For a group with such enthusiasm for replicating bronze-age levels of human suffering, ISIS sure can produce some slick digital content. About a year ago, the group posted a video celebrating the group who, over the past fifteen years, has killed more American veterans than the most ambitious jihadi: those veterans themselves, having made the decision to end their own lives. The effect is stunning.
The video is effective propaganda because it’s grounded in a well-known and unsettling reality. A few months ago, the United States Department of Veterans’ Affairs released updated statistics on veteran suicide: on an average day, twenty American veterans deliberately end their own lives. As behavioral health became an acceptable topic of public conversation, Americans formed a consensus on the epidemiology of veteran suicide: that it represents the ultimate implosion of a mind irreparably scarred by the memory of violence. This understanding is intuitive and compassionate.
It’s also wrong, and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why we hurt and how we heal. In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger pitches a radical, unsettling hypothesis on how to help our nation’s disordered veterans: it’s not the veterans who are disordered; it’s the nation. As wars have become less frequent, less violent, and more distant, warriors have become more alienated from their communities. Simultaneously, those communities themselves offer near-perfect isolation and, for the right price, abdication of collective obligation. The net result is veterans who will never belong as much as they did downrange. The most lethal threat to their survival isn’t human or natural, but communities that are civilized to the point of toxicity.
Junger has spent his career describing how modern human beings behave when our civilization’s guarantee of safety seems to vanish. American readers will probably remember Junger as the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm and, more recently, directed the documentary film Restrepo. He’s a war journalist in the purest and most reckless sense of the term, rejecting plush, mammoth airbases for the dust and filth where soldiers still fight.
Frequent transitions between battlefields and modern American cities allowed Junger to contrast combat trauma with the psychological isolation of the developed world. Returning to Sarajevo years after that city’s brutal siege, he found veterans who insisted those years represented the most worthwhile time of their lives. Anthony Lloyd described much the same phenomenon in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, his dark, personal account of the same war.
Yet Tribe is not a memoir, and it’s not abstract philosophy. Junger cites several instances - mostly wars and natural disasters - in which the immediate imperative of survival actually resulted in more cohesion and sociability. His most stunning example is London’s mental health miracle during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain:
Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. ...as the Blitz progressed, psychiatriatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… ...long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids. ...even epileptics reported having fewer seizures… (A doctor) ventured to suggest that some people actually did better during wartime.
-Tribe, pg. 45-46
The Blitz - a genuine existential threat - was Britain’s “finest hour” because it demanded the social cohesion that can seem extinct in the modern West. This trend is apparent in the present day, as well: Israelis, who almost certainly experience violence more frequently than any of their wealthy-nation peers, have PTSD rates among world’s lowest. Violence and the threat of violence, Junger explains, is a near-constant, and the obligation of all able-bodied young people to defend against that threat (via universal military conscription) means warfare is experienced across all strata of Israeli society. Moreover, because Israeli soldiers often fight within small-arms range of their birthplaces, wars rarely demand abrupt, long-term alienation from social and family networks.
While case studies from various wars support Junger’s thesis, Tribe is only about national defense in the sense that it asks if we’ve built a nation - a society - worth defending. American veterans forced the discussion of PTSD into the public arena, but Junger describes a trend that transcends profession. When experiences alienate us from our communities, we become vulnerable and reckless. Those experiences need not be violent; only profound and formative. The symptoms we most commonly associate with combat trauma - depression, social detachment, feelings of isolation and purposelessness - are well-documented among returning Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps attributes it to “reverse culture shock.”
But returned Peace Corps volunteers seem to do well in the long-term, while many veterans continue to struggle years or even decades after combat. Junger suggests that some of our most compassionate efforts - generous disability benefits, the way we celebrate and applaud American veterans - encourage veterans to cultivate an identity of victimhood. It kills ambition and causes veterans to delay or outright reject what they need most: becoming valued, productive members of their civilian communities.
Reading this book becomes exhausting when you begin to appreciate the magnitude of work it will take to fix this. Shared adversity and the collective sacrifice creates the sensation of kinship. All primates are social species who do poorly in isolation. This isn’t new knowledge, of course; it’s readily apparent to anyone willing to spend an hour watching a high-school football team practice in late August, or who’s attended a graduation at Parris Island. What Junger has shown us, rather, is how unforgivably we’ve failed to apply one of our most wholesome instincts - that we need purpose, and we need communities - to the task of creating a society worthy of the sacrifice of those who defend and build it.