Revisiting Sebastian Junger
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the CD Soul Sand; used courtesy of the Free Music Archive
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Today, in honor of Veterans’ Day, we are revisiting my 2017 interview with journalist, author, and filmmaker Sebastian Junger.
Sebastian Junger became a well-known author in 1997 with the publication of his first book, The Perfect Storm. Now, he’s better known as a journalist deeply engaged in covering war and the people who fight in them. As a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he’s covered international stories including the war in Afghanistan, a region and subject he’s returned to over the course of his career. His book, War is based on those dispatches as is the film Restrepo which he co-directed with his frequent collaborator, the late photographer Tim Hetherington.
Not surprisingly, Sebastian Junger also turned his attention to the complexities soldiers find when they return from war. Both with the film, The Last Patrol and the book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Combining anthropology, psychology, history and his own observations and experiences in Tribe, Sebastian notes there are primal human needs-- for loyalty, a sense of belonging, and a connection to something bigger than ourselves. And because service members find this connection when they are deployed, returning home can leave some 21st-century combat veterans with a profound sense of loss. Added to that loss is a society disengaged from the war in which these veterans fought and this, Junger argues, may account for the high-percentage of service members suffering from PTSD.
Sebastian Junger’s work is of particular interest to us at the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 2012, the NEA has been actively involved in programs for service members suffering from PTSD. Creative Forces an NEA-led initiative in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs has offered Creative Arts Therapies to military patients and veterans who have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD and associated psychological health conditions; while Creative Forces Community Engagement projects support non-clinical arts programming in a variety of settings for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.
So, I sat down with Sebastian Junger to discuss the ideas he offers in Tribe and and explore their possible intersections with the programs offered in Creative Forces.
Here’s our conversation.
Jo Reed: Sebastian Junger, thank you, first of all.
Sebastian Junger: My Pleasure.
Jo Reed: Tribe is the name of your latest book and I want to know first what you mean by tribe? How do you refer to it in this book?
Sebastian Junger: There's different meanings for the word tribe, obviously. There's the ethnographic meaning, which is a discrete population, usually in a small-scale society. The way I mean it in this sense really is community. It's a more appealing word for a community, but of course, community is one of the essentials, along with food and water and shelter and safety, one of the essentials for survival, for emotional survival. And one of the ironies of wealthy modern society is that as wealth goes up, people have enough money, enough affluence to live more and more individualized lives, which is a great freedom for them, but it also removes their access to community. In fact, individuals don't need the community to survive, and the community doesn't need individuals in order to stay together. And the whole thing is sort of subcontracted to the state and to corporations. So there's a real-- some advantages to that, but there's a real loss in human terms, in sort of emotional and psychological terms. There's a real loss to that lack of community that we all endure.
Jo Reed: Okay, now let's take that loss and bring it to the military because while I think most of us can at least imagine the trauma of war, the ugliness, and the brutality, you make the point in the book that it also can confer something else on people who fight.
Sebastian Junger: Yes. What we know is that the best, most pro-social human behaviors come out in the worst circumstances. So if you ask war reporters, "Well, how can you stand to do this job? It's humans at their worst." It's actually humans at their best. I mean, what you see on a front line, you never see racism. You really never see any bias according to politics or sexuality, or really anything. I mean, right on the very front line, there's a profound egalitarianism that happens, and a commitment to the group good, which of course is deeply embedded in our evolutionary past. And we know that when people live in tight, communal situations like that, they experience really improved mental health. So you take modern society, which of course we know, as wealth goes up in society, the suicide rate goes up, the depression rate goes up, the PTSD rate goes up, anxiety goes up, child abuse goes up, violence against others goes up, with wealth. So modern society is actually quite hard to live in psychologically. As soon as you introduce a catastrophe, suddenly people start acting quite well. So the suicide rate went down in New York after 9/11. During the Blitz in London, the government was braced for mass psychiatric casualties during the terrible bombings of London by the German air force. In fact, admissions to psych wards went down during the bombing and went back up afterwards. So if you put humans under a certain kind of stress and allow them to bond together, they actually will do better psychologically than during times of stability and peace, ironically.
Jo Reed: So let’s translate that thinking specifically to the military.
Sebastian Junger: So for soldiers, for the purpose of soldiers, they're in a war zone. If they're on a front line-- which is not most soldiers. Most soldiers are not in combat actually, but the 10 percent of so of our military that is actively in combat, they're subjected to trauma and fear and horror and all those other things, but they're also sort of marinated in this close communal connection that is a platoon. A platoon is 30, 40, 50 men, often operating in very close concert with each other, and somewhat independently of other groups. That is our evolutionary past. We evolved to live in groups of that size, functioning pretty much like that. So they get to enjoy and appreciate that ancient human system of communality and connection, and then whether they've been traumatized or not, and this is true of soldiers from a rear base as well. When they're taken out of that group, that sort of primordial group of 40, 50 individuals, and brought back to the United States, they experience a really traumatic transition from communalism to individualism, and individualism is not what we evolved for, and it's actually, for all the opportunities it offers, it's extremely hard on us psychologically. I think a lot of PTSD, what's called PTSD, is often applied to soldiers who never saw combat, who were never traumatized. Most of the military was not shot at, but many of them are really suffering during this transition, and I think what they're suffering from is this very difficult transition from a close-knit communal society in their platoon, in their unit, to the sort of isolating individualized society that we've created in this country.
Jo Reed: I think people understand that PTSD is an issue in the United States, but I don't think-- I certainly didn't get the extent of it, or more importantly, how unusual it is when one looks at other countries.
Sebastian Junger: Yes. I mean, if you talk to the Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and Syria, they have no idea what PTSD is. Like in Israel. There's mandatory military service in Israel, and as a result, the PTSD rate among veterans is 1 percent in Israel. In our country, it's 20 percent. And keep in mind, only 10 percent of the military actually sees any combat, and our PTSD rate is 20 percent. It's double what even the combat rate is. That's bizarre. And it’s not that American soldiers are less tough than other people or whatever. It's nothing like that. It is, I think, just evidence of the fact that if you're traumatized, we are wired as a species, we're wired to overcome trauma. I mean, if a large percentage of people were psychologically incapacitated by trauma, by a lion attacking the encampment, and effectively became wards of the state afterwards, the human race wouldn't exist. Right? Of course, we recover from trauma; we have to. So what's happening in America right now, enormous numbers of veterans are being put on basically lifelong disability because they feel that they were traumatized. There's something very real going on here. The thing that I think a lot of them are traumatized by is having to give up this close, interconnected, very, very loyal human community that they were in during this incredibly intense part of their lives, having to give that up and return to the great American suburb.
Jo Reed: What got you thinking along these lines to begin with?
Sebastian Junger: I studied anthropology in college. This whole idea started when I did my fieldwork on the Navajo reservation. The Navajo, the Comanche, the Apache, the Sioux, and all those native tribes were very, very warlike societies. And I just had this idea at one point, like I bet those guys weren't getting PTSD back in the 1800s and 1700s. The native fighters in North America, I bet they weren't getting PTSD. I bet they were fine when they came home. There was no transition disorder for a Comanche warrior that came back from fighting the Texas Rangers and came back to the encampment. Like, of course, there wasn't. So what is wrong with us? And this is my attempt to explain it.
Jo Reed: Well, to add to this, to exacerbate it, is that such a small percentage of people in the United States are actually in the military. And a very large percentage don't even know anybody who serves.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, and it's not just the military. I own a car; the car runs on gasoline. I don't know anyone who works in an oilfield. Working in oilfields is more dangerous than most of the MOSs in the US military. Not the frontline combat units, but everybody else. Likewise, logging. My house is made out of wood. Somebody cut those trees down, incredibly dangerous business. I had fish the other night. Somebody caught that, a really dangerous business. So no, none of us know any of these people. So in a small scale, communal tribal society, you would know everyone engaged in producing the things that you need in order to survive. You would know those people personally, even if personally you would appreciate their hard work, their dangerous work. In a complex, modern, technology-heavy society, people don't know personally anyone in any of the industries that allow them to live. And that's because we're very lucky to live in a kind of society like this. No one's saying it's a bad thing, but there is a downside. And the military is one of those industries, and it is an industry where very few people know anyone in it, even though they depend on it to protect their country.
Jo Reed: Okay, so the large majority of the population is connected from the military. What’s your solution for that?
Sebastian Junger: The solution is not to greatly expand the military so that 10 percent of citizens are in the army. I mean, that's not the solution to PTSD. Among other things, the nation couldn't afford it. We don't need a huge military because of the kind of military we have, and its training. We can get by with really half a percent of the population serving in uniform. We can get by with that, works fine, and we don't have the money for more anyway. But what would help, I think, is mandatory national service. I think it's immoral to force someone to fight a war they don't believe in, but it's entirely moral to ask, in fact, to require people, everyone, to serve their country for some amount of time, when they're young. Not only does that, I think confer enormous psychological benefits to the people that do it. Again, in Israel, the PTSD rate is 1 percent, and there's some indication that's because of national service. But not only that, but it's such a fractured time in America and what national service would do is take white people and black people, and atheists and religious people, and rich and poor, and everybody else, and put them all in a big pot and stirs them up. And I think that experience when you're young and are open to new experiences, new understandings of the world, might go a long way towards sort of brining this country back together a little bit.
Jo Reed: You know what it's like to return from a war zone, because you've done it so many times. What do you find within yourself? What did you find when you returned?
Sebastian Junger: Well, there's two issues. Yeah, I've returned from war zones. I've worked all over the world. You know, if you were traumatized over there, coming back was, you know, it was always a little complicated. You know, it’s a little jarring, just among other things, to be in a very poor country and then just to see the sort of grotesque abundance of variety and wealth that's on display in this country. I mean, I just remember after I came back from Afghanistan in 2000, and I’d lost 20 pounds over there. I was staying-- I landed in LA and stayed at a hotel and came down for breakfast in the morning, and there was a breakfast buffet. There was a breakfast buffet, and I was looking at an amount of food that, I mean, I hadn't seen that much food in one place in two months. It was a kind of paradise, except it was really kind of revolting. I mean, it was just this opulent spread, and it really kind of revolted me about something about our society, it really turned me off. So that is jarring, that is hard, to come back to, ironically. But in addition, American soldiers have to give up this tight communal connection of a platoon and come back to a sort of alienating experience. So when I was doing my work overseas with American soldiers, I also affiliated with this group and also had a very hard time giving it up, and I was enormously depressed afterwards, partly because I had grown to psychologically need that group. I didn't know it was happening. I didn't think that was going to happen, but that's my only explanation for the really difficult emotions that I had over there when I came back. You know, I wasn't particularly traumatized when I was with those guys. We were in some fire fights, but that wasn't the problem. It was giving up that group, and really, I was quite a mess when I came back.
Jo Reed: Did you know what was going on with you? Did you know you had PTSD?
Sebastian Junger: I mean, I had no idea. This is before PTSD was talked about. I came back from one assignment and I kept having panic attacks in the subway. And, I, You know, there was no subway in Afghanistan. I had no way to connect it to what had happened in Afghanistan when I was there. Eventually, I sort of figured it out, but I got over it. People do, most people do, on their own, recover from PTSD, recover from everything actually. And I did as well. But what was particularly hard, again, wasn't recovering from trauma. I think we're wired to do that. I don't think we're wired to normalize giving up the community that you're in, that you value. There's no evolutionary wiring that allows you to gracefully transition from being a valued part of a close group to just being on your own. That is not something we've evolved for, and it clearly is very hard for us, and dangerous to do. People are prone to depression, to suicide. They're prone to high rates of PTSD. People do not do well on their own, and that's what this society has created, is 350 million people that are basically individuals, that are not affiliated with close communities.
Jo Reed: I don’t know how much you know about Creative Forces. The initiative that is led by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. And it offers creative arts therapies to military patients, and it’s found that in fact the arts really have been very helpful in easing those traumas.
Sebastian Junger: Right. Yeah, that’s right. I mean, the National Endowment for the Arts has been so committed to working with Service Members and has done such an incredible job with them. I mean, I think creative expression is enormously beneficial. I think it's empowering. I think the process of writing, of making music, of making art, theater, is enormously empowering. So instead of feeling like you're subjected to emotions that you can't control, that you don't understand. I think what happens with artistic expression is that you're using those emotions and now the tables have turned, and actually, instead of being subjected to them, you are employing those feelings. You're creating something constructive with them. I think for someone who's suffering from grief and the loss of a partner, or loss of a brother or sister in combat, or depression, or PTSD, or what have you, I think it's enormously beneficial to have that kind of outlet.
Jo Reed: Well you know military patients, veterans suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injury. I mean obviously, their families suffer as well and often it’s through art in fact that service members can tell their stories and communicate with their families.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, using art, using music, using any creative force like that, to express one's emotional experience, spiritual experience, can be lifesaving. I mean, I think it's absolutely essential, and frankly, it's one way for people to make a statement, to protect something that's sacred. The community is sacred, the nation is sacred, and it really will be up to-- it's up to all of us, and it's particularly up to veterans to protect that sacred thing.
Jo Reed: Yea, I’m thinking about the issues you detail in your book and one other thing a newer component to Creative Forces is bringing local artists in to work in conjunction with arts therapists with service members with their families in part to really create an expressive local community for service members. It really does help create community.
Sebastian Junger: Absolutely. That relationship between teacher and student, or someone who knows something and someone who's learning something or however you want to describe it, it's an incredibly important relationship. And also, the act of expressing your experience to a group that wants to understand what you went through and values your existence. That is ancient. That's extremely valuable. So one of the things I did in researching my book Tribe was to look at some of the processes, some of the ritual processes, some of the ceremonies, that Native American tribes in this country, in the United States, would do to reincorporate returning warriors back into the community. And these ceremonies are still done. Really interesting, Native Americans comprise the largest percentage of the US military by population. In other words, a higher percentage of Native Americans are in the armed forces than of any other population group, any other demographic in this country, and they have some of the lowest rates of PTSD. So what would happen is that people would come back, and I talked to some guys that were in the 173rd Airborne that I was over there with, who were Native American, from Oklahoma and Texas. They came back and went through this process where basically, the community gathered, and they had a sort of dance, a ritual, and the veterans would dance and sing and tell the story of their deployment. That's absolutely ancient. This wasn't conjured up ten years ago. This is something that has been going on for decades and for centuries. The context has changed. It's not the old days with the buffalo and the teepees, but it doesn't matter. The point is that you get to tell your community what you did for them. They get to participate in the moral burden and the celebration. The moral burden of conducting war and killing other people, and the celebration of your bravery and your accomplishments, and the grief at losing people. The community has to participate in all of that and share it, and that's very healthy for both sides of the equation.
Jo Reed: And it's up to us to listen to veterans. In Tribe you mentioned that Papago Indian tribe thought war was nuts.
Sebastian Junger: Insane.
Jo Reed: Insane. But when it came time and they had to fight, the people who fought, they gained a kind of wisdom through that experience. Do you think this is true for the people fighting today?
Sebastian Junger: Yes. I mean, I think anyone who confronts death gains wisdom, and I think that's also true of people who've been very ill. If they survive, they come back from their disease with a wisdom that other people don't have, and won't have till much later in their lives. And likewise for soldiers, some soldiers, not all soldiers. I mean, some people are just doing a sort of industrial type job in a rear base, and they're really not engaged in war, except in a very conceptual sense. But people that are really seeing death, risking death, yes, they do have a special wisdom, and it is kind of sacred knowledge. And traditional tribal societies understand that and use it. They protect it, and they use it, and they honor it.
Jo Reed: Again, the arts, painting, singing, writing, play a role in actually helping to share this wisdom to the larger society or to within even a smaller community?
Sebastian Junger: Absolutely. I think there's a very ancient human tradition of-- before there was Western medicine, there were shamans. Shamans attended to the physical and psychological ills of their people. One of the ways they communicated with the gods, with the supernatural, and brought that knowledge down to the sort of human level, down to earth. One of the ways-- one of the things that they did to make that kind of radical transition between the divine and the mundane, was through dance, was through music, was through art. They used those things to create a kind of sacred passage for themselves between the divine and the mundane, and that allowed them to heal people. So of course, now when people commit art or commit music or what have you, dance, they don't have to be conscious on an anthropological level of what shamans are, but they actually-- even without knowing it, they are doing something that is hundreds of thousands of years old. You know, if you go into the Lascaux caves, the caves in Spain, I mean, the caves that were occupied by our Stone Age ancestors in Europe, they're littered with these incredible, incredibly powerful paintings and depictions of animals, sacred animals and animals that they hunted. And it's very clear that there were incredibly intense important ceremonies that happened in these caves, and those ceremonies were conducted in stone galleries of the most exquisite art you can imagine. And so very clearly the making of that art, the access to the divine, the sort of transcendent experience of a ceremony, I mean, clearly those things all go together. So if you just commit art, you're doing part of that ancient thing, and I think it affects people in a very deep, unconscious level.
Jo Reed: Tribe connotates a manageable size, I mean, almost by definition, and we live in a very large country. I mean, sitting in a very large city, which I do feel is my tribe. How do we take this very large modern society we live in and begin to think of ourselves as part of a tribe?
Sebastian Junger: Well, that's a great question, and we've never tried this before. I mean, for most of human history, we lived in small groups of people that we all-- that we knew, you know, quite well, personally, and those small communities were part of larger affiliations of people that we knew moderately well or had on good authority that they were in the same tribe we were, even if we didn't know them, personally. I mean, that's human society for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, we live in a nation of three plus million, and what the nation proposes to you is, "Look, the vast majority of people in your nation you're not going to know, personally. But trust us, you have something in common, and you all have a vested interest in operating with similar goals and in a unified way. Just trust us. If you do this with the other three hundred plus million, we'll all be better off. Acting in unison with other people when you know them, that makes intuitive sense. But to do that with a nation of three hundred some million, that's a stretch, and so the question is, "Can we take those really powerful human instincts to affiliate and to belong and to be loyal to a group, can we take those and enact them over on the scale of three hundred million? Can we do that?" And I think we can, but it doesn't happen by accident. It doesn't happen automatically. You have to be proactive in setting that out as a goal. So you have to say, "How are we going to do this?" Or "What can we do that bonds everybody?" Simply paying your taxes, doesn't have enough emotional resonance to make us all feel like we're one people. But what about national service? That would start to do it; psychologists will tell you that the more someone sacrifices for something, the more they value it. And one of the real tragedies of modern society is that we don't ask for any sacrifice, whatsoever, from our citizens, zero, nothing, zip, and if you don't want to pay your taxes, you can almost figure out a way to do that. We need to change that, and I think we can.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you this. In the book, you bring up. Basically, people finding this sense of solidarity and community and meaning, when they're in really dire situations. Do you think it's possible, in this modern world, to find that sense of community and purpose through joy, rather than war and suffering?
Sebastian Junger: Well, you know, I think the way it works, I mean, we're the products of evolution and when society is under threat, people give up their individual interests in exchange for a kind of, group solidarity, because we survive best in groups. Right? When the chips are down, people affiliate, they act in ways that look really very noble and generous and brave, because, frankly, that's where their survival lies is in everyone doing that. When things are going great, and the enemy has not, like, arrayed themselves on the far ridge line and ready to swoop into camp with their swords unsheathed. What evolution has wired us for is to, at that point, when you don't need the community as much to survive, work on the individual. And when you have people working on their own thing, that's when you invent the bow and arrow. That's when you invent calculus. That's when you invent the iPhone. I mean, that's when those great inventions come about is people attending to their own intellects because they don't need to put their resources in the community. So just my point is that all of our behavior is a function of evolution. So can we, somehow, hack evolution? Can we, sort of, cheat it and have the solidarity that we get during a crisis, along with the ingenuity that we enjoy when there's no crisis, and not have the crisis? We might. We're a clever species, but we have to work at it, and that means-- in my opinion, that means something like national service. And we're not going to get all the way there. We're not going to be as unified as we were after 9-11 on the streets of New York. It's just not going to happen. But we might get halfway there, and that halfway might be good enough.
Jo Reed: Catastrophe aside, we're not returning to hunter-gatherer days, in the near future. So given where we are, what do we need to give our Service Members so they can successfully, happily, reintegrate?
Sebastian Junger: I think everyone needs to change their attitude. I think civilians have to stop thinking that the war belongs to the soldiers. We paid for it. We okayed it. It's our war, and we have to stop imagining that it's, somehow, not. And if it's our war, these are the people that did our bidding. Even if we voted against it, they still did our national bidding. When they come back. I think it's really important for the community to hear the stories of soldiers, and the soldiers to have the opportunity to tell their community, and all of us are from a town or a city. All of us are from some sort of community, and soldiers fought for the nation. But really, in emotional terms, they fought for their community, whatever that is. And so I started this initiative called Veteran Town Hall, and what we do is we take over a town hall on Veterans' Day, when it's not being used anyway, and you can go watch the parade or whatever. I don't think there's a lot of therapeutic value in a parade, frankly. It's a nice gesture, but I don't think it does anyone a lot of good. But what does seem to do people good is talking, and so we take over a town hall and Veterans of any war, who fought in any capacity-- you could be a supply clerk, I don't care, or a front line combat Vet, man, woman, it doesn't matter. As Veterans of any war, I have the right to stand up for 10 minutes and say anything they want about their experience, as long as it's honest, and if you're enraged at your government that you had to fight Vietnam, let it out. If you're super proud of your service in Iraq or Afghanistan, tell us. If you're still in deep grief about someone you lost, you can just stand up there and cry, if you want. I mean, all of those reactions are human reactions to war. And what happens is, so the community comes in to hear these people, and there are some anti-war people in the community and pro-war. It doesn't matter. You're part of the community. These people fought for you, even if it was a war you didn't agree with. It doesn't matter. They did it. And so the Veterans say what they have to say and the civilian population hears and has to join in the moral burden and the celebration and the grief of what we've all done.
Jo Reed: Sebastian, thank you.
Sebastian Junger: My pleasure.
Jo Reed: I really, really enjoy talking to you.
Sebastian Junger: It’s a real pleasure speaking with you and really doing anything I can to support what you’re doing. I think it’s incredibly important to the nation.
Jo Reed: That was my 2017 conversation with author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger. We were discussing his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. You can find out more about it at SebastianJunger.com. And you can find more information about Creative Forces at arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
To mark Veterans Day, we’re revisiting our 2017 interview with author Sebastian Junger, a journalist deeply engaged with war and the people who fight in them. As a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he’s covered international stories, including the war in Afghanistan, a region and subject he’s returned to over the course of his career. In this podcast, Junger discusses his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which explores the complexities soldiers can find when they return from war. We talk about his research in anthropology, psychology, and history, as well as his own observations and experiences in his effort to understand why there are such high numbers of veterans suffering from PTSD. Junger argues there are primal human needs—for loyalty, a sense of belonging, and a connection to something bigger than ourselves, and he discusses how service members often find this connection when they are deployed. Therefore, returning home can leave some 21st-century combat veterans with a profound sense of loss. Added to that loss is a society disengaged from the war in which these veterans fought, which Junger argues may account for the high-percentage of service members suffering from PTSD. He also discusses ways to address these concerns, the significance of the arts for veterans and their families in confronting these challenging situations, and the importance of the work being done for veterans and service members through the NEA initiative Creative Forces.