Living outside the ‘Tribe’
War correspondent Sebastian Junger explains why civilian life often fails returning combat veterans
By Bliss Bowen
Sebastian Junger’s widely commended book “War” recounted his experiences as a reporter embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan’s violent Korengal Valley — especially the adrenalizing gunfire and grunt life of the soldiers with whom he kept company.
Published in 2010, the book lucidly chronicled the dignity, dark humor and stomach-twisting brutality of the soldiers’ days. It prompted hard questions, such as: Why would anyone choose to return to such extreme situations?
Junger’s new book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” offers possible answers.
It’s a slim book; only 138 pages, plus 30 pages of source notes. In lean, clean prose, Junger wastes no time establishing the human dimension of conflicts and his sense of connection to soldiers and their communities. Still, he manages critical distance, consulting historians, psychologists and anthropologists to buttress or contradict his personal conclusions.
As Junger probes psyches reshaped by military conflict, he voices a question raised by civilians: If war is such hell, why do soldiers miss it?
He flips that on its ear to respond to the true problem: “exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to.”
The answers he proffers illuminate the deep tribal bonds formed among brothers in arms, and the uncomprehending society in which they struggle to find their place when they return.
Amidst unimaginable destruction, “war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them,” Junger writes. In that hyper-reality, soldiers willingly pledge their lives to protect squad mates they don’t even like.
Contrast that with the surreal disconnect created by political “leaders” advising citizens to “go shopping” during wartime, no community sacrifice required. Or political campaigners who vow to raise funds for veterans — the only people, as Junger points out, who’ve had to “switch back and forth” between war and peace — and then conveniently forget to give them the money.
“In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon,” Junger writes. “It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”
Contemporary American military experiences are positioned within a historical continuum. Junger references past European and Native American conflicts, the !Kung tribe’s “Stone-Age existence” in Africa’s forbidding Kalahari Desert, anthropological analyses of foraging societies, and historical records of thousands of Anglo and other settlers who (as Benjamin Franklin observed) “seemed to prefer Indian society to their own” and even chose to return to their “captors.” There were virtually no examples of natives choosing to become European.
The reason for that, Junger contends, was a sense of daily purpose and tribal belonging akin to the intimacy of platoon life. It is the loss of that — the loyalty, the purpose, the mutual commitment — that contributes to the increased numbers of modern soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Tribe” is most compelling throughout its second half, when Junger explores causes, consequences, social and medical perceptions of PTSD, as well as Wall Street frauds that represent betrayal of the core values by which soldiers live and die.
“The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world,” he writes, “is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”
Junger takes care not to call out individual politicians or parties for judgment. But his respect for soldiers and tribal loyalty is evident on every page. It’s hard not to think of spoiled bullies weaned on their trust funds when he writes of “male and female corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society” or “alpha males who bully others and openly steal resources.” In hunter-gatherer tribes, they would be faced down by “coalitions of other senior males, but that rarely happens in modern society.”
He floats a provocative suggestion for Veterans Day: Give the holiday — and veterans — greater dignity by offering veterans the use of town halls across the country to “speak freely about their experience at war.” Their comments may run the gamut from gratitude to anger to tearful incomprehensibility. “But a community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. The bland phrase, ‘I support the troops,’ would then mean showing up at the town hall once a year to hear these people out.”
That could restore meaning to the holiday. Whether it could resolve more profound conflicts within America — “a society at war with itself” — remains an open question.
“People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire U.S. government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.”
Those words carry weight in this Orwellian political season. We’d be wise to contemplate at length their implications — and this: “Given the profound alienation of modern society, when combat vets say that they miss the war, they might be having an entirely healthy response to life back home.”
Sebastian Junger speaks about “Tribe” at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, in the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $40 for reserved seating and a copy of the book, or $95 for reserved seating, a copy of the book and entry to a 6:30 p.m. reception. Visit livetalksla.org for tickets.