Not long into his journey, he met a drifter. The stranger said he was worried that Junger might starve, so he gave the young man a sandwich. Junger says he never forgot that moment.
That anecdote opens Junger’s new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a slim volume about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the civil-military divide.
A story about a homeless man sharing his food may seem like an odd way to open a book about the mental health of American soldiers, but that’s the charm of Tribe. Junger uses a simple act of human kindness to start a hard conversation about America’s dysfunctional relationship with the people who fight its wars.
And that’s what Junger is doing here, starting a conversation. Tribe doesn’t offer up hard solutions because, for Junger, it’s more important that everyone first recognize what the real problem is. When it comes to PTSD, society — not the soldier — has the problem.
Junger argues his point with small moments and big tragedies. A Bosnian journalist who misses war. Survivors of the London Blitz who found new purpose. An anthropologist who believes Western society is anti-human. It’s a book about a big idea, but it’s mostly about the people who prove that big idea.
In Tribe, Junger does more than just explain why soldiers miss combat and come home as stressed-out insomniacs. He takes a hard look at Western society and exposes all the way in which it hurts the returning soldier. His argument is compelling.
“If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect, toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does,” Junger writes.
Modern Western society is a magnificent Garden of Eden. Quality of life for many people exceeds what most royalty enjoyed 200 years ago. But according to Junger, modernity has also separated people from each other.
We live solitary, disconnected lives. By contrast, soldiers go to war, live communally and help to protect their comrades. They become part of a tribe. That life ends abruptly when they come home.
The horrors of war —inflicting and surviving violence — only account for some of the mental-health problems U.S. troops report. The far more traumatic experience is coming home to a disconnected society that doesn’t know how to acknowledge soldiers beyond thanking them for their service and tying a ribbon around a tree.
Junger writes that societies need a shared public meaning to “[give] soldiers a context for their losses and their sacrifice … such public meaning is probably not generated by the kinds of formulaic phrases, such as ‘thank you for your service,’ that many Americans now feel compelled to offer soldiers and vets. Neither is it generated by honoring vets at sporting events, allowing them to board planes first, or giving them minor discounts at store.”
“If anything,” Junger continues. “Those things only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian populations by underlining the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority of people don’t.”
He points to societies such as Israel’s, where almost everyone serves in the military and war is always on the horizon. The Israel Defense Forces report PTSD rates as low as one percent.
People need causes to rally around. Junger points to dropping suicide rates during times of national crisis, severe neurotics driving ambulances in London during the Blitz and the lack of rampage-killings in America in the years after 9/11.
The historical asides bolster Junger’s argument, but I wish he’d found more evidence to back his claims. The lack of corroborating data would bother me in a book that asked more of the reader, but Tribe is diagnostic not prescriptive.
Tribe is strongest during its interviews. Reading the stories of survivors in their own words gives Junger’s thesis a strength that most of the historical evidence doesn’t — and none is more powerful than his interview with Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic.
Ahmetasevic lived through the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. She stresses that she hated the war, but admits she misses aspects of it too. “It was a kind of liberation,” she tells Junger. “The love we shared was enormous. [The soldiers would] come from the front lines and most of them were musicians and they would have a small concert for us.”
“We were the happiest,” she tells Junger. “And we laughed more.”