I’ve finished a couple of books (the recently published Tribe and the years-old War) by Sebastian Junger, a former embedded war correspondent for Vanity Fair. He analyzes (among a LOT of other things) the experiences and psychology of war veterans and active-duty soldiers, using examples from which we can understand humanity in general. It’s really fascinating stuff. He synthesizes a lot of research from different fields while staying concise and accessible– judge that synthesis for yourself, of course; I don’t claim to be an expert– but a lot of his conclusions are worth considering.
He’s ruffled more than a few feathers over the last several years by implying that the spike in veteran PTSD cases is not ‘legitimate’ in the way we understand it. Beyond the small number of vets who ‘play the system,’ the greater problem (and I’m paraphrasing here) is our well-intentioned promotion of a victim mentality for many of these soldiers. In our deference to soldiers who have suffered war trauma, too often we create the idea that the combat veteran is permanently different from the rest of us in a way that’s broken them and requires a total “fixing.” We ‘understand’ that they can no longer fit in among ‘regular’ people. Thus we can inadvertently exacerbate the REAL problem many veterans have: not so much acute, devastating trauma as simply returning to a “normal” life among civilians.
I’m sure you can understand right away why that’s a pretty controversial thing to say– and I hope I’m getting it right in the summary. I certainly can’t speak for veterans and their experience overseas or how it affects them psychologically. Where this all gets fascinating for me is in Junger’s time embedded in places like the notorious Korengal Valley (Afghanistan) and his observations of the contrast between the combat service member’s community in places like that and our civilian communities here in America.
In the Korengal, the soldier’s life was reduced to a very short list of priorities, and each one of those priorities assumed life-or-death importance for both the individual and his comrades. Life was spartan: bland rations, filth, no human contact outside the outpost, no activities beyond watching, waiting, and patrolling. Small routines like carrying water and cleaning weapons were vital. Get heatstroke on patrol and not only are you in serous trouble, your small unit is badly compromised: they’re down a man and they have to get you out. A jammed gun not only leaves you helpless; you can’t cover your buddies, a serious matter in a war of counter-insurgency dominated by small maneuvers rather than big strategic operations. Stripped of choice and freedom and bound entirely to small choices on the group and individual level that daily make the difference between surviving and being killed; to the average person, it sounds terrible.
Except when you listen to many veterans who have lived that life, what you find is that they actually miss it. Junger observes this in his interviews frequently, and he’s hardly alone. I’ve observed this in other war memoirs across cultures, in podcasts, and in conversation. There is almost beautiful simplicity in a life in which each day is a fight for survival and the individual is part of a tightly-knit group that are all willing to die for each other. That’s another theme reaching across combat memoirs: that with time, the soldier fights not for his country or the cause anywhere near as much as his friends that are living it with him. It’s a deeply fraternal bond.
What makes books like War and Tribe so penetrating is the contrast they draw between that life and the one the average 21st century American civilian lives. In place of a small list of possible choices, each one imbued with fatal significance, is nearly unlimited choice, much of which is completely meaningless. Instead of a small handful of people held together by a sense of selfless brotherhood, we experience the “community” of modern America, in which you can have 1000 social media contacts that don’t amount to a single real friendship, or life in a city of 1 million people in which you somehow feel completely alone.
Tribe in particular deals with this void in which survival is mostly assured and no one has a life or death bond, as well as the erosion of ancient community ties and customs because of the lack of apparent need for them. Even as early as the 1700s, Junger points out, white colonial society had a problem noted by none other than Ben Franklin himself: despite the technological convenience, greater relative ease, and predictable, more peaceful life white colonial life offered, many people chose to run away to join the “savage” Indians. Life was harder and hardship was harsher, communities were smaller and more exposed…but tighter. When recaptured, these white citizens demonstrated a devastating level of trauma. Some never re-acclimated, even when their entry into a tribal community had come by kidnapping and bloodshed, like Cynthia Ann Parker. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to run back to her “home” tribe, Parker descended into depression and an untimely death.
Should we be thinking not only of war trauma, but the trauma of this American peace? So many of us grow up, move constantly to follow larger paychecks, separate from family, become removed from any traditional communal bond beyond, possibly, marriage– which fails at an absurdly high rate. We stare at thousands of distractions on tiny screens with every free minute we have. We enjoy the highest standard of living, even among our poor, that has ever been known in world history, by a long shot, and yet we aren’t even close to one of the happiest countries in the world. Drug addiction, suicide, and depression exist at high levels in a place the ancient Egyptians would have considered the home of the gods. I look around and see a culture in which so many problems of survival have been solved, but I know very few truly happy and content people.
Perhaps returning war fighters feel very acutely what many of us feel in a subtle way– what does any of this great stuff matter if we don’t truly, absolutely have EACH OTHER with us in the confusion of life? Maybe they have to experience in an intensely personal way what we “normal” people slowly, impersonally, and almost imperceptibly lost over many generations. Perhaps the traumatic experiences of war can teach us about something we’ve been missing in peace.