I first read Sebastian Junger’s important essay, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 192 pp., $22, hardcover; $12.99, e book) in a shorter form in the June 2015 Vanity Fair under the title, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Junger is best-known for his 1997 creative nonfiction book The Perfect Storm. and for directing the Afghanistan War documentary, Restrepo. Tribe, a small book with large margins and big print, is moving and important beyond its size.
Junger is that messenger who brings bad news. Bad news we need to hear and to listen to. Bad news that brought tears to my eyes in the reading.
As Karl Marlantes, the former Vietnam War Marine lieutenant who wrote the novel Matterhorn, says on the jacket: “Sebastian Junger has turned the multifaceted problem of returning veterans on its head. It’s not so much about what’s wrong with the veterans, but what’s wrong with us. If we made the changes suggested in Tribe, all of us would be happier and healthier. Please read this book.”
Junger brings to light several aspects of modern military service that differ markedly from how it was during the Vietnam War when the military draft was a fact of life for every young American man. Voluntary service today, he writes, “has resulted in a military population that has a disproportionate number of young people with a history of sexual abuse.” He goes on to explain that military service is an easy way for young people to get out of their homes. One result is that the military draws an imbalance of recruits from troubled families.
“This was not true during the draft,” Junger says. And this state of affairs, Junger and others believe, has driven up the military suicide rate.
Speaking of PTSD, Junger notes that even “among the regular infantry, danger and trauma are not necessarily connected.” Rear-based troops, on the other hand, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War “had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite front-line troops, relative to the casualties suffered.” That’s because, he says, the troops with rear-echelon jobs did not get intensive training nor the exposure to danger that creates unit cohesion and therefore generally did not develop strong emotional bonds in their units.
Junger also directly addresses the problems that infect America today—the vast gulf between two sides in a culture war. “It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary,” he writes, with “rampage shootings happen[ing] so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.”
As Karl Marlantes advises, read this little book for advice on what we can do to remedy what has afflicted America. There are no easy answers.
Junger’s website is sebastianjunger.com