Few civilians can get away with talking about the military the way Sebastian Junger does. Among mainstream journalists, his commentary on the experience of being an American soldier in the post-9/11 world is unparalleled in its depth and honesty. Over the years, he’s amassed a body of award-winning work — articles, books, films — that challenges popular assumptions about what it means to serve, and the psychological impact that service has on those who do. That’s a remarkable achievement for someone who’s never worn the uniform.
Of course, Junger, whose career as a conflict reporter began in Kosovo in the 1990s, is no stranger to war. In fact, he wrote the book: “War,” a nonfiction chronicle of an infantry platoon’s yearlong deployment to Afghanistan’s treacherous Korengal Valley. In 2010, the adjoining Oscar-nominated documentary, “Restrepo,” co-directed with the late Tim Hetherington, introduced a wider audience to the strangeness and brutality of life on the front lines. For many veterans, myself included, it stands as the definitive film about the war.
The poignancy of Junger’s Afghan War coverage draws less from the fact that he embedded with one of the heaviest hit units of that conflict than it does from the fact that he crossed a threshold few journalists are able or willing to cross. He didn’t just dip his toe in. He dove, risking life and limb to capture the experience of being an American combat soldier in a distant and largely forgotten war. But more than that: he got to know his subjects — not just who they were as soldiers, but who they were as men who, alive or dead or wounded, would eventually come home.
Now, Junger, who announced his retirement from war reporting soon after Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya, during the civil war, is shifting his attention to the home front. His latest book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," which hit shelves on May 24, takes a hard look at the difficulties veterans face as they transition back into civilian life. Front and center is the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Junger believes is overdiagnosed, and, in cases where it's misdiagnosed, damaging to long-term psychological health. The veteran struggle, he theorizes, has more to do with the nature of American society than it does combat itself.
On the eve of Junger’s upcoming appearance on “Ted Talks: War and Peace”, which debuts on PBS on May 30, Task & Purpose spoke with Junger about the allure of combat, the civilian-military divide, and why over valorizing veterans only does more harm than good.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard a lot of American veterans express interest in flying to Iraq to join the fight against ISIS as civilian volunteers. Quite a few of them have. Why do you think some combat veterans miss the battlefield? Why do they volunteer to go back?
The demands of combat on the human mind and body are extraordinary. Human likes functioning at an extraordinary level. They love it. And so I think it’s very hard to find a job back home that requires you to function at the level that combat requires. The stakes are life and death. In other words, they’re the highest stakes possible. There’s a huge amount of adrenalin, and the requirement of very intense interpersonal commitment and bonding with other people — all those things produce just a cocktail of pleasurable endorphins and hormones in the bloodstream. All these things really feel good to the human brain. So it’s very, very hard to find a job that reproduces that feeling in the civilian world.
Do you think people can become addicted to combat?
I don’t think the chemical reactions to adrenaline rival those of synthetic drugs — cocaine, stuff like that. When you use the word addiction, you’re really talking about a chemical dependency. I don’t think anyone is chemically dependent on adrenaline. I think metaphorically there can be a dependency, but it’s not a chemical dependency. It’s more that their identity is now wrapped around the identity of the warrior. Look, I’m not a shrink. I’m taking a guess at what happens to them psychologically. Their identity is now that of a warrior, and they don’t know what they would be, or who they would be in civilian life. So they go back to combat because at least that’s an identity that they like and that they’re proud of. It’s a lot harder to be proud of a civilian identity just because it’s more mundane. I don’t care what company you’re the president of, you’re still not in a life-and-death situation. No matter how high up you rise in civilian life, you’re still not doing something as intense as the lowest ranking grunt in a firefight. That identity, that warrior identity, is the thing I think they become psychologically dependent on. When one calls it an addiction, you're talking about a chemical thing that I don’t think is medically accurate.
The last time I was in northern Iraq I talked to a lot of Kurdish soldiers who seemed to be under the impression that all American soldiers suffer from PTSD. I don’t know if they were just being proud, but they would say, “We don’t have this problem here.” What do you make of that? Do you think PTSD is an “American problem”? And if so, why?
One problem is that PTSD is a) treatable, and b) a short-term disorder. A disorder is something that disrupts your ability to lead a normal life, and PTSD does that for a lot of people. So it’s a disorder as far as I’m concerned. It’s treatable and it’s usually temporary. Long-term chronic PTSD afflicts a very small fraction of people who’ve been traumatized. The problem is that on the one hand the VA says, “We can treat your problem. Give it some time, and we will help you.” On the other hand, the government — the same government — is giving them lifelong PTSD disability. There’s a therapeutic contradiction just in the messages that the government is giving to the soldiers. If you lose your leg, that’s a lifelong issue. It’s not going away. PTSD is not a lifelong problem. When you compensate the soldier for life, you’re basically telling the soldier, “Look, you’re ruined for life, might as well accept it.” So, I think one of the problems is that the government itself is incentivizing a view of veterans as psychologically incapacitated. There’s a financial incentive for it. There’s a social incentive in the sense that if you have PTSD you served your country bravely in combat. But if you look at other kinds of trauma — rape, violent assault, etc. — most people recover from that stuff really, really quickly. For most people, it’s a matter of months, and that’s partly because there’s no social or financial incentive for remaining incapacitated. So that contradiction is enormously damaging to soldiers and veterans.
The other thing I’d point out is that in New York after 9/11, the suicide rate in New York City went down. The violent crime rate went down. The murder rate went down. And the PTSD symptoms in combat veterans went down. In the months after 9/11, the combat veterans in New York City — mostly Vietnam veterans — who were outpatients at the VA reported a decline in their symptoms. What happens is that when people are in a situation of crisis, emergency, and interdependency, mental health issues subside.
During the Blitz in London, admissions to psychiatric wards went down. Imagine: London lost 30,000 people in the bombings. People were less crazy. You’d think the psychiatric casualty rate would go up. It went down. And so what happens is that you have guys who may or may not have been traumatized by combat, and they’re going back to New York post-9/11, they’re going back to London during the Blitz, they’re going to a situation where, no, they’re not experiencing PTSD, because they’re not in a civilian situation. They’re back in a crisis that demands all their skills and attention. There’s that therapeutic effect that soldiers talk about in combat, like, “No, I don’t have PTSD over here.” PTSD is something that afflicts people after the crisis is over. You put yourself back in a crisis and, yeah, of course you’re not going to experience it. When you’re body is in shock you don’t experience pain. It’s kind of like that.
PTSD seems to have become a crucial part of the post-9/11 veteran identity. A PTSD diagnosis is almost like having a combat patch or a Combat Action Ribbon, as if your military service is somehow less valuable if you don’t have one.
Yeah, absolutely. The irony is that 10% of the U.S. military experiences combat. Something like 50% of the military has applied for PTSD disability. So what’s going on with that 40%? Now, I’m not prepared to be as cynical about that 40% as some people might be. I think an awful lot of those people are honestly describing something that is actually a transition disorder. It isn’t PTSD, but the only vocabulary we have right now is PTSD, so they call it PTSD. And a lot of these people are honest people, and I think they’re probably quite insecure about the fact that they know they were never traumatized, and, yeah, PTSD is the only category that they have available to describe what they’re truly feeling. What they’re truly feeling is this tremendous depression that comes from going from a close-knit communal life to the alienated life of modern society. You can see the same effect in Peace Corps volunteers. There’s an incredibly high rate of depression among Peace Corps volunteers when they come home. They’re in Guinea, they’re in Sierra Leone, they’re in all these fucked up places. You’d think when they’d get home it’d be this big party. It’s not at all. About half of them struggle with depression afterwards. They don’t call it PTSD because they’re not vets. In their mind, they weren’t traumatized. What they’re really experiencing is the trauma of transitioning from a close-knit life in a village or a platoon to everyone’s living in their own apartment in New York City and contemplating hanging themselves in their closet. That’s the irony of modern society: As wealth and affluence goes up, independence goes up and so does suicide, and so does depression, and so does all this other stuff.
With PTSD dominating the conversation about veterans to the extent it currently is, do you think that we as a society will ever be able to move beyond it and accept these more complex, grounded theories about what’s actually going on here?
There’s such reflexive veneration of veterans that no one dares to say anything other than the most sanitized, approving sentences about the whole issue. It’s political suicide to say anything but catechisms about how valorous they all are. Listen, I spent a lot of time out there with those guys and I’m enormously admiring of those young men. But right now they need to be transitioned back into “normal life.” And if they’re overly valorized, we’re basically saying, “You’re not a normal person.”
There comes a point where we’re actually harming them by over valorizing them. When the soldiers came back from World War II, they saved the damn world and they were honored tremendously, as they should’ve been. But then people were looking at their watches like, “Okay, now it’s time to get back to work. We still need you guys. We just don’t need you on the front lines. Now we need you working on construction sites, and working in banks, and doing everything else you were going to do before this war started.” Today, as a society, we don’t dare do that with veterans. My theory is that in our valorizing of them — which is well-intentioned and, to a great degree, merited — that after a certain point in time, it will actually become destructive to them, because we’re basically saying, “You’re a special class of citizens and we’re not expecting that you contribute to society for the rest of your lives.” That’s not in the best interest of their psychological health.
Right now, there are a lot of people within the veteran community voicing that same concern, especially on YouTube.
You know, someone sent me a very compelling video by Derek Weida. He’s quite a character. I actually messaged him and didn’t hear back from him. But my book “Tribe,” if he reads it, he’s going to love it, because I’m right where he is. I’m a civilian — I’m a journalist — and I’m a little more cautious about how I say it because I’m not a veteran, but we pretty much ended up at the same conclusion.
Derek Weida is certainly one of those people, and he’s one of a handful of these veteran personalities who’ve entered the conversation in the past few years. They’re the ones who are saying, “Hey, we need to stop with this whole PTSD narrative. And we need to stop over glorifying veterans, it’s damaging.” And I think that if that narrative is going to change, it starts with guys like that — veterans — just because it’s off limits to so many people.
Yeah, I mean there are even limits for me. I was giving a talk somewhere and someone said something about the gap between the military and civilians, and how civilians are just unaware. And I was like, well, yeah, they are unaware, because soldiers will turn around to civilians and say, “You’d never understand, so I’m not even going to bother talking to you about it.” If you say that to civilians of course they’re not going to understand. It’s self-fulfilling. Come on, you can’t say that to them and complain that they don’t get it. And during the talk I went on to point out that I’m never really going to get childbirth. There are some things that you have to experience to fully get. It’s not a realistic expectation. That doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it, but am I going to get it? Are civilians going to get it? No, but why is that something that you’d even expect?
Furthermore, the civilian population is completely disengaged from everything that keeps it alive. We’re not thinking about the mortality rate in the oil fields, and logging camps, and fishing boats, and the agriculture industry. That rate is equal to, or higher, than most units in the U.S. military. You take the really dangerous jobs, and you look to see what units in the military have a mortality rate equivalent to those jobs, you’re not talking about much of the military. It’s just the tip of the spear. So I said, “We really need to appreciate soldiers along with the people who are losing their lives to keep this thing going. We all put gas in our tank. We live in wood houses. Like, come on, if we’re going to start appreciating people, let’s really open up the gates.” And this veteran got up, he was so upset, he was really angry. I mean, he was really angry, because he wanted a special place for veterans. I’m like, “Listen, man, I get it, but you’re dissing a lot of hard working guys. You’re dissing a lot of people who died for this country. They just didn’t die with a gun in their hands.” He did not like that at all. Clearly, he had never heard anything like that at all. And he was like, “Well, they’re not selfless. They do it for money.” Okay, you’re doing it for money, too. You’re getting paid. You’re not fighting for free, either.
I want to ask you about this term that’s really been trending these last few months: civilian-military divide. Everyone is asking, “How do we bridge the civilian-military divide?” And I’m still trying to wrap my head around that term. What does it mean to you?
I think what people mean when they say that is that civilians and the military are demographically somewhat different, they’re not interested in each other’s experiences, they’re not sympathetic to each other’s experiences. I think there’s sort of a value judgment when people say “civilian-military divide.” They’re sort of putting the military experience above the civilian experience in some way. Making it more virtuous. But my point is that there’s a civilian-everything divide. The civilian population is completely cut off from all the means of production that keep it alive. You know what, let’s get in line. You’re going to have to get behind the oil workers, and the coal miners, and the farmers, and everybody else who is dying for this country at a low wage. And I’m sorry, join the crowd. That’s what happens in a modern society. People are disconnected from the things they depend on. It’s the most outrageous disconnect. I was totally against the Iraq War, and not because I thought it was about oil. But when you have liberals — and I’m a Democratic — but when you have liberals putting “No blood for oil” on a fucking car that runs on oil, the lack of understanding of the connectedness of things is just mind-boggling. So, the divide that we talk about, yeah, it’s between the civilians and the military; it’s also between civilians and everything. I feel like the real conversation is, how do we make modern society more ethically, philosophically, intellectually integrated so that we’re all truly appreciative of the whole damn thing.